The Most Important Building In Town
Celebrating the library

I am well aware of more logical targets, but I have always hated Pavement. Partly out of principle I have hated Pavement. I particularly hate Stephen Malkmus. So, I like an excuse to have a go. Here's one: it is Malkmus as quoted in The Wire's 'Invisible Jukebox' where he's been played something from Jack Kerouac's Blues and Haikus. "I'm not really a fan of his, but I guess you gotta respect what he did. I never read On The Road, so then again that's not really fair. He really burned out in the end, poor guy. He was 'just had one book in him' type of a guy and had to live with it - became a drunk, didn't have anything else to say."

I mean, come on, I am all for puncturing myths and killing your idols, but this is crass. Kerouac is not beyond censure, but to dismiss out of hand say, Doctor Sax, Maggie Cassidy, Lonesome Traveller, Dharma Bums, Vanity of Dulouz, the Subterraneans, Big Sur and Desolation Angels would be to dismiss a large part of my own youth. I am not prepared to do that.

I have been thinking about books and writers and youth a lot ever since that young lad was killed in Peckham. The kid, bless him, was running home from the local library. For me, that is one of the most potent images of youth.

Libraries are, I guess, taken for granted. In a world where all balance sheets need to look healthy, it is dangerous to take libraries for granted, and in a world where you can borrow books for free let's at least celebrate that fact.

The earlier mention of Kerouac was deliberate. It is one of the enduring themes from the books indirectly drawing from his own youth: the young kid with his head filled with dreams and schemes whiling away the days in the library, soaking up knowledge, fuelling the imagination before running off to play ball. This is not the dry academia of Karl Marx toiling away at economic theory in the British Library. This is a kid letting his imagination take off.

Just in case you are on Malkmus' side, and have a secret stash of Pavement products, the similar theme is there in Camus' The First Man and Julie Burchill's I Knew I Was Right and James Sallis' Lew Griffin stories.

More importantly, we have to celebrate the idea of the library being a liberating force where poverty can be the shackles. To read a book you do not need to part with 15 every time. You may not get to read the latest books, but there is plenty of choice. I have just worked my way through George P. Pelecanos' Washington quartet in the space of a few weeks. I felt an emotional wreck, but at least the experience was free ('tho I guess you can argue that I paid through my Council Tax, but the Council could have diverted the funds elsewhere!)

We are fairly lucky here. We have a fairly decent library here. Times are changing though, as more paperbacks are ordered, but that is fine by me. Perhaps more worryingly, more and more space is being given over to videos and CD Roms. This worries me, as my whole reason for celebrating the libraries is the way it provides as escape from materialism, in that the poor have the same access to books as the rich. Yet, with videos and computer stuff, you need the technology at home, and you need cash to meet the small loan charges. It is a worry, but at least the fundamental principle remains.

I did not grow up in grinding poverty, but we never had much money. So, libraries and books, like the radio and music, were a godsend. I was not too precocious, but the stuff I soaked up in my teens certainly shaped my worldview. In many ways, my worldview shaped what I read. I particularly recall the buzz I received working my way through Kafka, Camus, Sartre, Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway and, yes, Kerouac, yet seemed completely unable to focus on the books I needed to study because I was too busy listening to the Go-Betweens and Vic Godard who would in turn send me scuttling off to find Moliere's plays or the Raffles stories.

Again, the mention of Voc Godard is not accidental. I have written enough words about Vic Godard and Subway Sect to last me a lifetime. Yet the enduring impression is that Vic and Rob Simmons created their own unique world using all sorts of found sound, words and images. The French literature, the cast-off clothes, the abandoned modern classical LPs, old continental film yearbooks, discarded 45s and so on. This would become a blueprint for a new generation.

For besides the library, the charity shop and later the boot sale would become the way to find knowledge and inspiration. Again, this was a way for the disadvantaged to take advantage. In many ways, the unemployed, students, the elderly and housewives had the upper hand, with time on their hands and little better to do than rummage, salvage and liberate. How I still treasure my Disco Dub Band 'For The Love Of Money' 7" which I found for 10p.

Yet, even here, economics is a governing factor. I still kick myself for once leaving behind a box of 7"s of African stuff from the '60s and early '70s from King Sunny Ade and so on, many with awesome picture sleeves of these guys in their robes clutching huge Epiphone type semi-acoustic guitars. For about 40p each for god's sake. Yet I didn't know where to start, and didn't have enough cash on me.

Yet no such worries in a library when you're young and have Richard Brautigan, Jane Bowles, Le Roi Jones' Black Music, Hans Richter's Art and Anti Art, Nairn's London and Andre Malraux's Days Of Hope and that book about Ewan MacColl's days with the Theatre of Action at your fingertips. Whether any of the same titles would be available today, I have my doubts, yet sense still young minds will have a riot of their own.

So what am I saying here? Is this just the sentimental musings of a fool, doubtless preaching to the converted? No, it's more of a Jonathan Richman 'Don't Let Our Youth Go To Waste' plea for anyone no matter how old they be. There is still something to discover in your library, so defend the right to browse freely!

Damilola may not have made it home, but flowers can grow through pavement, and we must still hope enlightenment can flourish. Someone probably put it better in a book.

Kevin Pearce 2001


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