A letter from the editors

Welcome to Paraxis 02

Comedian and über-lad Frank Skinner doesn’t reckon much to libraries. To be fair, his website makes it clear it’s just the ones crammed with books he holds in contempt. He revised his description of local libraries, originally set out in a column for The Times, as musty, uninspiring places’ when a guided tour revealed a local library to be an Aladdin’s cave of digital technologies as well as a hub for community activity.

Skinner’s philistine ramblings – and the perceived need to justify the existence of libraries in terms of value added services – were foreseen 16 years ago by the late Alan Plater. In Plater’s Oliver’s Travels, his world weary hero despairs at the ‘semantic tides’ in higher education that lead a university library to be renamed ‘information resource and retrieval centre’.      

You won’t find thinking like Skinner’s in Paraxis 02 but you will be able to rummage through a grab-bag of rich and competing ideas about the nature, value and possibilities of libraries. And, of course, you’ll also read about the threats to their continued existence. 

There are libraries in literature and cinema that haunt the imagination. There’s the universal library of Borges story ‘The Library of Babel’, Lord Sepulchrave’s blazing stacks of books in Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan and the dust shrouded and forgotten library that leads to a crucial discovery in John Boorman’s film Zardoz.

Real libraries haunt the imagination too. One editor of Paraxis has memories of the children’s library under the tarnished green copper dome in Darwen and the thrill of borrowing Mary Norton’s ‘Borrowers’ sequence book by book. The other editor has a blush-inducing memory of taking Catch 22 to the issue desk in a doomed attempt to impress an assistant librarian with long red hair and a constantly distracted expression. South Yorkshire’s answer to the Lady of Shalott, as painted by Waterhouse.

For one of us the Language and Literature section on the fourth floor of Manchester Central Library was a dinnertime escape route from temping in a bank to the emotional truths and complex symbolism of folk and fairy tales. For the other Doncaster’s Waterdale Library was the portal through which a disaffected working class school kid stepped into the weird worlds of Michael Moorcock, Ursula Le Guin and Russell Hoban. He also found a treasure trove of writing about politics and social science. These serendipitous discoveries happened during desultory wanderings through labyrinths of shelved paper. Some of them opened up new possibilities while others turned inchoate resentment into coherent critique. 

These days it takes the fatuous ingratitude of Frank Skinner and the cultural vandalism of the coalition government to provoke inchoate resentment. The tragedy and disgrace of our generation is that we are in danger of leaving a poorer cultural inheritance than the one we inherited. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that when we asked some of our favourite writers for library themed stories for Paraxis 02 they sent us work imbued with either a sense of threat or an overwhelming sense of loss.

And there’s plenty of outright destruction: there’s the ‘ashen skin of burned books’, books banished to the mines beneath the Cheshire plains, tales of book dissection and a story in which books fulfil a strange and watery destiny,  

There’s a heady brew of philosophical enquiry and emotional reflection, unsettling ideas and disconcerting images. There’s A.K. Benedict’s surreal and strangely hopeful ‘The Last Library’; Emma Jane Unsworth’s elegiac tale of literary and emotional communion, ‘I Arrive First’; Tori Truslow’s surreal tale of classification and erasure; David Rose’s elliptical and allusive ‘Pastoral’; SJ Butler’s precision sliced episode in a life furnished with books and meat; and Nicholas Royle’s clever, elegant and claustrophobic tale of words and wings, ‘The Blue Notebooks’. Not to mention Tom Fletcher’s terrifying ‘Gnomic’, a breathless tale of a nightmare neighbour that will surprise and, we hope, delight the author’s growing band of admirers. 

Our call out for contributions to the Paraxis Library Wall elicited some brilliant responses, as writers, readers and artists explored the part libraries play in people's lives in a cornucopia of ways. We hope you’ll spend some time exploring the many fantastic contributions we received.

There are also ruminations on the relevance and nature libraries of libraries in the form of non-fiction: there’s Myriam Frey’s astonishing guided tour of a virtual library in which she, the sole reader, is in thrall to the capricious cataloguing of an absent librarian; Robert Sheppard’s erudite and heartbreaking recollections of Southwick Library; Alan Wall’s smart and entertaining contemplation of Borges and his books; and Alan Gibbons’ passionate and polemical piece – the antidote to Frank Skinner’s smug prejudices – explaining precisely why libraries matter.    

Alan’s piece chimes perfectly with recent comments by lexicographer and Booker shortlisted author Julian Barnes, who said: ‘The cost of our free public library system is small, its value immense. To diminish and dismantle it would be a kind of national self-mutilation, as stupid as it would be wicked.’

We hope you feel Paraxis 02 lobs a well-aimed brick or two towards the barricades of stupidity and wickedness. And if you enjoy this volume, which we're sure you will, please consider making a small donation to our current nominated charity, The Reader Organisation.

Claire Massey and Andy Hedgecock, September 2011 

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