I enjoy books about books so I was delighted to receive this for my birthday.

A book about libraries had to be about books, right? There are lots of books on the front cover and the author’s a novelist. Well, not quite. This book is more about people, hence the subtitle, ‘true stories and curious incidents from a provincial library’.

What’s it about?

Um. See the subtitle.

Do you enjoy people watching? Do you value libraries? Have you ever wondered about the goings-on in libraries? In his first non-fiction book, provincial librarian and novelist Chris Paling offers some insights into classic library “customers” and the current condition of English libraries. This could definitely be subtitled ‘people watching in libraries’.

What’s it like?

A gentle mass of anecdotes. A gradual introduction to recurring characters – The Thin Man, The Travelling Man, Sons of Anarchy Alan and ever-pink-and-perky Trish, to name a few. As the seasons shift we meet these characters again and again, reminding us that libraries are more than simply repositories of information (no matter what David Cameron may have claimed), but are in fact vital community hubs – hubs that we are slowly losing.

Although this book doesn’t make any grand claims regarding the necessity of local libraries, the whole book quietly illuminates the coming and goings of the customers in a way that makes the everyday seem quite essential.

Perhaps strangely, the only characters we don’t get a feel for are the librarians. We meet a few of the “facilities” team (always ready to persuade a reluctant customer to leave or fix a faulty toilet), but the librarians remain invisible, even when they leave en masse as part of the government cuts. There are no disgruntled voices, speaking out passionately to save the service, just a bunch of undifferentiated, seemingly disinterested souls, most of whom plan to find a volunteering job. A job is just a job for many people, I suppose, but it seems a shame that a whole profession is dying with so few mourners.

Typical quotes

In telling these anecdotes Paling includes details which are not necessary but do bring the scene to life.

‘As we walk around the back of the cab we are narrowly missed by a muscular, one-legged man in a wheelchair moving at speed down the centre of the narrow street. On his right knee is the red scar of the operation which presumably recently removed the lower part of his leg. He is wearing a black capped-sleeve T-shirt and black running shorts. His head is shaved. He calls an apology. The cab drives off.’

There’s also a fair amount of humour.

‘Between many of his statements his right hand delves into the pocket of his shorts and rearranges his genitals, suggesting that his anecdotes are being released from his testicles one at a time.’

Final thoughts

Fundamentally this is exactly what it claims to be – a collection of anecdotes, most of which happen to involve a library. Yet there is a gradual movement towards a very quiet, very restrained farewell to libraries as we know them. Although Paling questions what would happen to certain individuals and groups when libraries close, there’s an acceptance of their loss here that I found rather sad.

If you like people watching this one’s for you. Librarians, in particular, will enjoy reading about their quirkier but very typical customers.

I think I would have ultimately liked something a little more polemical or more informative about the way libraries work and what their current remit is / how that might develop, but that isn’t the fault of ‘Reading Allowed’, which gives the reader exactly what it promises: some true stories and a few mildly curious incidents.

‘Reading Allowed’,
Chris Paling,
2017, Constable, hardback