One of my three wishes from a figurative genie would be for a local 24-hour library or bookstore, fit with comfy chairs, coffee and tea dispensers, and a fluffy pet knocking around the shelves. I say that because books and storytelling have been one of the great loves of my life since I was born. My childhood was spent reading books in the back of the car to and from school, graduating from Clifford the Big Red Dog books, to The Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman and The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S Lewis.
Wednesday 8th September is International Literacy Day this year so, I thought I’d reflect on the importance of bookshops, libraries and storytelling in general.
But first, let’s go back to the very start. We, as the human race, have been sharing stories since the beginning of time. Around 30,000 B.C, primitive art, in the form of cave drawings, depicted short series of events like hunting and dancing. Then, myths and legends were born in the various religious factions as time went on; Greek tragedies, the bible, etc. (You can understand that with a surname name like mine, my first experience with mythology were those from Egyptian folklore.) Stories then shifted from the spoken word and inscriptions on rocks to writing on paper. Shakespeare and other literary greats inputted their ideas on fiction. Not long after that, the first fairy tales emerged from France. With children in mind, they centred around basic life lessons, such as Hansel and Gretel warning kids from walking in the forest alone. These were passed down from generation to generation, just like all the other stories.
Everyone has their favourite author or favourite story from their lives. That, in itself, is meaningful.
You wouldn’t look at bookstores and libraries as centres of health and wellbeing, but that is what they are. Through access to books, computers and printers, community programs and direct assistance, they provide equal opportunities to all walks of life. They widen our horizons through education on various subjects, including languages. And they do this to fit disabilities too, with audiobooks and books written in braille, for example. It’s undeniable that they help to make communities healthier and increase their vitality.
Whether you’re a family looking for a fun time for the kids, an immigrant seeking language help, an unemployed individual looking for job help, or a community member who wants to relax and read, a library or a bookstore is where you can go. There, communities come together to: share their passions, become better individuals, learn, and celebrate everything and anything.
Whilst libraries are predominately a place for education; bookshops, are a place for leisure and connection. Conversations over coffee and books keep us entertained and sane in times of isolation, which we desperately needed in the past year.
History recognises that knowledge and storytelling can be dangerous. Nazis famously burned books that didn’t fit with their ideology. The narrative in Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury is hoarding books in secret to protect them from such burnings. Literature is also often banned for notions that may be deemed unsuitable for an audience. Intellectual freedom, the ability to learn new ideas freely, should be protected but be regulated to a degree.
We’ve seen the rise in Fake News over presidents or vaccines and viruses. Whilst the information should be free to read, it should also be fact-checked and true. People can get the wrong idea and take those ideas to an extreme level.
Knowledge is also resilient. It can withstand any attempt to eradicate it.
These last few years could be called years of resistance. People have struggled through protests, riots and civil disobedience. In parallel with these times of resistance, there have been moments of resilience.
From a campaign to bury the White House in books in response to President Trump not reading much; to educating women, books play a significant part in our current lives. They are more than just a hobby.
This is despite the apparent death of print media. Whilst digital means have taken over these days, and there are benefits of e-books and audiobooks, there is still a hunger for physical books. Bookshops and libraries are more than storage spaces; they are community hubs and have become centres for learning as well as resistance.
In political climates, they serve as movements that support all walks of life, including LGBT+, people of colour, immigrants, and many more who are discriminated against. People of privilege can see experiences of every walk of life and find ways to help their community. Libraries are free public spaces that allow everyone to identify opportunities whilst feeling safe. And now, more than ever, people can recognise that they are vital to us as a society.
Libraries are truly remarkable places, and to keep them, we need to protect them. Alongside bookstores, they need continued funding and community love to survive. Many of these spaces rely first and foremost on volunteers, which shows how much communities love them. If you cannot financially contribute, use your voice to uplift the libraries and bookstores around you.
In our local area, we have an abundance of these spaces.
Northumberland libraries host many events as well as providing artefacts and books of all shapes and sizes. Forum Books in Corbridge, and their sister shop The Bound in Whitley Bay, uplifts authors from every sector of society. Cogito Books in Hexham won an award the previous month for their contributions to the local community. Waterstones provides many recommendations and friendly faces to talk to over a cup of coffee. Services, like the Book Detectives, serve children not only with books but with educational packs too. I’m sure I’m missing some of the other fantastic bookstores and libraries around us.
I will continue to love books and bookstores. I will also be eternally grateful to my local church who saved my local library when it faced shutting down a few years back. So, if you take anything away from this, let it be; keep reading. There is a book out there for everyone; you just may not have found it yet.
Knowledge is power: it always will be.