Thursday, 6 February 2014

National Libraries Day 2014

Love your library!
Saturday 8th February is National Libraries Day. What's your library doing to celebrate the event on Saturday?

My library, which is part of the Libraries West consortium that runs over 100 libraries in Somerset, Bristol and South Gloucestershire, is entering anyone who withdraws three physical items on Saturday into a prize draw to win a Samsung Galaxy Tablet. I plan to visit the library anyway on Saturday and will probably borrow more than three items, but I can't say that the prize sounds that exciting. Instead of offering a "must-have" piece of consumer tech as a prize can you imagine how thrilling it would be to have the chance to win an atlas like this or a dictionary and thesaurus that could grace anyone's home library for years?

In addition to "adult prizes" there are a number of events taking places, such as treasure hunts, that are suitable for children.

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

2013: Reading Round-up

I have written blog posts about 32 books this year (14 non-fiction and 18 fiction which includes short story collections). In total I have read forty-five books and failed to finish another ten, which is probably about average for me. The books I have blogged about were all written by British, American or French authors, so one of my goals for blogging in 2014 is to write about books written by authors from other parts of the world.

Favourite Fiction 

Maybe you can tell from the enthusiastic postings that Emile Zola's Germinal was my favourite novel of the year. I read two Zola books as part of the Zoladdiction event hosted by Fanda and enjoyed both of them. 

Favourite Non-fiction

My best non-fiction read of the year was Anne Fadiman's At Large and at Small: Confessions of a literary hedonist which I read back in March. I didn't blog about this collection of essays here, but I am planning to reread this again in 2014 so will write about it then. I actually ended up reading this as Ex Libris: Confessions of a common reader was missing (maybe it's so good someone stole it?) from the library when I tried to borrow it, I plan to read this in 2014 too.

Off-blog Reading

I have read quite a lot of Scandi noir this year. I am probably rather late in discovering this crime fiction trend, but being behind the times hasn't dampened my enthusiasm for snowy landscapes and depressed, middle-aged detectives. 

At the beginning of 2013 I watched both series of the Swedish production of Wallander with Krister Henriksson, so I began by reading a few of Henning Mankell's novels. The other  Swedish authors I read were Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo and Stieg Larsson. 

A few months ago I discovered the Icelanders: Arnaldur Indridason and Yrsa Sirgurdardottir (both of these surnames are written with an eth: the fifth letter of the Icelandic alphabet, but I don't know how to insert it with Blogger - sorry Icelanders, Faroese and Anglo-Saxons). I don't think I have ever read Icelandic literature translated in English before, and in fact, apart from hot springs, volcanic eruptions and banking crises, I know very little about Iceland. In these novels, history doesn't stay in the past and in the four books I have read so far,  secrets and  hidden crimes resurface after many years causing death and destruction for the modern day players of the stories.

2013 has also seen me experiencing cyberpunk for the first time. I planned to read Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash and William Gibson's Neuromancer choosing these as archetypal works of the genre. After looking on my local library's shelves, I ended up with Stephenson's The Diamond Age and Gibson's Pattern Recognition.

Pattern Recognition was not what I was expecting at all. I thought it would be set in the (near-ish) future and would feature lots of discussions around computer science and artificial intelligence. It didn't. The book is set in 2002 and in a pre-Twitter and pre-YouTube world feels rather dated. The central character, Cayce Pollard, is a cool-hunter who consults for multi-nationals and advertising firms about the latest trends. The book is a fast-paced thriller set in London, Russia and Japan and it was a real page-turner which I finished in about two days. However, certain elements of the plot and characterisation, in particular, annoyed me - Cayce suffers from an anxiety disorder brought on by certain logos: nausea brought on by Prada and Louis Vuitton. I wouldn't have thought that such a "disorder" would be much of a problem. Now, if it was Primark that would be another story. 

I will consider reading another William Gibson novel as I found Pattern Recognition a bit cheap-thrillerish, so I think his other works will probably be quite fun and not take too long to read.

The Diamond Age was probably the most difficult book I read this year. It had a highly complex plot with a lot of moving around in the timing of events (making it a bit difficult to keep track of where I was) and in depth discussions of Turing machines, nanotechnology, societal groupings and collective consciousness. Although I struggled with this novel, I still plan to read Snow Crash, as Neal Stephenson's writing deals with some really interesting discussions about the use of technology in society.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Tiny Library

My local library is absolutely tiny. It is approximately 10 m x 6 m and is furnished with just two PCs. Every available space is used with three walls lined from floor to ceiling with (mainly) brightly coloured paperbacks. Walking into such a small place with book-lined walls is really quite pleasant: it is warm (insulation from the books) and very cheerful with lots of primary-coloured book spines. Small libraries in historical stately homes with leather-bound, serious looking tomes have a completely different feel to this cheery public library.
Small, but warm and welcoming.

These days I use Bath Central Library. Bath is a small city, but, as the library in the centre is the main library for residents, I was expecting more. There is not much to say about the library's physical appearance and proportions, it is on the top floor of The Podium, a small, 1980s style shopping centre with a car park in the basement, a supermarket on the ground floor,  and a cafe, toilets and the library on the top floor. I have also been rather disappointed by the availability of the library's stock as when I search the catalogue the books I want are nearly always on loan (Bath and North East Somerset charge a £1 reservation fee). The reference collection is not particularly edifying either and this week I searched in vain for a Russian-English dictionary (Russian is not an obscure tongue: it is one of the six official languages of the United Nations and is the native language of over 144 million people), a member of staff checked the store for me, but it seems that they really do not have a dictionary for one of the world's major languages! Also, the behaviour of some of the other library users is a bit worrying: recently whilst choosing a book from the shelves I passed by a man sitting down with his socks off clipping his toenails, I admit that I felt quite disgusted.

Rant over.

Despite the number of failings mentioned above (I am trying to moderate my moaning, but I could easily continue), it is wonderful to see a library well-used with so many people using the local history service, browsing the shelves and actually borrowing books rather than just using the IT service.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Bristol Central Library

When I had the opportunity to spend the day in Bristol a couple of weeks ago, I knew that as part of my Library File activities I would take a trip to the Central Library. As my visit to the city was largely unexpected, I did not have the chance to carry out any preparatory research, but as soon as I saw the Grade I listed building I knew I was in for a treat!

On entering the Library I found myself in a vaulted foyer with walls of green Cipollino marble. I headed to the first floor and the reference section in search of information about the library building. The reading room of the reference section dates to the opening of the Library in 1906. It contains the original, wooden study carrels, sculpted columns and a glass ceiling allowing in plenty of natural light.

In the alcoves to the sides of the central reading room you can still see the book lifts at intervals, used for ferrying books around in the days before open access.

A dumbwaiter for books!
The reference section continues through to a modern (1950s) extension at the Western end of the building. The interior of the ground floor lending library has been thoroughly modernised and there is a further modern, level entrance at the Western end of the ground floor. Bristol Central Library seemed well-stocked with both reference and lending materials and I am sure it is an invaluable resource for its members. As a visitor, the stand out feature of the Library is the building itself, and the fascination continues with the exterior.

The front of the building features three decorative lunettes (crescent-shaped alcoves, often containing sculpture or other decoration) with sculpted tableaux of great personalities from the history of English.

Chaucer and characters from the Canterbury Tales.
The Venerable Bede and friends.
Alfred the Great and Chroniclers.

The building was designed by the English architect Charles Holden who also designed a number of Tube stations in London and the University of London's Senate House. Holden was a contemporary of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and perhaps they shared ideas, or were influenced by similar sources, as when you walk around to the rear of the Library you are instantly reminded of Mackintosh's Hill House.

The rear of Bristol Central Library - designed contemporaneously and very similar to Hill House
To celebrate the centenary of the library a book, Bristol Central Library and Charles Holden,  written by one of the librarians, was published detailing the architectural history of this fascinating building. If you would like to find out more about the building, Bristol Central Library holds a few copies and I am sure copies can be found second-hand.

Monday, 30 September 2013

A Life in Letters - Here and Now, Paul Auster & J.M. Coetzee

Here and Now, Letters 2008 - 2011 by Paul Auster & J.M. Coetzee

I spend a lot of time researching what to read next. In fact, I think I spend more time discovering new books on various themes than actually reading. Despite this controlled and pre-planned approach to my reading I do occasionally read books (often rather good ones) which I come across in a more serendipitous manner. 

Here and Now belongs to this category of serendipitous finds. This book attracted my attention while I was browsing the 800s section (literature) in my local library. Faber and Faber did a great job of producing this collection of letters: it is a lightweight hardback book, with tasteful portraits of each author on the cover and it has wonderful chocolate brown end-papers (my favourite colour). As this is a collection of letters many pages feature quite a lot of formatting at the top of the page: date, address, Dear John or Dear Paul.  I liked the fact that the pages had been arranged with balance in mind by placing the authors' names (verso page) and the title of the book (recto page) at the foot of the page. 

The physical appearance of the book encouraged my to pick it up, but beyond aesthetics, I didn't know anything about it or have any preconceived ideas about what I would find inside, when I checked the book out. I have not read any of Paul Auster's writing and although I have read Disgrace I used to think that J.M. Coetzee was a woman, not a man (I also used to think that A.S. Byatt was a man and not a woman)!

I found the collection very readable indeed, and I think the diverse topics discussed in Auster's and Coetzee's letters would appeal to many people. Among other topics, they exchange ideas about sports (the concept of losing in individual games versus team games. Take singles tennis, for example, the majority of entrants in a tournament will be losers and not winners), the financial downturn and capitalism, film, how to deal with literary criticism and critics, the challenge of the digital age in novel writing,
"You say that you are quite prepared to write novels in which people go around with personal electronic devices. I must say I am not. The telephone is about as far as I will go in a book, and then reluctantly. Why? Not only because I'm not fond of what the world has turned into, but because if people ("characters") are continually going to be speaking to one another at a distance, then a whole gamut of interpersonal signs and signals, verbal and nonverbal, voluntary and involuntary, has to be given up. Dialogue in the full sense of the term, just isn't possible over the phone." [From J.M. Coetzee to Paul Auster April 2011).
And, discussions on the degradation of culture since the late 1970s, early 1980s (although, don't most people over the age of about 55 make a similar lament?).

In addition to containing interesting discussion on a varied list of topics, I also found the letters quite touching. The authors express delight at the opportunity of meeting each other in person at literary festivals (to be in the same place, at the same time is quite a feat as Paul Auster lives in New York City and J.M. Coetzee lives in Australia) and on return home from their meetings they say how much they enjoyed being able to spend some time together. The warmth that shines through their letters makes me want to pick up my pen and write an old-fashioned letter to a friend.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Book Art at the Library

A couple of days ago, I stumbled across an interesting exhibition at Bath Central Library. For the second time the Library is holding its annual Recycle an Ex-Library Book Competition. Participating members of Bath and North East Somerset Libraries  were given an ex-library book, which was ear-marked for recycling, and tasked with turning the unwanted book into a work of art.

The entries are currently being displayed at the Central Library until 24th September. Visitors to the exhibition are encouraged to vote for their favourite piece from each category: under 12s, 12-17 years olds, over 18s and group entry. It was quite a challenge to pick my favourite as I didn't know whether to focus on the best piece as regards paper-crafting skill or original concept.

Maybe some book lovers shudder at the thought of cutting, pasting and excising book pages, but the books in the exhibition are books which did not sell at library book-sales and whose ultimate end would have been the pulping machine. A piece of art, whether created by a child at school or by a professional artist is usually treasured and, to me, it seems a fitting new life for a book which would otherwise be discarded.

What do you think about creating works of art from unused books?

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield

There is a serendipitous satisfaction in enjoying a book which found you rather than you searching it out. A while ago I was at the library browsing in the section where I expected to find the 745.6 classmark (calligraphy). Even though my local library holds just four or five books on calligraphy I was surprised that I couldn't find any of the books on the shelf even though the catalogue said they were in the library*. Just My Type jumped out at me with it's striking cover and subtitle, "A Book About Fonts" and although it wasn't what I was looking for I thought I would give it a try.

Before reading this book I can't say that I thought about fonts much apart from choosing which fonts to use for my blog (the main script is Arial - not much thought there then, as this is the font I use for nearly all my computer produced texts - and the blog title and post titles are in Dancing Script which Google Fonts advise using "when you want a friendly, informal and spontaneous look". I wasn't aiming for spontaneity, just a contrast and, yes, I am a sucker for cheesy brush script pretending it's hand written and not really type.

Simon Garfield's survey of fonts deals with: the history of popular typefaces: Garamond, Gill Sans, Times New Roman, Baskerville, biographies of famous type designers: Lucas De Groot, Adrian Frutiger, Eric Gill, Matthew Carter, Margaret Calvert (the designer of Calvert, the font used on the Tyne and Wear Metro), the history and job of type foundries and how the innovations of the digital age have changed the nature of type designing and our relationship with type, "Computers have rendered us all gods of type, a privilege we could never have anticipated in the age of the typewriter."

This book made me look around a lot more at signs (road signs, street signs, shop signs) and think about the form of what I was looking at and not just the content.  I have also been paying more attention to the form of the books and magazines that I read. I picked up ten books from my shelves at home and was disappointed to find that only three out of these ten books credited the font on the copyright page. The fonts used were: Giovanni Book (designed by Robert Slimbach in 1989), Granjon an old-style serif typeface from 1928-29 and a similar typeface, Ehrhardt from 1938. I also had a look at my Oxford English Dictionary which uses Swift (a sans-serif from 1985) and Arial (1982) presumably for legibility.

I haven't read any of Simon Garfield's work before, but based on my experience with this book - an entertaining, witty and fascinating introduction to a subject about which I knew very little - I hope to read more of his work. He is a rather prolific non-fiction author, so there are lots of other titles from which I can choose.

Oh interrobang, how had I never seen or heard of you before? Okay, it's not a font, just a single character, but the interrobang is one of the fun little factoids that I will be taking away from Just My Type.  If you too want to represent quizzical surprise then input Alt + 8253 in Microsoft Word.

* The calligraphy books had been moved to a separate Arts and Crafts section in the area of the library which houses the "popular" books: Home and Gardens, Family, Health, Cooking. I hate it when the library is arranged like this; please, when using Dewey just start at the beginning and progress in a systematic order, it makes it so much easier to find items.