It's a Mann's world: Parenting by the book

Olly Mann

Fatherhood finds Olly Mann reigniting his adolescent love for libraries

I spent school lunchbreaks in the library. This was neither nerdy reclusion nor hipster affectation: I could, conceivably, have joined the cool kids behind the tennis courts, but I didn’t smoke; and, if an aspirational geek culture around comic books and computer games existed in the early 1990s, it had yet to reach north Hertfordshire. No, I went to the library simply because it had central heating, and large tables around which my mates and I made each other laugh, and it wasn’t the sick room. Students who hung around with Matron in their leisure time had mummy-issues. This I knew, even then.

It felt lightly subversive, sneakily sharing crisps and bantering boisterously in the reading room as the occasional teacher tutted. Plus, we were spared the school bullies, who tended not to frequent the library. Bullies aren’t big readers.

That building, with its peppery carpet tiles and phlegm-coloured radiators, bequeathed me many fond memories. It housed an industrial-sized photocopier, for example, from which I pumped out 200 weekly copies of the school newspaper (under my editorship, we went tabloid. “Worm Found On School Potato!” was the sensational highlight.) The library also contained the school’s sole copy of Microsoft Encarta, the “digital encyclopaedia” CD-Rom.

Encarta was a bit like Wikipedia, in the same way that a rainy car-boot sale is a bit like Amazon. It proffered thousands of articles, analogue equivalents of which were already accessible in the school’s dusty copies of Britannica—but with the thrilling opportunity to click on a short accompanying video illustrating some of the entries. I suppose this was intended to inspire related reading. Instead, I just watched the small selection of videos on endless repeat, and became unhealthily obsessed with hideous moments from history. Thus, aged 13, I could recite Herb Morrison’s report from the Hindenburg disaster, verbatim. Oh, the humanity!

"The notion of respecting other readers—rather than running around like you’re at soft-play in a chocolate factory—took some time to teach"

After that, libraries never seemed as much fun. Indeed, during my university years, the library was perhaps the only building on campus where fun was specifically prohibited. I did enjoy an occasional nap in there—slumped over a book of Anglo-Saxon grammar in the hope its contents would absorb into my brain by osmosis—but basically my perception of libraries became linked with work, not pleasure. What a shame! Just glancing down the list of the most-borrowed authors in the UK— Jeffrey Archer, James Patterson, Jaqueline Wilson— it’s clear that the majority of borrowers are, essentially, enrolled for entertainment. Nonetheless, for over a decade I didn’t set foot in a library. What was the point, I reasoned, when I could buy whatever book I wanted—at second-hand prices if I didn’t want to shell out the RRP—and get it delivered to my door with the click of a mouse? Libraries, or so it seemed to me, were nothing more than day-care centres for the technologically illiterate.

Then I became a dad, and, like many parents, re-discovered the joy of libraries. My three-year-old son, Harvey, seemingly had no need for library membership: his bedroom shelf heaves with brilliant books by Judith Kerr, Alan Ahlberg, and probably more works by Julia Donaldson than even Julia Donaldson has in her personal collection. They amassed at great speed when I clocked that—since Harvey has a knack for emotionally manipulating me into buying him some tchotchke or trinket every time we hit the high street—that thing might as well be a book, rather than some cover-mounted plastic plaything en route to landfill.

But I sensed Harvey had begun to see books as rather too available, too unremarkable. I want him to be familiar with, and undaunted by, the habit of reading. But I also recall, from my own childhood, that a certain scarcity can add to the magic of discovering a favourite new tome. I still recall the excitement of unearthing wonderful stories, deep at the back of the communal shelves, and my mixed emotions at having to return them, three weeks later, for another child to enjoy. I wanted Harvey to have experiences like that. So, we joined our local library.

At first, the idea of ordering a book, then waiting a week for it to arrive, completely foxed him. He’s grown accustomed to the idea that whatever content he desires can be summoned up with a tap of a smartphone. Also, the notion of respecting other readers—rather running around the room like you’re at soft-play in a chocolate factory—took some time to teach. But now Harvey is a firm fan of the library experience. He has his own little card, understands his responsibilities to return the books he borrows, and is exposed to a broader range of the community than elsewhere: pupils revising for their GCSEs, local poets and authors, and those old chaps who ostensibly turn up each day to read The Telegraph, but really, I suspect, are there for the company. Last week, indeed, Harvey was so excited to visit the library that he did a wee on the floor. The staff were very sympathetic.

Fatherhood, then, has rekindled my affection for libraries. But I must say, I miss the banter.