Friday, 22 February 2013

Why I Write - George Orwell

Published as part of Penguin's Great Ideas series, this book includes four of Orwell's essays published between 1931 and 1946: Why I Write, The Lion and The Unicorn: Socialism And The English Genius, A Hanging, and Politics And The English Language. 

The essay I most enjoyed was Politics And The English Language, which featured my favourite quotation. I am obviously not the only person who thinks it's great as Penguin chose an abridged version for the front cover,
"Political language - and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists - is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."
This essay also contains Orwell's six rules for the clear expression of thought in prose, which is often quoted in How-to-Write-for-Magazines-type manuals:

i. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

The longest essay in the collection is the one about English socialism and politics. The essay was written during World War II and deals with the need for political change at home and the necessity of managing the empire and fighting the war. I always thought that three was the magic number, but it seems that Orwell favoured six, as he includes another six point programme here. This time his six points are intended to transform Britain into a social democracy. They are as follows:

1.Nationalization of land, mines, railways, banks and major industries.
2. Limitation of incomes, on such a scale that the highest tax-free income in Britain does not exceed the lowest by more than ten to one.
3. Reform of the educational system along democratic lines.
4. Immediate Dominion status for India, with power to secede when the war is over.
5. Formation of an Imperial General Council, in which the coloured peoples are to be represented.
6. Declaration of formal alliance with China, Abyssinia and all other victims of the Fascist powers.

Sitting here in 2013, I found Orwell's assessment of society in Britain and his plans for political justice rather sad and naive. Nationalisation: that's history! Privatisation is the in-thing now (unless you're talking about pumping public money into the banks). According to the 2011/12 figures, our current education system fails just over 40% of teenagers. Only 58% of young people leave school with 5 or more GCSE passes at A-C. What do those who have failed do in the information age? As for income parity: the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. In some ways it seems that our lives and the wider world have changed so much since Orwell wrote this piece, but in other ways nothing has changed at all.

Monday, 18 February 2013


James Harkin describes his 2009 book, Cyburbia: the dangerous idea that's changing how we live and who we are, as the unauthorised biography of cybernetics and its related discipline, network theory. Although cybernetics is a multidisciplinary field, Harkin defines it through Norbert Weiner's understanding as, 'the study of messages as a means of controlling machinery and society'. In the context of the digital age, this is understood as a closed information loop involving us, our computers and the internet.

Norbert Weiner (1894 - 1964), a mathematician at MIT features prominently in the book, along with Marshall McLuhan (media theorist and author of The Medium is the Massage: an inventory of effects, 1967) and Stewart Brand (writer and 60s counter-culture and tech industry thinker).

I found the section about Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog extremely interesting. The idea that cybernetics made the leap from its initial military applications to a societal role through being co-opted by American hippies involved in counter-culture is pretty, well, far-out. Those involved in the counter-culture thought that technology would play a major role in building the kind of society that they craved. Technological advances had the ability to remove the elite and hierarchy from communication making it peer-to-peer and truly egalitarian.

James Harkin brings the seventy year old story of cybernetics full circle in chapter 9, with a discussion of network theory and the use of new technologies in the military. He goes into quite a lot of detail about the 250 million dollar Millennium Challenge played out by the US military in 2002, which was designed to prove the necessity of technology in the theatre of war, although it seemed that these war games actually proved that all the high tech gadgets in the world could not assure victory.

My reading enjoyment was somewhat marred by annoying typos, e.g. 'give' instead of 'given', 'One the one hand' instead of, 'on the one hand', etc. The text could have done with closer editing in addition to proof reading as, unfortunately, not all the errors were simple typos. On page 18, in reference to the Nazi bombing of London, it says, 'the most advanced German bombers flew over their targets at speeds above three thousand miles per hour and at altitudes as high as thirty thousand feet', this should read 300 mph. I know the Third Reich was militarily advanced, but 3,000 mph is around Mach 4!

I found Nicholas Carr's effort much more enjoyable to read, not only was it written in an accessible journalistic style, it also dealt with subjects of more interest to me personally: the history of writing, printing, ebooks and hypertext, neuroscience and lots about Google.

I was interested to discover that both books, The Shallows and Cyburbia, received rather unfavourable reviews, in particular, from the Guardian Newspaper. As a lay reader, who is not a computer science, or tech industry expert, I found both books worth a read and the reviews that slated them so critical they bordered on conceit. Just because I am reading non-fiction it doesn't mean that I am dealing with fact. I may not have agreed with every hypothesis put forward in these books, but I certainly came across ideas and assertions worthy of further contemplation and research. Each book left me with ideas to debate and discuss with friends and with a reading list to explore.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Cruddas Park Library

Don't Judge a Book by its Cover

The Library seen from outside the shopping centre.

When I got off the bus in the West of the city, I was rather taken aback by Cruddas Park Shopping Centre which is where the local library is located. The dispiriting exterior of this small shopping mall does not suggest that the library which can be accessed through the mall is really rather pleasant.

The interior is warm and bright, the library assistants were very welcoming when I walked through the doors, there was a local history photo display and lots of information about the local area, there are plenty of comfortable chairs to sit on, sufficient computers and even a coffee machine.

Cruddas Park Library has received quite a lot of publicity concerning its proposed closure, in part, thanks to support from North East based, crime writer, Ann Cleeves. The library hosted a crime-themed event on National Libraries Day with both Ann Cleeves and Scottish crime writer, Val McDermid, in attendance. Let's hope that their support and the support of the local community can help avert the proposed closure.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

The Library at Night

"Siempre imaginé que el Paraíso sería algún tipo de biblioteca." 
"I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library."  
Jorge Luis Borges (writer and essayist. He was also Directory of the National Library of Argentina for eighteen years even though, by then, he had lost his sight.)

Alberto Manguel's 2008 book, The Library at Night is a real treat for people who enjoy books about books. In fifteen chapters, with titles such as, 'The Library as Myth', 'The Library as Power', 'The Library as Identity', Manguel explores libraries, taking in: history, memoir, politics, categorisation and classification, and imagination.

Although not a history book, as such, The Library at Night, features many fascinating facts about the history of specific libraries, The Library of Alexandria, The Warburg Library, and the creation of the British Library, for example.

I particularly enjoyed reading about the history of classification, including, of course, Melvil Dewey and his decimals, alphabetisation, and early classification methods from third century China. In the Imperial Library, books were classified under four broad categories: canonical or classical texts, works of history, philosophical works and miscellaneous items. Books in each category were bound in a specific colour: green for classics, red for history, blue for philosophy and grey for miscellaneous. I like the idea of ordering books by subject area but also bestowing an aesthetic harmony on the library through blocks of one specific colour (As a child, I spent many an enjoyable hour organising my books by physical properties (all paperbacks with white spines in one group, all hardbacks together, all the picture books together etc.).

Monday, 4 February 2013

The Fight for a Free Public Library in Newcastle upon Tyne

A Victorian Story

The Public Libraries Act of 1850 allowed town councils in England to levy a rate of not more than half a penny in the the pound for the purpose of establishing free public libraries. In 1855, the Act was amended so that councils could increase the rate to one penny in the pound. As the Libraries Act dealt with an increase in local taxation, public meetings were required in order to debate the issue and take a vote on any proposals. If a two-thirds majority voted for public libraries at such a meeting the town council could adopt the Act.

The great Northern cities of Manchester and Liverpool were swift to capitalise on the Act and opened their central libraries, for the edification of their citizens, in 1852. Newcastle Town Council, however, was much slower in gaining public consent to institute a free public library system and the city was without a free library until 1880.

The cause for a free public library in Newcastle was advocated, in large part, by Henry Newton (1842 - 1914). Henry Newton studied medicine at Newcastle University and after qualification he took over his father's practice. He became a town councillor and later mayor in 1883 and again in 1901. He is remembered as an advocate for public parks (he was chairman of the parks committee for thirty two years) and free public libraries. Henry Newton was aided in his quest for a free library by his friend W.E. Adams (1832 - 1906), the editor of the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle. From the passing of the Public Libraries Act in 1850 until the opening of a free public library in Newcastle, W.E. Adams ensured that the free libraries issue was not forgotten by the people of Newcastle. 

The paper regularly ran editorials discussing the benefits of free libraries and deconstructing the opposition to them. The opponents of a Free Library could not see the necessity for further services when the city already had numerous subscription libraries (The Literary and Philosophical Society, The Mechanics' Institute, libraries connected to churches and other charitable organisations), they objected to the extra taxes and questioned the benefit of the reading material held by free libraries. The extract below tackles the issue of taxation and the dubious reading habits of the public (editorial  published the weekend before a public meeting and vote at the Guildhall. Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, Saturday 25th May 1872).

"If any opposition be offered to the project which is to be submitted to the meeting in the Guildhall, we hope no attempt will be made to appeal to the weaknesses and prejudices of the ratepayers. The only sound objection that can be offered to the scheme is one which relates to the increase of taxation. but the utmost increase which is possible under the Free Libraries Act would be so slight that it would hardly be felt. No heavier rate than that of a penny in the pound can be levied in any year for the support of a Free Library. Thus the great bulk of the householders of Newcastle would be required to contribute no more than a shilling or eighteen pence per annum. And for this paltry sum - paltry especially now that wages and profits have greatly improved - the ratepayer, his wife, sons, daughters and apprentices, would enjoy the inestimable advantage of a library which would be as much his and theirs as if it were their own property. We shall hear probably, if opposition be offered to the adoption of the Act, a paltrier argument even than that of expense. It has been used before in Newcastle, and it is likely to be used again. The great bulk of the works issued from the Free Libraries at present in existence belong, it is contended, to the class of light literature - poetry and fiction. The statistics sometimes compiled to establish the point are probably accurate enough. But what is the value of the point when it is established? Light literature is the general literature of the reading public. Hence the larger proportion of books issued from Free Libraries must necessarily be books of fiction. But are books of fiction to be despised because they happen to be popular? We know for a fact that some of the greatest minds which have illuminated the world have been exercised in producing them. As pure a delight can be obtained from reading the plays of Shakespeare, the epics of Milton, the romances of Scott and Bulwer, the stories of Dickens and Thackeray, as from studying books of science or philosophy. Besides the taste for reading, once created, can never be completely gratified by one class of literature alone. And it is because Free Libraries are calculated to encourage and develop the taste for reading that those institutions are held to be preeminently valuable."

Dickens and Thackeray: light reading. The mind boggles!

The proponents of a free library eventually won the fight and despite further obstacles in securing a suitable site for the new institution, Newcastle's first Free Library opened, in temporary lodgings on the ground floor of the Mechanics' Institute, in September 1880. The first book borrowed from the new library was John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, borrowed by Joseph Cowen, radical politician and MP for Newcastle upon Tyne.

In 1882, a new, purpose built, Library building was opened next to the Mechanics' Institute and became an immediate success with the reading public.