94% of Norwegians consider it a democratic right to have a public library in their district. Nevertheless only half of the population actually use libraries, although the nearer one lives to a library appears to enhance its value. At present the political climate in Norway favours cutbacks, leading to shorter opening hours and the closure of branch libraries. For the last few years local politicians have tried to close down my old neighbourhood library in the east of Oslo, the city’s workingclass district. Now at last they seem to be on the verge of succeeding.
However, I no longer live among the grey, high-rise buildings on that side of the city. I now reside in the west of Oslo, where the price per square foot of living space continues to go through the roof. In fact, I live only 100 metres from my local library, an excellent branch that nobody plans to close down. During the nine years since moving here I have used this library only twice. On neither occasion did I borrow a book.
Is this because I don’t read books? That would be a fine thing for a writer, wouldn’t it? Or is it perhaps because I either buy or am presented with so many books that I don’t need to borrow? Well, that’s partly true, but I have to confess to other reasons. I simply don’t feel comfortable in a library.
I count myself most definitely among the 94% who look upon a local library as a democratic right. I want people to borrow books and to read them.My own and those of other writers. However, that is precisely where the problem lies. Visiting a library brings home to me how many books there are by other writers. Thousands of them. Rows upon rows. Shelf after shelf. Billions of words.
Last year almost 700 children’s books were published in Norway. Two of them were written by me. In a library I discover how many other books have been published during the last few decades. It’s all very depressing. Does the world really need more books? Aren’t we just recycling all the old stories? Is it possible that the sentence I wrote and was so pleased with this morning can be found in one of these other books? Should I even bother to write any more of my own?
Fortunately society changes. New generations need the old stories to be updated. I can remember books where the plot required somebody getting to the nearest telephone kiosk as quickly as possible. Today everybody has a mobile.
My thanks go also to GameBoy, the Internet, new car models, another generation of popstars, fresh slang expressions and weird fashions in clothes. Things such as these make my books new and the others old.
However, whenever I make a reference to a mobile telephone or a well-known brand of jeans, I realise at the same time that my own story will seem dated after a few years. Slang expressions have never changed as quickly as now. Multicultural influences are producing a kind of ‘kebab’ Norwegian. Foreign words fuse with Norwegian to make completely new and constantly changing words and expressions, many with a limited geographical distribution.
I myself once used an old Norwegian schoolboy expression “to coconut someone”, meaning to rub very hard on another pupil’s head with a clenched fist. In Oslo the children knew what I was talking about, but further north, for example in Trondheim, they still ask me what it means. I hear, however, that its use is catching on in Trondheim, so now I have the doubtful honour of having spread that particular word.
Of course, a lot of contemporary writing reminds me of something I have read before, just as Hollywood makes film after film according to a century-old formula and music is recycled and repackaged. Same shit, new wrapping, as some people say. Others may even argue that all story lines can be traced back to Homer, Shakespeare or the Bible.
So is it still possible to write stories that give no hint of something read before?
It would appear so. I read quite a lot of new books and the originality of some is often quite impressive. An interesting mixture of genres or a plot constantly twisting and turning can still offer a surprise or two.
This brings us back, however, to the depressing aspect of libraries. I may think I have succeeded in being original but how does that help, if my work drowns in a flood of other writers’ books? What makes it even worse is that I no longer need to visit a library in order to suffer this depression. I can click onto a web site and immediately see which libraries have my books on their shelves. Initially this may remind me how privileged I am to have achieved a relatively high lending rate, but further searching can quickly reveal that none of my books figure among the top 100 borrowings of the last month. Damn you, Harry Potter.
There was a time when writers used a library to carry out their research. Now we have the Internet. One day I may have written so many books that I can conquer my library phobia and perhaps borrow a couple of novels or a biography. For the time being, however, and on behalf of the 46% who support but do not use libraries, I can only say that we admire those who do. They are our heroes.
Translated by Eric Deverill