Zadie Smith on libraries and the state of the state

By remarkable coincidence, I saw Zadie Smith on the Bowery this evening and then came home to the most recent New York Review of Books in my mailbox with an eloquent lament by her called “North West London Blues” about the future of public libraries and the state of the state.  It is not online yet — once it is, I imagine it can be found here — but it will be no small irony if the NYRB puts it behind their paywall because her most compelling argument on behalf of public libraries is that “they are the only thing left on the high street that doesn’t want either your soul or your wallet.”

Her point, more or less, is that she recognizes a “large, in fact, almost incalculable” debt to Britain for her education, health, etc. when all those things were free but recognizes, too, that:

[T]he state is not what it once was.  It is complicit in this new, shared global reality in which states deregulate to privatize gain and reregulate to nationalize loss…The charming tale of benign state intervention described above is now relegated to the land of fairy tales: not just naive but actually fantastic.  Having one’s own history so suddenly and abruptly made unreal is an experience of a whole generation of British people, who must now wander around like so many ancient mariners boring foreigners about how they went to university for free and could once find a National Health dentist on their high street.

But what of public libraries?  Looking on the slated closure of her neighborhood library in Willesden Green in order to make way for a luxury housing/retail space development, she continues:

And the thing that is most boring about defending libraries is the imputation that an argument in defense of libraries is necessarily a social-liberal argument.  It’s only recently that I had any idea that how a person felt about libraries — not schools or hospitals, libraries — could even represent an ideological split.  I thought a library was one of the few sites where the urge to conserve and the desire to improve — twin poles of our political mind — were easily and naturally united…[But] if the losses of private companies are to be socialized within already struggling communities, the very least we can do is listen to people when they try to tell us where in the hierarchy of their needs things like public space, access to culture, and preservation of the environment lie.  “But I never use the damn things!” says Mr. Notmytaxes in the letters page.  Sir, I believe you.  However.  British libraries received over 300 million visits last year, and this despite the common neglect of the various councils that oversee them.  In North West London people are even willing to form human chains in front of them.  People have taken to writing long pieces in newspapers to ‘defend’ them.  Just saying the same thing over and over again.  Defend our libraries.  We like libraries.  Can we keep our libraries?  Pleading, like children.  Is that really where we are?

Read the whole thing, either here or maybe here or perhaps just here and then navigate from the home page to find it yourself.  Then consider Smith’s quote from Tony Judt, who said, “We need to learn to think the state again.”


Leave a Reply