Pull the other one, Pullman

Anyone who has read an interview with children’s author/grumpy village atheist Philip Pullman will surely have sensed that he was a bit of an a-hole. He proved the hypothesis, with the cataclysmic decisiveness of a Shaq slam-dunk, in a January 20 address concerning austerity-driven public-library closures in the UK. It is the speech of someone who believes every jot and tittle ever put to paper about his infallible genius; since the chief evidence of this genius is the success of his books in a degraded, semiliterate global publishing marketplace, Pullman naturally spends a lot of time blaming his nation’s library crisis on (a) modern publishing and (b) the market economy. Given such confusion, or perversity, it comes as no surprise that the supreme hero of his plea for untrammelled intellectual freedom turns out to be Karl Marx, who foresaw our sorry state oh so long ago.

Has Pullman no shame? No writer who had a trace of vulnerability to it would play the tattered, grimy “It’s like the Christians burning the Library of Alexandria all over again!” card less than a minute into a speech about libraries. That event was perhaps the single worst setback for the intellectual advancement of Western man; this would suggest to most sober people, people with some sense of perspective, that references to it should probably be guarded by a sort of Godwin’s Law. That, in other words, it should be used as a metaphor only under grave circumstances.

So what are the circumstances particular to this case? “Here in Oxfordshire we are threatened with the closure of 20 out of our 43 public libraries,” says Pullman, expecting us to recoil in anguish. The county of Oxfordshire, Canadian readers should note, has roughly the same population and geographic size as the city of Hamilton, Ontario. [NOTE: Commenter Mackie caught me in a metric-Imperial error here, for which much thanks; Oxfordshire is about twice the size of metro Hamilton geographically.] Residents in Hamilton will be delighted to note that Hamilton is served by 24 public library branches, which should make that city a slightly less sandblasted hell of ignorance than Oxfordshire is about to become (since we’re not counting Oxford University’s Bodleian Library—it’s the supreme example of its kind, and open to private scholars for reference purposes, but they don’t have story time for tots there). 24 isn’t a small number by Canadian standards, incidentally; Winnipeg’s library has just 20 branches, Calgary’s and Edmonton’s 17 each. Little did we all know we were so culturally deprived.

I grew up depending on public libraries for my first exposures to culture and history, and my family has worked in them for three decades. Probably the only significant amount of volunteer work I’ve ever done in my selfish, lazy life was in the public library in my hometown. This entitles me to dismiss, without any fear of reasonable contradiction, Pullman’s claim that small countryside lending libraries cannot be managed by volunteers. It is simply a lie—one delivered with a maximum of sneering contempt. “What patronizing nonsense,” he says as he delivers one of the most patronizing orations of all time.

It’s true that you can’t use volunteers to manage a large library that serves the diversifying media needs of every imaginable customer in the year 2011, but not every cluster of shacks on some windblown sheepfold can expect to have a library like that, and to lack one is not a misfortune if your foremost concern is with reading—with the precious private “space that opens up between the reader and the book”, to use Pullman’s own words. What’s needed by the reader, as such, is a lot of books, selected and organized with a modicum of intelligence, and the free run of them. Everything else is detail.

I share Pullman’s biliousness at seeing public libraries fall victim to an economic crisis caused by financiers, demented property-flippers, and short-sighted Labour governments. But then, he doesn’t have much to say about Labour. That would be class treason, one supposes. And, anyway, he is much too busy poking fun at Tory cabinet fatty Eric Pickles—while simultaneously complaining about the injustice of ad-hominem attacks.

Whenever the “how dare you tamper with my favourite public service” argument is made, and no less when it is made on behalf of what may actually be my own favourite public service, I always wonder what actually existing utopia the arguer would like us to imitate. What country has the perfect, pristine, progressive library policy, and what makes it so? Pullman not only fails to identify any candidate; he is apparently furious at the idea that some particular policy about libraries, set by those responsible for their funding, should exist at all. “The leader of the county council said in the Oxford Times last week that the cuts are inevitable, and invites us to suggest what we would do instead,” said Pullman. “…I don’t think we should accept his invitation. It’s not our job to cut services. It’s his job to protect them.” How readily, in the hands of an experienced prose artist, is irresponsibility magnified into an ideology.

One cannot escape the suspicion that Pullman believes libraries somehow grow out of soil festooned with magic library-beans. Doesn’t he know that the crucial figure in the history of public libraries was Andrew Carnegie—perhaps the most satanically successful apostle of the free market that ever lived? Carnegie’s fortune was used, for most of 50 years, to build a magnificently appointed public library for almost any community in the English-speaking world that wanted one. Six hundred and sixty of them were erected in the UK alone. Libraries as we know and use them are, essentially, Carnegie’s creation—a by-product, every bit as much as the plume of a smokestack, of the highest of high capitalism. Pullman should probably just die from embarrassment at having abused industrialists and classical liberals in such a context.

Pullman might, for the sake of argument, be right to argue that we have let the riotous, gore-jowled beast of the market into every cranny of human life, and that we have much to regret in this. But, again, what is the alternative? Socialist states, as much as flint-hearted capitalistic ones, need to make their inflow match their outgo in the long run. They cannot provide every thing that humans might regard as worthy or beautiful. To say so might seem like belabouring the obvious, but, remember, Pullman splutters with rage at the very mention of scarcity and is doubly angry that the wicked Tories have, in a difficult time, left choices about resource allocation up to local councils.

I don’t think Pullman favours some economy in which money was outlawed altogether, however that might be accomplished, but he is obviously eager to rewind the clock quite far. He gripes about “the transformation of human craftsmanship into mechanical mass production”. You’ll notice that this is a tidy, accurate description of the Gutenbergian technology that made Philip Pullman CBE a rich man. He is certainly rich enough to imitate Carnegie on the miniature scale of Oxfordshire—were he passionate about libraries as actually existing entities, rather than as deflowered symbols of right-wing ravenousness.