The book No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy seemed to be on my radar for a while before a finally got round to picking up a copy in a local bookshop and reading it. These “memoirs of a working-class reader” had me somewhat intrigued. Hodkinson green up in Rochdale in a house with just one book. He’s remained in Rochdale, but now lives with some 3,500 books. I was intrigued to see how someone made that transition in the 70s and 80s. After all, that was a pre-internet time when nearly all information and education came from books, school or the media.
I was hoping for a bit of a bit of a reminisce, much as I had when reading Grace Dent’s Hungry, and to some extent I got that. But No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy isn’t just a memoir. Weaving through the story of Hodkinson’s childhood and the books he discovered on the way is the story of his grandfather’s dementia and subsequent decline. This is very poignant and obviously had a huge impact on him as he was growing up.
The book was all going fine, even if I was getting a bit frustrated from him going off topic quite a lot (there’s load about his musical aspirations for instance), until I got to page 232. At that point I’m afraid I got rather angry. So angry that I even folded over the corner of the page so I could go back to it and refer again. He’s talking about libraries – a subject I feel very strongly about. We also know that the number of people using libraries is decreasing and libraries have diversified somewhat to provide services that the local community want and need.
Whilst I agree that it would be preferable for funding not be to cut elsewhere so that libraries (and also schools) have to pick up for services that no longer exist, the bit that really got me annoyed was this bit: “Libraries were best when they were libraries, housed in austere buildings (echoey stone steps, polished brass, and plaques dedicated to long-dead aldermen). They formed an umbrella to the world, keeping out the noisy, the ill-mannered, the non-book people. The only sounds heard were whispers or, at worst, the clatter of coins fed into a photocopier. Libraries have tried to offer too much to too many. And surely it matters very much that visitors pick up a book, otherwise what is a library?”
The last part of this was in response to a librarian who had written in the Guardian about all the wonderful things libraries do and finished with “One day they might pick up a book. But, it doesn’t matter if they don’t. We don’t mind.”
Bearing in mind that this quote about keeping “non-book people” out of libraries is in the memoirs of a man who grew up in a house with only one book I would have laughed at the irony had it not made me so angry. Books are for everyone. Libraries (and everything in them) are for everyone. Libraries have changed and adapted as information, and the way it is accessed, has changed. They’ve evolved as our understanding about how children’s brains develop has. Rhyme time sessions for babies and toddlers are vital for the development of pathways in a child’s brain to help them access language later on. They are not just done to be a noisy annoyance for other library visitors.
I’m not going to lie. I stopped reading this book for about a week after page 232. I did pick it up and finish it in the end, but I still kept reflecting on what he had to say about libraries and it made me angry, and then later sad. If someone feels so passionate about books and learning that they write a book about their own literary journey, how can they miss the point so much about libraries? How can they not see how these wonderful places can help others develop themselves beyond what might have been expected for them based on their home life? I’m left assuming he’s never had Caitlin Moran pick him up on the topic!
Despite the interesting start and the nice bit of 70s/80s nostalgia I’m left unable to recommend No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy. But what I do recommend is that you all go and support your local library!
No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy is available to buy online here.
Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase from Amazon through one of these links it will cost you no more than if you’d gone their under your own steam, but I will receive a small commission. Thank you for any purchases made. What would be even better though is if you went to your local library and borrowed books there. It’s free and you might also discover some other wonderful services they offer.