jacob lawrence library 1

I gave a talk at the launch at London’s Institut Français of Libraries without Borders, the charity inspired by Patrick Weil that aims to increase global access to books and libraries. Also speaking were Ian McEwan, Lisa Appignanesi, Barbara Band and Patrick Weil himself. Here is a transcript of my talk.

Let me begin with a story not of a library or a book but of a grand piano. The one grand piano in Gaza, that was discovered still intact in a theatre destroyed by an Israeli missile during last year’s war. A piano that has been restored string by string, hammer by hammer, by Claire Bertrand, a young French music technician who travelled to Gaza specially to bring the piano back to life, in a project financed by Daniel Barenboim.

Last week, the piano formed the centerpiece of a concert, in which 15-year old Sara Aqel, the star pupil in Gaza’s only music school, performed Beethoven’s 19th sonata. Why in a land so devastated by war, in which tens of thousands are homeless, in which hospitals can barely function, in which food is often scarce, and which for many feels like a vast prison, should so much fuss be made of one piano?

Because to be human is more than simply to survive, or to seek food and shelter. It is also to imagine, to hope, to dream, to transcend, to transform.

Music in a place like Gaza, in the words of Lukas Pairon, from Music Fund, the charity that helped restore the grand piano, ‘is a form of rebellion against being narrowly defined as living beings who only want the basic things – food, protection, security – who are only in survival mode.’ Or as Sara Aqel put it, ‘Music might not build you a house or give you your loved-ones back. But it gives you joy.’

Words, even more than music, enable us to transcend our immediacy, allow us to be human in a fuller sense. Humans are storytelling animals, the only creature on earth that tells itself stories to understand what kind of creature it is, what kind of world it lives in, and what kind of creature it wants to be, and what kind of world it wants to live in.

But more than that: words, stories, books allow us to enter other people’s worlds, other people’s imaginations, understand their hopes, desires, aspirations. The gift of the writer to the reader, as the novelist Aminata Forna has evocatively observed, is to take him or her on a journey, to reveal to them something that they had not seen before. And the gift of the reader is to accept that invitation, to be open to the discoveries that we may stumble upon on that journey.

We live, however, in a world constrained by borders: not just physical borders or national borders but also cultural borders, borders of the mind and of the imagination.

In his memoir Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie recalls his father reading to him ‘the great wonder tales of the East’ – the stories of Scheherazade from the Thousand and One Nights; the animal fables of the ancient Indian Panchatantra; ‘the marvels that poured like a waterfall from the Kathasaritsagara’, the famous 11th-century Sanskrit collection of myths; the ‘tales of the mighty heroes collected in the Hamzanama’ that tell of the legendary exploits of Amir Hamza, uncle to the Prophet Mohammed; and the ancient Persian classic, The Adventures of Hatim Tai. Rushdie’s father ‘told them and retold them and remade them and reinvented them in his own way’. To grow up ‘steeped in these tellings’, Rushdie writes, was to learn the ‘unforgettable lesson’ that all stories ‘belonged to him, just as they belonged to his father, and to everyone else’.

Yet, Salman Rushdie’s own story shows how, for many, stories don’t belong to everyone. For some people only certain stories can be allowed to be told, and told only in the way that they think fit. There are only certain journeys we can make, only certain discoveries to which we can open our minds.

Words often help create borders. Through words we can demonize the Other, create the Muslim or the Jew, the immigrant or the heretic. But words also allow us to transcend borders. They allow us to discuss, to debate, to argue. And argument is at the heart of human self-improvement. Not only to nurture our imaginations, but also to transform our world, to challenge power.

jacob lawrence library 2

‘We live in one world’, CLR James wrote in his essay ‘Discovering Literature in Trinidad’, ‘and we have to find out what is taking place in the world. And I, a man of the Caribbean, have found that it is in the study of Western literature, Western philosophy and Western history that I have found out the things that I have found out, even about the underdeveloped countries.’

James was one of the great revolutionaries and anti-imperialists of the twentieth century, whose work shaped many of the anti-colonial struggles that freed African and Asian nations. For James, one could not effect social change without breaking out of the particularities of one’s experiences and engaging in a more universal debate. Reading Sophocles and Shakespeare, Melville and Marx, Tagore and Du Bois, CLR James and Frantz Fanon does not make one a revolutionary. But not reading them diminishes the possibilities of revolutionary change.

And that is why some people are frightened of words, of books, of speech. They wish to constrain what we can read or we can say, because they wish to check the flow of ideas, the corrosion of borders, the possibilities of change, the challenges to power.

Access to ideas and knowledge that can challenge particular beliefs, worldviews or forms of power are as important as the ability to articulate different beliefs and ideas. Access to books and to ideas is the other side of the right to free speech. And both are as important, perhaps more important, to those burdened by poverty, constrained by conflict, trapped by injustice, as they are to those who live in freer, wealthier, more democratic societies. Books, just like freedom of expression, are not luxuries. They are necessities, the essential tools of social change, an essential aspect of our humanness.

Malala Yousafzai, the wonderful champion of the right of girls to an education who was shot by the Taliban in Pakistan, helped open the new Birmingham library in 2013. ‘It is my dream’, she said ‘that one day, great buildings like this one will exist in every corner of the world.’

Birmingham Library may not be the best example for us, mired as it currently is by controversy over reductions in access. But Malala certainly is. Her struggle for the right of girls to be educated shows the necessity of ideas, of knowledge, of books, for those fighting the greatest injustices, the cost of that struggle and the courage it takes to pursue the idea of libraries without borders. ‘Let us not forget’, she said, ‘that even one book, one pen, one child and one teacher can change the world.’


The paintings are from a series on libraries by Jacob Lawrence.



  1. damon

    ”Because to be human is more than simply to survive, or to seek food and shelter. It is also to imagine, to hope, to dream, to transcend, to transform.”

    Was this story of the grand piano given any coverage in the Israeli media?
    If it was, I can imagine much of the country feeling scornful.
    The most important thing in Gaza at the moment though must be to have Hamas sidelined, as if they stay in power there will never be any improvement in the situation.

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