Ten Books for the Library of Birmingham

Yesterday the new £188m Library of Birmingham was handed over to the City Council. As part of the regulation PR hullaballoo, the Leader of the Council Sir Albert Bore was pictured placing the first book on the shelves. This was The Hobbit, chosen by the public as part of a Twitter campaign last year – and not surprising, given both last year’s film release and the fact that Tolkien is viewed as a local lad, having spent several years of his childhood in Birmingham.

More interesting and unexpected is the rest of the Top 10, and those books which didn’t make the cut. As well as entries for local authors Jonathan Coe (The Rotters’ Club), Benjamin Zephaniah (Talking Turkeys) and S. J. Watson (Before I Go To Sleep), the list included the following – I’ve no idea where they ranked, so I’ve just listed them in alphabetical order. What intrigues me is the noticeable undercurrent of subversion and protest – and one that is entirely apt for the building of a new library, structures which have always sought to promote debate, free-thinking and dialogue.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. No obvious Birmingham connection here, although working in local government does sometimes feel like you’ve fallen down the rabbit-hole/passed through to the other side of the mirror. Having seen the interior of the new Library, there’s also something of Alice’s sense of disorientation and scale in it, and which will be even more apparent after the building has been filled with books.

fahrenheit 451Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. A novel which involves the burning of books, and takes its title from the temperature at which paper ignites? Hell, yeah. Prince Charles once referred to Birmingham’s current brutalist Central Library as looking more like a place ‘where books are incinerated, not kept, so this would also have been a nice link between past and present. This book would have been my choice from the list, and ideally the gorgeous recent edition which incorporated a match and striking paper as part of the cover design.

John Madin: A Biography. One from the fans of the inverted 60s concrete ziggurat that is the current Central Library – Madin was its architect. I could never picture Sir Albert placing this book lovingly onto a shiny new shelf, regardless of the number of votes it received. But then, neither could I find it online – Alan Clawley’s book John Madin (from the RIBA ’20th Century Architects’ series) comes close but is hardly a biography.

King James Bible. The only religious book on the list. It celebrated the 400th anniversary of its creation in 2011, which may partly account for its showing here. The Bible is also recognised as encouraging the use of numerous English phrases, including ‘at their wit’s end’, ‘a law unto themselves’ and ‘the blind leading the blind’.


Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. My favourite novel on this list, and another surprise – although again, it’s difficult to see what this depiction of a rigid, totalitarian system has to do with Birmingham City Council. Yesterday was certainly a cold day in April (just), but anything but bright. And the Council House clock has been stuck at 10.50 for the past two weeks so isn’t striking anything, let alone thirteen.

Paradise Lost by John Milton. I spy a play on words here. The current Central Library, due to be demolished next year, sits on Paradise Circus (which is also the name of a fine album by Massive Attack). The area also includes Paradise Street and the Paradise Forum arcade, all of which will be swept aside as part of the planned redevelopment. Satan’s role as a management consultant is still to be confirmed.

So, that’s 10 down, 2,299,990 to go. The move starts next week, and should be completed by July, ready for the public opening of the Library of Birmingham in September. As far as libraries and the city of Birmingham are concerned, it promises to be a momentous year.

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