Zadie Smith

The following is a transcription of a three minute interview between Zadie Smith and Richard Bacon on Radio Five on 30th August 2012A year before, she wrote in defence of libraries and her passion has not dimmed.

Zadie Smith: When we were children, you’d never imagine that you’d get into a Right/Left argument about the purpose and use of a library.  It seems extraordinary to me.

So all I was arguing was I really don’t find it a political argument.  It’s about equality of opportunity.  You know you don’t expect everyone to be as educated as everyone else or have the same achievements but you expect at least to be offered at least some of the opportunities and libraries are the most simple and the most open way to give people access to books.

Richard Bacon: It’s a really good point that you address in the essay which is sometimes people say “well, look, we don’t really need libraries now because we have ebooks, we have kindles, and ipads, everything is online.  You can read a book, you can get any book you want, sitting at a computer you read more or less anything within a couple of minutes.  You can download it or it already exists.  It’s stored online somewhere”.    What is your answer to that?

Zadie Smith: The thing with the internet is something to do with its structure is that it’s limited by what you already know you want to look for.  That’s what the internet is structured around.  To google, to search for something, you need to know what you’re searching for, something within the general remit of what you’re searching for.  The library is a completely different structure. You walk in and you’re surprised.  You can go along a line of books, arranged alphabetically – which is a fairly random arrangement when you think about it – and you come across things.  That’s not possible on the internet.  One book does not follow to another to another on the internet.  That doesn’t happen.  So that thing of access is much broader.  That thing of infinite choice on the internet, that’s one thing but you need to have the knowledge to have the infinite choice.  The library offers opportunities for people who don’t know exactly what they’re looking for.

Richard Bacon: Some people in the ideological debate will say “well, they don’t make any money so they will have to go” and I think your point was that they shouldn’t make money.  It’s one of the few places on the High Street where you can go in there and no-one actually wants you to get your wallet out.

Zadie Smith: You can’t argue with people who feel that the only value of anything is economical.  I mean I don’t know how to even begin that argument.  If you really believe the only things that should survive in British life should be the things that you pay for, it’s kind of hopeless.  I don’t know where to begin with that.  It seems to me obvious that certain things should be free and accessible to all.

Richard Bacon:  Did you get into reading through your local bookshop and library?  Is that where it began for you?

Zadie Smith: Yeah, absolutely.  Like a lot of kids in this country if you don’t have middle class educated parents you need to find ways to get books.  A lot of people don’t have books on their shelves.  The library was the place I went to to find out what there is to know.  It was absolutely essential.

Richard Bacon: What did it mean to you when you were young … what did reading, what does it allow you to do?

Zadie Smith:  Well I owe my whole life to books from libraries so it is hard to know where to begin.  To me it was a way out of the flat.  A way of seeing different kinds of life, different ways of thinking.  It ended up being a way to become educated and finally a way to get to university and to get out.”

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