Teenage Rebellion in the Library

Teen boy walking past library shelves
Category: Reading

You don’t always associate libraries with sex and violence, adventure and forbidden knowledge, illicit drug taking, taboo breaking and free access to censored content. But you should. It’s all there, you know, in those pages. 

How do we stereotype libraries as adults? Stuffy, boring and musty, right? Libraries are filled with well-thumbed Agatha Christies, faded, the corners split like rotten peaches. Newspapers and periodicals are strewn around, and those big magnifying glass-things that Tom Hanks uses in The Da Vinci Code sit next to copies of, well, The Da Vinci Code. Dan Brown’s “latest” is prominently displayed in the “Hot New Arrivals” rack by the films. Nearby, the dead eyes of Bruce Willis stare sadly from the sun-bleached Armageddon DVD case. 

Libraries aren’t really like that though. I popped into Partick Library a few weeks back and found a beautiful building with very new books by everyone from John Green to Angie Thomas. But it was something else that affected me when I stepped inside. It was déjà vu, and a flood of happy memories. You see, I came of age in libraries. In libraries, I learned about sex and violence, forbidden knowledge and… all that stuff I mentioned at the start. 

I grew up in Wishaw, and Wishaw had a great library. It still does. Sure, Wishaw is currently the butt of a joke in a Tennent’s Lager commercial (ironically, a drinks company mocking a place with a chronic alcohol problems), but even if it were the worst place in Scotland (dear God, surely not), when I was a teenager I could escape that small town and go anywhere. I just had to pick up the right book. 

In libraries, I learned about sex and violence, forbidden knowledge

And I don’t mean I could escape into a wonderful utopian world of sci-fi or fantasize about romance on the moors in some period novel. I could go to all the weird, dark, forbidden places teenage boys are obsessed with. 

In Wishaw Library, I read Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, a compendium of gory short horror stories from the man who originally wrote Hellraiser. You have to realize, as a teenager in the 90’s we couldn’t just search for the “Top Ten Cenobite Kills” on YouTube. The Hellraiser films – and, laterally, the books – were discussed in hushed, awed tones in the playground. We absolutely knew we should not be watching Clive Barker films, but when teachers saw us with Clive Barker books, there would be at worst a shrug, and at best a subtle node of approval. Teenage boys reading? Who cares what, give them more! 

So the local library had teenagers covered for visceral horror, but what about every other taboo? Well I found Irvine Welsh challenging even when I was sixteen, but I still read bits of Trainspotting. The ceiling baby was probably a better anti-drug PSA than anything we had at school. Certainly, better than “Big Jim”, the weird hippie our head master brought in one sleepy Wednesday to tell us all about his lapsed “Hashish in yoghurt” addiction.

Wishaw library had an amazing fantasy section too, and though I was initially reading Piers Anthony for the rude bits, I soon found his imaginative worlds sucked me in more than his description of smutty nymphs. On a Pale Horse – a story about a suicide victim taking on the job of Death – was so weirdly fascinating that I read the whole Incarnations of Immortality series. I wouldn’t want to read it now for fear that it hasn’t aged well, but when I see American Gods in bookstores or on TV, I reflect on how similar the themes and ideas are. 

And all of that curious browsing - always on the lookout for something I shouldn’t be reading - led me inexorably to lots of books that I definitely should. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin was the one that changed my life. The struggles of Ged to defeat a monstrous demon, tracking and chasing it all around the world, was obviously appealing to a teenage boy. The revelation that, ultimately, the creature was a part of Ged himself – a demon of his own making - might seem trite to an adult, but to teenage Tom, it was a genuine revelation. Though I wouldn’t understand the term for many years to come, I’d stumbled across the concept of modern conflict in literature – individual vs self. And I’d stumbled across it in my local library. 

Libraries are rebellion, experimentation, rock and roll, ideas both safe and dangerous, and the first steps into a bigger, weirder world

So as a teenager I went into the library looking for everything that was forbidden and ended up finding everything that, had I only asked a teacher, I would probably have been given. But I found it all by myself, and that makes all the difference. I explored and I had the freedom to figure out what I wanted to read, and, ultimately, what kind of person I wanted to become. 

Libraries aren’t an extension of school. They aren’t a place exclusively for study or even learning. Libraries are rebellion, experimentation, rock and roll (or something that’s still cool), ideas both safe and dangerous, and the first steps into a bigger, weirder world. Libraries are a chance to go beyond what your parents and your teachers and even your friends think you should be into. They’re a chance for you to explore all your own little miniature fascinations and chase them to their ends. 

The library made me what I am today. What I am is a writer. What I dream of is one day seeing a furtive, cynical teenager glance around nervously before picking up my book and running off to read it in a quiet corner of my local library.

Thomas Welsh

Thomas Welsh is an award-winning urban fantasy and short story author based in Scotland. He was the winner of the Elbow Room fiction prize for And Then I was Floating and has also been published in The 404 Ink F Word Collection, Pseudopod and Leicester Writes. Anna Undreaming, the first book from his fantasy trilogy Metiks Fade, is out now. 

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