Joy of Spines was advertised as a slideshow and found poem by Graeme Hawley comprised of book titles from the National Library’s 120 miles of underground shelves. Intrigued but unsure what to expect, I was ushered into a room in the library along with an audience several decades older than me. The room was packed. In fact, I had only just made it in off the waitlist.
Hawley began his presentation with a description of how the library’s vast collection has come about. He explained the library’s role as a “memory institution” and that it is not anyone’s place to judge what might be useful in the future or to “sanitise or edit” what is kept. The twist, however, was that he used book titles both as prompts for parts of his speech and as embedded comments within the speech. These were not contrived puns on famous novels – instead, he used extremely unusual and specific works such as Answers to Questions and Why Can’t the English. This resulted in a comic and informative introduction, if a slightly bemusing beginning to an event.
He then embarked on a very short found poem about his life. Again, the book titles were involved, but this time they comprised the whole piece and his job was merely to order them and add occasional exposition. This description, though a likely fantastical story of his past, was amusing nonetheless. This was followed by a longer poem about child rearing which was surprisingly poignant. However, the recurring issue with Hawley’s presentation was that the found poems often did not flow seamlessly, feeling rather stilted at times.
Moving to a more general talk, he discussed differing views on history using the comically opposing titles, Happy India and Unhappy India. This marked a change in tone, as he more seriously debated the role of hindsight in history, focusing on the vast number of books about World War Two. The titles acted as an excellent prompt in what otherwise might have been a slightly aimless discussion.
The evening concluded with a moving musing on what we should value in life. He asked what the most important item in the library was, giving several possible examples ranging from Mary Queen of Scots’ last letter (to which he said “it’s alright”) and the King James Bible, to pamphlets that summed up a moment in time. He left did not offer a conclusive answer to this question, choosing to maintain ambiguity – instead, he segued into final comments on the impressiveness of knowledge and humanity. “Do candles live anywhere else in the universe?” he asked. “What about ships in bottles?” or “ABBA?”
At times, the evening felt like a strange cross between a TED talk and a school assembly. However, it was informative, amusing and at times genuinely thought provoking – probably my most unexpectedly enjoyable hour in a library.
Joy of Spines took place at the National Library of Scotland on the 29th November as part of Book Week Scotland.
Book Week Scotland is running from 27th November-3rd December. Browse events here.
Photo Credit Negative Space via Pexels.