Wednesday 24 January 2018

Gift of libraries is not just about reading, it's about imagination and mental health

Gerry O'Regan

ONE of my favourite people in history is Andrew Carnegie, the multimillionaire who in the early 1900s donated a major slice of his cash toward the building of public libraries in Ireland, Britain, and a number of other countries.

He had been quite a ruthless employer in his money-making days, while earning his fortune as a self-made businessman in the United States, where his family had emigrated to from Scotland when he was a young boy.

Born and raised in very modest circumstances, he would often acknowledge the childhood opportunities he got to read books in the home of an uncle, and how this contributed to his emotional and psychological development, not to mention his subsequent money-making skills.

He was also a man whose early involvement with reading, and subsequent life experiences, had given him a few deeply held beliefs, such as his advice to "put all your eggs in one basket – and then keep a close eye on that basket''.

Despite being a tough-guy employer for a long time, Carnegie in his later years seemed to really ponder what he should do now that he was mega rich; he decided he would, of all things, spend millions in the building of public libraries. It was a bit out there as a do-gooder idea back in the early 1900s, and many believed his charity would be better spent helping feed the poor, as a number one priority.

But it seems Carnegie subscribed to the belief "man does not live by bread alone'' and was convinced efforts should also be made to cater for the emotional sustenance of the masses. He was determined, in modern-day parlance, to try to uplift the soul and imagination of ordinary folk, by providing them with access to the world of books, and the pleasures of reading.

Owing to the chaotic politics of the time, allocating the Carnegie cash to fund libraries in Ireland was something of a mishmash when it came to deciding on location. Some areas that simply asked for the money got it, while others missed out on the largess completely.

But eventually buildings would be constructed free of charge in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Kerry, Waterford and Belfast. Over a century later many are still going strong, with the distinctive 'Carnegie Library' motif, plus the year of construction adorning a usually distinctive facade.

Despite the growth of Kindle and other technologies available to library users, it is the traditional book format that provides the primary source of solace for most of those weaned on the simple act of reading for sensual pleasure.

So, given that this is Mental Health Week, can books be a source of emotional wellbeing?

There may be some hard evidence for this. An OECD report a few years ago suggested "a deep engagement with story-telling and great literature'' helps all-round personality development.

Canadian psychologists Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley have concluded those who regularly read fiction boost their interpersonal skills – and children who have stories read to them benefit in a similar fashion.

What are the best books that feed the soul?

In a way it's almost impossible to compile any kind of objective list, because the intrinsic joy of reading for pure pleasure is that it should be an individual journey into the unknown. As your emotions are transported along by the words on the page you go where the story takes you.

Such was the case last week when I stumbled on a book called 'Everybody Was So Young – A Lost Generation Love Story'. Written by an obvious enthusiast for 1920s literary Paris, it chronicles that era when Ernest Hemingway, and a galaxy of writing talent, tried to make for themselves another life in the city by the Seine.

Of course, the ravages of time would take a heavy toll on the hopes and dreams of all involved. But memories remained. As one of those who lived, loved, and laughed through those drama-filled days recalled: "It wasn't the parties that made it such a gay time. There was much affection between everybody. You loved your friends and wanted to see them every day. It was like a great fair. And everybody was so young.''

So for a few hours, it was possible to be transported back to that exquisite period in Parisian life, all through the power of imagination. And as an experience, that time spent reading did the heart and soul no harm at all, if some of the experts are to be believed.

The book was borrowed from a Dublin library – paid for by Andrew Carnegie – just over a 100 years ago.

Irish Independent

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