In conversation with…Alex Johnson
Last month, TFL founder Sarah Garnett was interviewed for an ABC Radio National show on the history of the library. One of the participants was Alex Johnson, author of Improbable Libraries – the name speaks for itself! Sarah was so impressed with Johnson’s research and diverse selection of bookshelves and libraries that she decided to continue the conversation.
SG: What’s the most unusual library you have come across?
AJ: I like the one in the middle of a lake in Minneapolis that is only accessible by canoe or by swimming which means you have to be quite keen to get to it. It also has a very eclectic stock! But I’d say my favourite is the one in Laos, which comes on the back of an elephant because that’s the only way to get to some of the more remote villages.
SG: What made you interested in this topic?
AJ: I’ve always been interested in books and libraries. My parents were both librarians, my father also taught English and my mother also ran a mobile bookshop. But the real push came from my previous book Bookshelf, which is all about unusual designs for bookcases and bookshelves. As I was researching it, I came across so many unusual libraries that it felt like a natural follow-up. Also, it’s a time when printed books in general, and libraries in particular, are facing challenging times so I wanted to put something together that celebrated libraries and librarians without being too preachy or political.
SG: Have you ever come across a mobile library for homeless people like TFL?
AJ: There’s a couple of similar initiatives in the book – one in Sao Paulo in Brazil and Street Books in Portland, Oregon, both of which are run via bicycles. There are others that are not specifically for homeless people but don’t require any kind of registration documents so they would be entirely accessible.
SG: What are you reading at the moment?
AJ: I’ve just finished Peter Frankopan’s new history of the world The Silk Roads and just started Alexandra Harris’ Weatherland, which is about writers’ relationships with the English weather. For reading in bed, I’m coming to the end of the recent collection of Laurie Lee essays Village Christmas: And Other Notes on the English Year. Last night I read Asterix at the Olympic Games because my son left it lying on my bed, and I’ve had Moby-Dick on the go for decades now so, technically, I’m reading that too.
SG: What was your favourite book as a child?
AJ: I don’t think I had one favourite single book but I was (and still am!) very keen on Tintin – if push came to shove I’d say The Secret of the Unicorn , and also a series by Anthony Buckeridge about a schoolboy called Jennings – he’s a bit like Just William only not as naughty and is away at boarding school. Sadly, it is not in print any more, although it is easy to pick up second-hand. My favourite of those is Jennings’ Little Hut. When I was a bit older – I suppose what’s now called Young Adult fiction – I got rather obsessed with Vanity Fair.
Download Radio National’s RN Summer School: Libraries featuring Alex Johnson and Sarah Garnett [here] and to discover more of Johnson’s unique bookcases visit his [blog].