Billy Connolly: ‘Going to the library changed my life. It may even have saved it’

For a young Billy Connolly, the library was his salvation. He discusses his love of literature and how it has accompanied him through his adult life. 

Billy Connolly

It made me realise that, despite the constant misery of my day‐to‐day existence, the world might actually be a good place, and an exciting one.

Partick Library was heaven. When you walked in the door the library was on the left and on the right was a newspaper section. They had the newspapers, on sticks, ready to be read in an upright position. Old men used to come in to read the papers in the warm. There was a wonderful atmosphere of the old guys reading the papers and looking for somebody to talk to, and young guys darting about and having a laugh. Partick Library was a lovely place to be. I’m so glad it’s still there today.

I can still remember joining the library, being given my little member’s card and being all proud, and being led over to the children’s section. There were books that I have never seen since, such as Cowboys Cowboys Cowboys and Pirates Pirates Pirates. You were allowed to take one home to read and bring it back a week later, and it felt such a privilege to be allowed to read a library book at home. 

I remember swanning up the street with my two books, hoping that somebody would see me

I loved everything about the library. It would be a big social event. I’d meet up with my friends in there and we’d consult about the books:

‘Have you read Cowboys Cowboys Cowboys?’

‘No, but I’ve read Pirates Pirates Pirates.’

‘Oh, I must read that! I’ll read Pirates Pirates Pirates and you read Cowboys Cowboys Cowboys . . .’

When you got to twelve years old, you went up a grade in the library system and you were allowed to take two books a week home.I remember swanning up the street with my two books, hoping that somebody would see me. I was in the big league now – two books! – and I got moved to a different section of the library. There was more sophisticated reading matter there, like Seven Years in Tibet, which fascinated me – Tibet sounded so remote, like it was on a different planet.

My love of literature has stayed with me through life. I don’t go to libraries so much anymore but I love bookshops. One of the things you can do in a bookshop that you can’t do buying books online is you can put your nose in a book and smell it. Once you have got the smell of books, your heart races and you are hooked for life. Oddly, Bibles tend to smell pretty good.

There is a town called Wigtown, just east of Stranraer in the Scottish borders. It used to be an agricultural town and not doing too well – the shops were all closing down. But then some bright spark had the idea of holding a book festival there. It happens every September and, during that month, the population of the town rockets from 900 to 12,000. Some people now know Wigtown as Booktown. That makes me very happy.

If you’ll allow me to climb on my wee soapbox here, reading books is wonderful. They even make you sleep well. Not electronic books and Kindles and all that shite: they will keep you awake. They mess with your eyes. I’m talking about regular, paper books. Start reading one at night when you go to bed and you will inevitably nod off and wake up with the book on your chest, your light still on, and one leg out of the bed. God knows how many times I have done that over the years.

You must never stop reading books, even if the way that you read changes over the years. Somebody recently showed me a quiz called ‘What Kind of Reader Are You?’ Now, I don’t know about you, but I can recognise myself at various points in my life in these different archetypes: 

  • The Polygamist Reader – this is a multi‐task reader who loves reading a load of books at a time and somehow manages never to muddle up the stories. I used to be like that. I would have books on the go all around the house – one by the bed, one in my jacket pocket, one in the bathroom: all over the place. But I seem to have stopped doing that, over the years.
  • The Monogamous Reader –the single‐taskreader who sticks to one book at a time and loves re‐reading favourite titles. I have become this guy. I can go back to books because I forget them. I can read a whole book and not remember anybody’s name, or what they did – I just remember that I enjoyed it. Some people may see this as a failing but I regard it as a great asset. It’s like reading a new book, only it’s free!
  •  The Extrovert Reader – an adventurous reader who will grab just about anything filled with words and who loves to explore new books. I was like that for many years, but it’s too easy to fall out of the habit.
  • The Introvert Reader – this is a person who sticks to one genre, identifies with the characters, and analyses and ponders over the plot. He is a man much to be avoided, in my opinion.
  • The Altruist Reader – someone who tries to help out others and recommends huge reading lists to their friends and family. I used to be this guy, as well.
  • The Neurotic Reader – this is what I fear I have become. It’s the reader who gets easily distracted, switches between books and, as a consequence, hardly ever finishes a book. I have got half‐finished stuff lying all over the place.

But there’s no right way to read. You are not studying for an exam. The important thing is that books do you good. They improve your life, and the lives of the people around you. They improve you. So, assuming you are dying to be given a suggested reading list by an elderly comedian, here are some of the books that, over the years, have made my life better . . .

But this is a book about being made in Scotland, so I have saved up a couple of my very favourite Scottish writers until the end – two people that, if you have never investigated, you should certainly do so as soon as you have finished this sentence. Or maybe this one. What, are you still here? What the hell are you waiting for?

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