Archive for Sunday, January 7, 2007

Library books should be there when you need them

January 7, 2007


The most important debate occurring right now in America? Not the fight over whether a "surge" in American troops in Iraq will have any utility. Not the battle over whether Gerald R. Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon was influenced a bit too strongly by one president's longtime regard for another. Not the wrangle over whether the Democrats are foolish to proceed in the House without ample consultations with the Republicans who only days ago relinquished power.

All these are of interest and are proof that we live with the Chinese curse of interesting times. But the questions that get most deeply to the nature of our own culture and the values we celebrate aren't being debated in Congress or among politicians angling for higher office or partisan advantage. The issue that really matters to our society is being debated in public libraries, and it's over what we put in the trash bins of history.

This fight is being prompted by the possibility that the librarians of Fairfax County, Va., will weed out some copies of Aristotle's writings, William Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury," Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" for the simple reason that people haven't checked them out for two years - and to assure there's room for John Grisham, David Baldacci and James Patterson, which are plainly the people's choices.

Now, this is a democracy, and here the people rule. If they want to read Grisham, Baldacci and Patterson, they should be able to. I've read their novels and enjoyed them, too, and let me put aside for a moment the truth of the matter, which is that a day or so after I've finished them I cannot for the life of me remember a thing about them. I like ice cream and Snickers bars and a pile of french fries, too, but even I can't build my entire diet around them.

I can't explain why, in one of America's most advantaged communities, no one has checked out some copies of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" in two full years, except to say that a lot of people are missing some of the greatest reading experiences our society offers.

Sam Clay, the director of the Fairfax system, told me that the libraries are "trying to balance our collection to serve the public well," adding, "We don't have a massive program to remove classics." That's a slight relief.

Librarians are more than ticket-takers at the local cineplex. Sometime, somewhere, adult judgment has to intervene, for the business of a library is to have the right things to put in the right hands at the right time, without ever knowing precisely what the right thing is, whom the right hands belong to and when the right time is.

All of this puts me in the position of arguing that librarians, like newspaper editors, ought to be sensitive to public sentiment but not slaves to it. Like the Chinese communists, who in 1957 vowed to let a hundred flowers bloom, librarians ought to let public taste flourish. But librarians are not only providers of literature. They are also curators of literature. Sometimes a librarian listens to what the public wants. Sometimes a librarian takes consideration of what the public needs.

True story: I was only seconds from typing that you can't force someone to read "To Kill a Mockingbird," but now that I think of it, someone did force our daughter to read "To Kill a Mockingbird" and she will tell you, even if she does not think her father is listening in, that it was one of the transformative experiences of her 14th year on Earth. When Harper Lee, who wrote the book, received an honorary degree at the University of Notre Dame last spring, nearly every member of the graduating class held up a copy of the book in eloquent salute to her and to the thoughts she had sown, forever, in their minds.

Librarians are not clerks, but among the most powerful and most valuable members of our society, charged not only with stocking the shelves with juicy murder novels but also with keeping a record of human creation and human knowledge.

Librarians - real librarians, not public-opinion technicians - acquire loads of books, journals, pamphlets and other publications that are potentially useful without really knowing when someone will need them. Pity the librarian who threw away Richard Reeves' 1975 book "A Ford, Not a Lincoln" in the last month. Surely no one took out that book, on President Gerald R. Ford, in the 24 months leading up to Mr. Ford's death. But suddenly it became an invaluable resource to obituary writers, commentators and citizens seeking to understand the 38th president, newly in the news if only because of his demise.

Every generation wonders why its elders revere classics, and every generation vows to rid the world of the notion of classics. But there is an antidote to that impulse because every generation seeks to create classics of its own, thoughts that will not die. That is the most basic human impulse, stronger even than lust; one of the immutable truths is that a society that throws away its past also throws away its future.

I'm ready for the e-mails calling me an elitist and a trustee of the literature of dead white guys, and when you send me your notes I will answer you by saying that it is the very opposite of elitism to believe that the public - everybody - is entitled to the very best that has been said and thought by humankind. And I don't only mean men. The work of Tillie Olsen, who died on New Year's Day at 94, is among them. I bet no one's taken out "Tell Me a Riddle" in 24 months, but that doesn't mean nobody should be able to.

Some of the slow-moving books in the Fairfax library system remain of incalculable value to humankind and remain the foundation stones of our civilization. We need to keep Thomas Hardy's "The Mayor of Casterbridge" and Maya Angelou's "Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well" and Gertrude Stein's "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas" and Christopher Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus" even if they haven't been checked out in 24 months. Sometimes a librarian has to be a librarian.

- David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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