Tuesday, April 24, 2018

`As If They Were Asbestos'

During my last visit to the central library in Houston I was unable to find anything to read. When my sons were young I took them weekly to the same library, where the staff called us the “Library Guys,” and each of us would leave with a bag of books. No longer. The adult fiction section consists almost entirely of recent popular novels. Invisible culling is underway. I used the online catalog to find the location of Christina Stead’s 1938 novel House of All Nations. It wasn’t on the shelf. I looked again several days later and it was no longer in the catalog. It had been purged, presumably because it was published eighty years ago and because it had not recently circulated. As Theodore Dalrymple puts it in “On the Shelf”:

“Libraries and colleges are clearing out books as if they were asbestos. Computer terminals are what are wanted now, in the same way that Mr Gradgrind wanted facts. I am not entirely technophobic: the internet is a superb instrument and I am very grateful for it, but it is by no means a perfect substitute for books.”

At present only four of Stead’s novels (not including her masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children, of which I own a copy) are in HPL’s holdings, and all are in the “closed stacks,” meaning they are shelved at another location not accessible to the public, and must be requested for delivery. The happy serendipity of discovery, always among the charms of a library visit, is eliminated. I remember finding John Updike’s Pigeon Feathers and Kafka’s The Castle that way in our neighborhood library when I was a kid. Some library visits are purposeful. One looks for a specific title or subject area. Others, the best ones, are small, hopeful adventures. All the lip service paid to encouraging children to read is hogwash. The public libraries I know are dedicated to books as data, or books as slightly old-fashioned novelties. Dalrymple writes:
“I have been obsessed by books all my life, and now I feel the melancholy that I suppose old artisans must once have felt when their trade became industrialised. All these years I have been on the wrong, or at least losing, side of history, a dinosaur that did not foresee its extinction.”


Dwight said...

I remember walking over to the central library when I worked in downtown Houston. It was a refreshing escape from the workday.

Several books marked "Discarded" from that library have ended on my shelves, including one of my favorites: Czeslaw Milosz's The History of Polish Literature.

Foose said...

Yes, this trend is dismal. What I would give for full access to rummage through the "Closed Stacks!" I noticed early on that the new San Francisco library downtown was largely denuded of books and kept asking the librarians where they all were. And at the library book sales, the tables are also full of contemporary rubbish - not just the so-called "Literature" section, either. One goes to the "History" table and encounters only compilations of Thomas Friedman's pompous columns for the New York Times.

Marly Youmans said...

This even applies to my local used bookstore, a good one. A lot of the treasures are hidden upstairs where we cannot go, and the downstairs rooms tend toward the popular and commercial. We're lucky that they're still open to foot traffic at all, now that their main business is online.

I often have that wrong-side-of-history feeling. Novels? Formal poetry? Writers are like the lacemakers of another age, seeing their own demise. The current system of publishing (lead books, lead books) and distribution is unhelpful to almost all of them.