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Thursday, April 25, 2019

Winnowing the libraries

Nineteenth century artistic rendering of the Library of Alexandria
by the German artist O. Von Corven
Public domain, Wikipedia
Time is and always has been the great judge of the merit of books. Lost or long-forgotten books like the works of Edward Taylor and Emily Dickinson (left in manuscript) or John Donne (out of fashion for centuries) or Moby Dick (by heroic Melville, bravely writing on despite being wholly forgotten before his death) may be tossed into sight again. Whole fields of books are winnowed by the scythe of time and fall out of memory. Some books become unreadable or simply of no interest. Is this a perfect process? Probably not. Many minor but lovely works are read by fewer and fewer as time passes.

In our day, a librarian proposes that she is the one to judge, to do the winnowing: that she knows better than time, and that something more drastic than the library-sale practice of the culling of unread, inessential books is needed. Many applaud. But time winnows all things, and some day it will winnow us, including the librarian and the applauders and the current writers of books. Including me and including you. To usurp the work of time. It sounds fearsome, doesn't it? In fact, it is the work of hubris, a thing many classical works have warned us to avoid. But in striving to make libraries more open to a good cause--more writers of color, say--it appears that welcoming, open library borders swiftly turn into the desire to banish others.

Who needs to read these old white men, long dead? Who in the West needs the heritage passed down for centuries--who needs Ovid or Homer or the KJB or Chaucer or Shakespeare or Milton? All those outdated foundational ideals (not always met, but yet our ideals), like the idea that every single human wandering the face of the earth was made in the likeness of God and so is valuable, no matter the sex or color and however much he or she mars that image... Why, we can send our children to be English majors at fine, much-heralded institutions where they can duck hearing those voices, these days. So who needs them?

I do. Young writers do. And that means young writers of any sex, any color. Do not deprive young writers of the legacy of the past because whether they like or dislike writers like Dickinson and Melville and Shakespeare, they need to climb up on their shoulders. They need to read with freedom, with no holds barred. And that reading should include not just people of color and people from fascinating and far-off countries but also those pesky dead white Western males like Donne and Herbert.

What results from the ability to put words together with high power and beauty is the rightful inheritance of us all, writers and readers alike. Despite the unchosen elements of race and sex that come with birth, writers are joined as one in the love of putting words together in the most stellar order, in striving to make something meaningful and marvelous where nothing was before. That is the work of the creator, to bring truth and beauty out of the welter that surrounds us.


  1. Both/and, not Or/Or. We need to read books that were ignored in the past because they were written by women, by people of color, by people who were odd or different, by writers in undeveloped countries who nevertheless produced and continue to produce magnificent works of literature. I have had the enviable experience this year of tutoring students in an excellent private school who have been reading classic and contemporary Nigerian fiction. I felt that I was discovering a whole new world. Yes, by all means, keep reading The Odyssey and all the classic works of western literature (or nearly all) but don't deny yourself these new delights either.

    1. I did not and do not suggest that. And I read widely. Cheers.

  2. Thank goodness for the Gutenberg site and similar preservations. Long live the e-library.

    1. Although an e-library is easy to sweep away, given the desire...

  3. My recollection of the library field well into the early 2000s was that their positions on the material they curated or protected tended to be starkly ideologically neutral, even content-neutral. An extreme example they themselves gave just a few years ago was that if a bum in an overcoat walked into a library to watch dirty movies on a public computer, librarians were not to judge. So I find it odd to see librarians becoming blatant activists for causes—not as individuals on their own time, but as a profession.

    I've always found that deciding what goes or stays in a library is a more fraught business than people realize. If a random citizen demands that a particular book not be shelved and available in a library, that person is a wicked censor; but librarians who make purchasing (and discarding!) decisions based on budgets and shelf space affect their collections daily, and more drastically than any individual citizen. In that sense, it's a weird amount of authority we bestow in librarians. A few years ago, a friend of mine found hundreds of good books in a dumpster behind a D.C. public library; in the 1990s, my grad-school library was discarding books or shipping them off to deep storage. In both cases, librarians were making decisions based on how recently or how often books had been checked out—which strikes me as a bad way to judge the worth of particular books to future researchers, who are often looking for the rare or the obscure. In a way, it's an analog equivalent of a Google algorithm: the library will make it easy for you to access the things more people already want.

  4. Yes, I spent a huge number of hours in libraries, not just because I love books but because my mother was an academic library.

    I completely agree on the way public libraries de-access, as it is called. It's horrid! Just because a lot of people read crap books and ignore the great ones doesn't mean we should get rid of the ones of merit because they aren't checked out as often.

  5. I don't think I knew your mother was a librarian! Every new detail just makes her seem all the cooler.

    On a side note, you may get a kick out of this: Yesterday I went to our county historical society library to do some research for a new project. The 87-year-old woman after whom the library is named was sitting there working, as she apparently does at least two days a week. When I requested materials on a now-defunct town, she went right to a nearby shelf and handed me a three-ring binder containing an unpublished, book-length history of said town...which she herself had written! Then she told me a relevant and surprising story about the subjects of my research, prefaced with "You know, I don't think I've ever told anyone this, but..."

    It was one of those moments when I realized I was in the presence of the library version of a living legend.

    1. Yes, she is a notable personality... It's interesting to see someone you know well grow old, as they become bouillon cube versions of themselves. Qualities grow more intense and strong. She does not garden and hike and weave as much as she did, but she's still remarkably busy.

      Your librarian tale is charming--I expect she was happy in that encounter as well. Someone ought to put that history online... Though I researched at the AAS for the upcoming novel, I was so pleased when I could find town histories online.

  6. In this context I may be regarded as a heretic quoting Lord Kelvin:

    "... when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind."

    Can one "measure" literature? Probably not. Certainly not the unfortunate authors likely to be winnowed from the library who might, sadly, be labelled "beyond measurement". But they like all of us know it's a harsh world. None harsher.

    One may measure financial success in literature by synthesising the NYT Best Seller List. But I suspect it's not those books which you feel deserve a little TLC. How about intellectual success, then? The nearest to an unequivocal statement on this is the Nobel Prize list. Out of pure curiosity I compiled a list of Nobels issued during my lifetime and was slightly perturbed to find none was awarded in the year of my birth, 1935. Was this an omen?

    Ishiguro (2017). Dylan (2016), Alexievich (2015), Modiano (2014). Munro (2013), Yan (2012), Transformer (2011). Llosa (2010), Muller (2009), le Clezio (2008), Lessing (2007), Pamuk (2006), Pinter (2005), Jelinek (2005), Coetzee (2003), Kertiesz (2002), Naipaul (2001), Xingian (2000), Grass (1999), Saramago (1998). Fo (1997), Szymborska (1996), Heaney (1995), Oe (1994), Morrison (1993), Walcott (1992), Gordiner (1991), Paz (1990). Mahfouz (1988), Brodsky (1987), Soyinka (1986), Simon (1985), Seifert (1984), Golding (1983), Marquez (1982), Canetti (1981) Milosz (1980), Elytis (1979), Singer (1978), Alexandre (1977), Bellow (1976), Montale (1975), Martinson/Johnson (1974), White (1973), Boll (1972), Neruda (l971), Solzhenitzyn (1970), Beckett (1969), Kawabata (1968), Asturias (1967), Sachs/Agnon ((1966), Sholokov (1965), Sartre (1964), Seferis (l963), Steinbeck (1962), Andric (1961), Perse (1960), Quasimodo (1959), Pasternak (1958), Jiminez (1956), Laxness (1955), Hemingway (1954), Churchill (1953), Mauriac (1952), Lagerkvist (1951), Russell (Bertrand) (1950), Faulkner (l949), Eliot (1948), Gide (l947), Hesse (1946), Mistral (1945), Jensen (1944), Sillanpaa (1939), Buck (1938), du Gard (1937), O'Neill (1936).

    I was mildly surprised to discover I'd read more authors than I expected, but then the bar was set very low. More cheering was the number of authors I was aware of, proving, I suppose, that I had at least read the reviews over the years. I decided Quasimodo deserved closer inspection.

    But my point - yes I do have one - is this. In a large well endowed library this would be a manageable list. Some names would already be represented on the shelves and this would help. But wouldn't you like to be able to visit a part of the library labelled Nobels where - as a labour of love - the staff had compiled a representative selection of at least one book per author from these awards?

    Your post is more poignant in its plea. Mine more representative of my nuts-and-bolts past. But then I've always been a Lord Kelvin disciple.

    1. Perhaps I should have said that I was responding to calls like this one:

      I like to think that the dead are beyond matters of race and gender, that their words can still live and glow in ways that are deeply important to us. And that worthy words will continue to live for some time, occasionally for many centuries.

      If you talk your library into a Nobels section, be sure and include all the voices that should have been there!

    2. Hmmm. All literary awards are suspect ... Nobel awards are among the most suspect being lately political awards .... please let us not limit library holdings to award winning authors and books .... well ... just my two cents ....

    3. I doubt the great R. R. will be allowed to make his own library. And so we may expect some libraries to adhere to the idea of a canon plus wider views of our own times, and some to go in a more chaotic direction...

    4. COMMENT FOR TIM2:17 PM, May 02, 2019

      R. T., left you a comment on your brand new blog and it was eaten, again. You need to have more than Google account as an option, at least for me. If I use that, it vanishes. Why, who can say?

    5. Thanks ... I’ve corrected the problem ... roadblocks are down .....

  7. I may have been misunderstood and probably it's my own fault. The Nobels rarely attract positive talk. Many readers (especially those with an acre of newpaper space to fill) prefer to dwell on those who've missed out rather than those who have won these huge sums of money. When the prize goes to an author living in what is considered an obscure small country the judges are said to be "political". And when the judges seem to have suffered a brainstorm (eg, Dylan) they are pooh-poohed. The unspoken belief appears to be that the Nobels shouldn't exist. I'm aware of all these reactions because during a no doubt unforgivably long life I've had the leisure time to espouse them myself. Occasionally.

    But the Nobels do exist. In an exercise that turned out to be woefully laborious (ie, I was denied cut-and-paste) I compiled the list of winners you see as a purely factual entity. To test my old-age palate. I doubted this list would be read by others. Because I didn't want to re-hash old hobbyhorses (while leaving myself free to mix my metaphors) I ignored dusty campaigns about Graham Greene, Tolstoy and other "losers" and asked myself: "What do we have?"

    I was delighted to be reminded Seamus Heaney was one of the winners. He's (alas, was) a good guy; good poetry, good translations and a friendly forgiving nature when I heard him at Hay. I was less enthusiastic about Naipaul as a person but felt he had to be there for Mr Biswas - and that, after all, is the point. Hemingway still remains out of fashion - but what about his continuing influence on prose styles? Eliot (Well, I hardly needed reminding). Patrick White (Tough and chewy). Sartre (Yeah.). Gide (A very late discovery for me).

    The omissions, the "politicals", the gross errors (Churchill, for Pete's sake!) faded from my normally contentious mind. I relived my youth and reminded myself I too had changed just as public opinion had changed towards some of these writers. But then we're talking about an endeavour without absolutes, where opinion is not founded on Lord Kelvin's measurements. We wouldn't be similarly disagreeing about the Nobels awarded for science.

    My modest proposal (for a Nobel corner in a biggish library) wasn't supposed to be definitive, a sort of international cure-all. Just a starting point which included some "musts". A gathering which imposed a salutary spotlight on what is sometimes no more than a matter of taste. It isn't going to happen. Now I'm off to ABE Books to see if any Quasimodo works are extant.

    1. Oh, I don't think that I misunderstood you. Just was a little wayward and tangential... I do agree, and I think there is no cure-all (unless you're absolutely devoted to Harold Bloom, in which case you just go with his list!)

      And I definitely agree that influencing other writers is a reliable measure of how--how what?--a writer is. I think I'll say "how alive."

      When I was a grad student, I was in charge of the speakers program, and we brought Seamus Heaney. And had the most fantabulous party. Afterward the faculty went out to a bar, and one of them broke her ankle dancing...

    2. Even Bloom disavowed his lists.

    3. Heh. I expect he still has devotees! Or perhaps not. People are too busy online to read all those pesky books, perhaps?


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.