Thursday, January 04, 2007

Who Needs Books?

For a long time I have been saying that actually reading books is overrated. Now I have an unlikely ally: librarians. The librarians of Fairfax County, Virginia, have reinvented the idea of the library for the 21st century. "A book is not forever," says Sam Clay, the director of the system. "If you have 40 feet of shelf space taken up by books on tulips and you find that only one is checked out, that's a cost." So Clay has set out to purge from Fairfax County libraries all 40 feet of tulip books, which were apparently purchased during the great Tulip Mania of the 17th century. But it's not just books on tulips he's tossing into the dustbin of history. Aided by a computer program that earmarks books that haven't been checked out in two years, he has ruthlessly weeded out outdated works by such long-dead, irrelevant authors as Virgil, Aristotle, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and many others, all to make room for ten more copies of the latest bestseller by John Grisham.

Books that bored me to tears when I was young and forced to read them in school are finally getting their just desserts. Taxpayer supported libraries are now realizing that the purpose of government is not to force us to do what is good for us, except when it comes to smoking, drugs and trans fats. "I think the days of libraries saying, 'We must have that, because it's good for people,' are beyond us," says Leslie Burger, president of the American Library Association.

As Ezra Klein, who had always struck me as suspiciously bookish, points out, a library shouldn't be a "dusty repository of the classics." Lots of books are available on Amazon, and if they aren't, well, they probably weren't worth reading anyway. Others can be found on the Internet. Who wants to carry around all the bulky books in Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past when you can just read them online. Even better, you can just read an online summary. Ann Althouse prefers to just read "snippets" of books she can find online, which gives her more time to blog, which benefits all of us. In fact, if Proust were alive today, he would probably be blogging ("For a long time I went to bed early. Now I can't sleep at all, which is why I'm up so late blogging. The town where I live, Combray, is so booooorrrring. Click on my Proust FAQ if you want to learn more about me: my idea of earthly happiness, my favorite virtues, what I value in my friends, etc. Send me your screenname and maybe we can chat. Does anyone know if Amazon sells cork?").

Klein believes that the purpose of libraries is to "economically democratize the world of letters" so throwing away books is actually an example of democracy at work. "Libraries should ensure their stock hews as close to the preferences of their users as possible," says Klein, no matter what those preferences may be. That's the kind of democracy we are bringing to Iraq, the freedom not to have to see books on the library shelf that just make you feel guilty for not reading them.

Groups like the American Library Association are always complaining about books being "censored" by libraries. But thanks to Fairfax County's software we now see that no one actually reads these books anyway. I say good riddance to "classics" by gay authors like Tennessee Williams and Gertrude Stein, books that sow racial divisiveness like those by Maya Angelou and Harper Lee and books that romanticize rebellion like those by Jack Kerouac and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Getting rid of George Eliot's Mill on the Floss not only keeps our children away from a potentially dangerous book by a transvestite author but also one that is excruciatingly boring.

I must admit I spent a great deal of my youth hanging around libraries, which only gave me a terrible allergy to dust and book mites and caused me to need glasses at a very young age. If only someone had had the foresight to kick me out of the library and told me to go play, I would have been spared the taunts of the other children who called me "bookworm" and "four eyes," and I would have a shelf of nice, shiny athletic trophies to gaze at instead of a shelf of books I'll never read, which will only make me sneeze if I open them. In the intervening years it has taken a great deal of effort to catch up on all of the good television I missed by watching reruns on Nick at Nite, which really isn't the same, but at least I am able to keep up with references to Three's Company and Good Times when they come up in conversation.

Kids today don't use libraries to read anyway. Because funds for recreation centers have had to be cut to fight the War on Terror, kids have turned libraries into fun places instead of tomb-like reading rooms. With all the activity kids get today from playing Wii and running around libraries, I think we are going to have a generation of very healthy kids, who, like President Bush, don't read many books but get a lot of exercise.

If book huggers think reading is so important, they should watch the movie Fahrenheit 451. In that film (which I'm sure is better than the book, which I have not actually read) people live in a future Utopian society where the government keeps the people safe from terrorism and everyone can afford big-screen televisions. The hero of the film is a librarian who has his hands full freeing up shelf space. By the end of the film they arrive at a solution that makes everyone happy. Bookworms memorize the books they like and recite them to someone who cares. I think if people did that today, it would free up even more shelf space for things like video games, which actually promote the skills kids will need to fight the wars of the 21st century.

Below is a list of just some of the titles Fairfax County libraries have tossed out and the libraries that got rid of them. Just reading the list makes my eyes glaze over with boredom. Send the library an email or email the library board at and thank them for their foresight.

The Works of Aristotle Aristotle (Centreville)
Sexual Politics Kate Millett (Centreville)
The Great Philosophers, Karl Jaspers (Centreville)
Carry Me Home, Diane McWhorter (Centreville)
The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (George Mason Regional)
The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy (George Mason Regional)
For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway (George Mason Regional)
Desolation Angels, Jack Kerouac (George Mason Regional)
Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak (George Mason Regional)
Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust (George Mason Regional)
Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well, Maya Angelou (Chantilly Regional)
The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams (Chantilly Regional)
Writings, Gertrude Stein (Chantilly Regional)
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte (Chantilly Regional)
Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe (Chantilly Regional)
Great Issues in American History, Richard Hofstadter (Chantilly Regional)
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein (Chantilly Regional)
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Pohick Regional)
Babylon Revisited: And Other Stories, F. Scott Fitzgerald (Reston Regional)
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (Reston Regional)
The Aeneid, Virgil (Sherwood Regional)
The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot (Fairfax City Regional)

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Norfolk Blogger said...

I only read on holiday, when I can escape the internet and British newspapers (although we had internet access and British papers in Mexico this year).

I got put off books at school by teachers who insisted, because I was always an excellent reader, that I read. So I learnt that reading books was a chore, and i still feel like that.

Now, as a teacher, I encourage children to read books, but if they don't like books, I tell them to look at the internet, read newspapers, comics, magazines, anything with words, not neccessarily reading books.

So, I guess I am sort of agreeing with you.

dreddnott said...

You've missed It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and 1984 by George Orwell.

New Day said...

Mr. Norfolk blogger:

My heart was so heavy after reading this post, I slumped in my chair. But it took your comment to take me all the way to the floor.

Don't forget to add cereal boxes and bathroom stalls to your list of educational resources. Plenty of words there.

God Bless America.

BenMerc said...

Maybe Clay could save even more space for contemporary junk novels if he swapped out all of the classic works for their "Classic Comics" counterpart. Not to mention it is certainly much easier lugging around a thin comic book, whether in your head or hand. After all, we would not want to stress out the kids with confronting the basic realities or lessons of life, they may need to reserve energy for their x-box's and the like. What daft fools we have at the wheel these days.

Jeremiah Bullfrog said...

I like books...THey prop up my TV reel nice like, and sometimes they is useful fer keepin a door open, or if you have one of them thar big books it can hold up th' car whilst you git the tire fixed at the fillin station....

they burn good too....

BenMerc said...

P.S....Speaking of books, heres some subject matter That warrants more then a moments scrutiny or parsing. I wonder how many copies of "The Annals of the World" Clay has procured. Sure looks like easy pickins' for a certain writer we are all familiar with in these parts.

Puneet said...

For all the poeple protesting against the removal of books, I would really like to understand:
Why is a copy of a Canterbury Tales in the Centerville (or whatever) library better than a ebook version of the same title?

No, seriously, why?

gimblet said...

Here here, down with books. Maybe once libraries are a fun place, you could use the new found space to get rid of shelves altogether and introduce marine corps recruiting offices. It'll get the kids off the streets, and out of their bedrooms reading dusty old tomes, and get them doing something useful.
Who needs poetry by Serge Gainsbourg when you can have a surge in Iraq?
Tomes for tombs, tomes for tombs!!

Fritz said...

Leader of national group impressed with Salinas

Herald Salinas Bureau

When members of the Americans for Libraries Council toured Salinas last year, the city's libraries were barely open and the national organization had different leadership.

What a difference a year makes.

"I knew you had turned a corner, but I didn't necessarily think there was going to be measurable progress," said Bruce Astrein, executive director of the Americans for Libraries Council, after hearing a presentation by Deputy City Manager Jorge Rifá.


outofcontext said...

A book is a book is a book. If elite college students spent more time getting their hands dirty instead of training to compete in Proust-summarizing competitions, America would be a better place. Talk about your sound and fury signifying nothing. I forget my point here, but I will say, not all books are bad; they can have my Lynne Cheney collection when they pry it from my cold dead hands. And I find it handy to carry a pocket-sized edition of a Book of Virtues, in case I face an unfamiliar ethical dilemma while I'm out.

New Day said...

No one reads anything lengthy online. The effects of a blue screen on the brain make it at least uncomfortable, if not impossible.

But that aside, the difference is the same as that between:

viewing a painting online vs.a museum;
taking a walk on a treadmill vs. a mountain trail;
eating fast food vs. a home cooked meal;
viewing a play on television vs. in the theater;
drinking a wine cooler vs. a fine brandy;
receiving a hand-written letter vs. an email.

It is aesthetics. It is the difference between convenient consumption and richly textured experience.

Anonymous said...

What the article failed to mention is that not EVERY copy of EVERY classic is being removed. They are simply paring down the number of copies of these titles. A library may not need 8 copies of a specific classic. It may be able to sustain readership with 4. So the other four are either sent to another library in the system, given to their Friends of the Library for their booksale and lastly, if no other option is available, discarded.

Daarxide said...

it's a very good starting list, I hope it's only the beginning...

fairest said...


Many "kids today" use libraries the same way kids yesterday used them. As a place to hang out before their parents get off of work.

dave in boca said...

Although ditching Kate Millett and Diane McWhorter might be a good thing, I like the classics and I used to inhabit the Wauwatosa Public Library when young looking at the vast and varied inventory of what was back then Western Civ.

I am currently reading:
The Looming Tower, The President the Pope and the Prime Minister, Dream Palace of the Arabs, The Foreigner's Gift, and Antonia Fraser's bio of Marie Antoinette. Just finished America Alone, Culture Warrior, and a novel by McEwan.

But I still get the majority of my info from the internet, including the state of anti-military diatribes on a forum established by DARPA that would have been banned in every other country in the world from commercial or public use except the USA.

Or am I wrong?

litbrit said...

One day soon Rachel Ray will demonstrate the art of making madeleines on morning telly, sending Martha Stewart racing to the library for research material for her magazine only to discover the classics shelves are bare. Irritated by the proletariat Proust-denial, she'll publish her own copies--tastefully bound in sage-green linen, with matching ribbon page-markers, of course--and hawk them on her own morning program. They'll be terribly expensive, though, and hardly anyone will buy them, so one of Martha's assistants will pop them up on eBay in several bulk lots. Home-schooling mothers will be all over them like a cheap suit, and later, when they've given up trying to keep their charges awake whenever they read Remembrance aloud, the books will be donated to the local libraries.

Next up: Eliminating Dust Mites 101 now in PC and Mac format.

BlueKat said...


Besides aethestics, a copy of the Canterbury Tales in the library is FREE and available for those unable to afford a computer or computer access. Benjamin Franklin envisioned American public libraries for just such a reason, although in those days it was because the poor could not afford their own copies of books or a personal library.

Libraries may provide internet access and computers today, but try reading The Aenid in one sitting at a computer screen in a public library. You'll go blind or crazy or both.

Even if you are fortunate enough to have the world at your fingers and in your lap, try crawling into bed with a laptop and a good cup of tea. Not so cosy.

Idgits abound.

Tits McGee said...

Oh, my head.

I have to go cry now.

Marc Rapp said...

That's stupid and ignorant. They obviously haven't read the books either.

Boctaoe said...

Explain to me, if a book isn't being checked out, why should the library keep it? A library isn't a museum. However, I would wait longer than 2 years before tossing.

TAF said...

New Day; if you feel email is lacking a richly textured experience, I suggest you put a little more effort into your writing of it.

For everyone I know, email has revived the art of letter writing, which had been killed off by the telephone. In many cases email has raised the written word to a higher plain that it was at before...and you can actually read it without struggling with the senders usually abysmal hand writing.

The only real problem is the lack of permenance if you don't print it.

As for looking at paintings on-line vs. at the museum, in many cases on-line is superior. On-line you get to actually look without being shuffled along, and are not constrained to remain 3-5 feet away.

The most extreme example is the Mona Lisa, which in person is a serious disappointment, because you cannot get close enough to really appreciate the artistry.

Cinnamon said...

Wow, just wow. Tell me that's from the Onion. Pretty soon libraries will be bulldozed to make more space for reality show sets.

Grumpy Old Man said...

The library has issued a partial denial.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Wordsworth, the Obsolete Man.

Anonymous said...

From the partial denial statement.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee -- 359 copies on CD, cassette, DVD, VHS, large print, e-book and regular print

I would like to ask, what is a book on DVD and VHS. Would that be the movie? Please don't count that as literature. I'm not sure a book on CD really provides the ability to capture the essense of a classic either.

Maybe they would have more shelf space if not for all the Hollywood versions of the books on the shelf.

jau said...

Although many of the commenters are being sarcastic (right?) I find most of the discussion almost as disheartening as the announcement. I'm going to join "new day", slumped on the floor. Maybe we can read to each other.

Miss Cellania said...

HOW are they getting rid of these books? Are they SHREDDING them? Dick Cheney could probably get them a great deal on bulk shredding services from the company he keeps on retainer. Or are they BURNING them? Hey, nothing is as fun as an old-fashioned book burning! Bring the marshmallows!

Anonymous said...

Ben Franklin's intentions are being upheld by the Fairfax Library...the library is loaning books that the "poor" cannot afford to buy for themselves. The library does have limited shelf space and should use it to max effectiveness. If that means the "Classics" have to go, well "Buh-Bye"...public libraries are intended to stock books that people want and use and certainly a "no loan in two years" policy captures even the most occasional user. If it didn't move in two years, toss it! Glad to see this happening...

Abby Kelleyite said...

I think the real problem is that all these classic works that are being removed have entered the public domain so that no one has an interest in marketing them anymore. For that matter, why should someone be able to read a copy of the latest John Grisham novel without paying for it? What are we, communists? Clearly, the solution to all these library problems is to extend the term of copyright from its current meager term (life of the author plus 75 years) to the virtually infinite just like real and personal property. What were those founders thinking when they put a limited copyright term in our national by-laws, aka the Constitution? Luckily, the Supreme Court has decided that there is no practical limitation on how far this "limited time" can be extended, so I recommend "infinity minus one years". Then all we need to do is ban the process of allowing economic free riders to check books out from public facilities. Blockbuster can then expand its business model to include renting books. Once again, there is no collective problem that can't be solved by a free market solution.

Angela said...

I think you should consider this:

Peter Bromberg said...

The Washington Post has screwed this up a bit by confusing a “title” with a “copy”, and you're post takes that mistake and runs with it...

Believe me, libraries are not dumping “To Kill a Mockingbird”, or the other titles that are so ominously listed in the article and on your blog. Libraries are simply weeding out individual copies of that title; copies that are often stained, torn and/or falling apart at the seams.

Searching the Fairfax Library catalog
) I count 62 print copies of “To Kill a Mockingbird”, and that probably doesn’t include countless paperback copies that often aren’t cataloged.

You list "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" as a title that the library has "tossed out". I see 54 print and 12 audio copies in the Fairfax catalog...I invite you to log in to the catalog and search the other titles yourself. Indeed there are a few that are no longer available--currently--on the shelf. But there are 2 caveats to keep in mind:
1) When a library weeds a "last copy" this is usually noted, and often the title is then re-ordered.
2) Even if a "last copy" is not re-ordered, (space dictates that the library can't have everything, and they are continually aquiring new materials) the library can get the title for their customer through interlibrary loan (ILL). Did you know that libraries all across the US, and the world, share their collections through ILL. It's the original Netflix!

So take a deep breath library lovers. You local library is not weeding the great titles, just the tattered copies. Another note on weeding: Every time I’ve ever done significant weeding in a library the customers’ invariably comment, “Gee, you got so many new books…” (getting rid of all the old, dirty, falling-apart books makes it easier to find the new ones!)

(PS, I'll ditto Angela's suggestion to look here:

Mark said...

I hope the new Libraries Of America will not carry any copies of that dreadful Michael Moore's books, in any format. This lying liar who tells lies about America's best president ever should not be enriched by his lying lies which are not true.

Also, throwing out books that somehow become stained and torn and have broken bindings even though nobody ever checks them out is a good idea. This is suspicious. They could be smuggled into the library under the clothing of terrorists who place them on the shelves to offer American youth diversions from its real purpose, which is to prepare for more war at the direction of the president.

Anonymous said...

You are insane! "Who needs books?" WHAT BULLSHIT. Reading is so much more rewarding - give up tv and try reading for a change - we are all so programmed to sit around on our asses with the remote in our hand - encourage your children to read at all costs and protect our libraries.

Brad Shorr said...

Who needs libraries? You can buy anthing you want dirt cheap on Alibris without having to worry about overdue book fines. "Remembrance of Things Past" starts at $2.95. I'd like to see somebody read that one online!

Brad Shorr said...

Who needs libraries? You can buy anthing you want dirt cheap on Alibris without having to worry about overdue book fines. "Remembrance of Things Past" starts at $2.95. I'd like to see somebody read that one online!

Troy Bierkortte said...

Out of My Mind: I Guess He Was Right

Get a Clue said...

Anonymous said...
You are insane! "Who needs books?" WHAT BULLSHIT. Reading is so much more rewarding -

Yes, books are great. Go read some Christopher Buckley, Joseph Heller, or maybe even some Jonathan Swift. Then come back and read this post again.


I Do Not Heart Books said...

OMG!! U R So right. We do no need books. They R hevy and confuzing. Libraires??? LOL Who goz there?

Nic said...

Heheh, this post made my lunchtime. Very funny!

Anonymous said...

Brad Shorr is insane. Yes, the book costs $2.95 (which, I point out, is $2.95 more than the library copy), but the last time I bought a book from alibris I was socked with a $9.99 shipping fee.

Thanks, Brad, but I'll be going to the library and enjoying that book for FREE. No shipping, no handling, and no bloody $2.95 for a book that I can get FREE.

And you wonder why people go bankrupt. STOP SPENDING MONEY ON THINGS YOU CAN GET FOR FREE!!!

james higham said...

Jonathan, all you say might be so but since when did we measure human pleasure in dollars and cents or shelf space?

james higham said...

Simple logic - the Walmart logic. Interesting where the Tesco high flyers have gone to on the continent too.

Heather said...

Mmmmm. Books. If I got rid of mine, maybe I'd be able to see my floor again. And my walls. And all my other furniture. There's an idea.

free ps3 said...

Thanks for the nice post!

Buck Batard said...

As a closet conservative, I partially agree with this blog post, but I think you don't go far enough. We simply need to get rid of public libraries entirely. Why should I have to pay taxes to support literary parasites who read free, all paid for from the public trough? After all, these funds are needed to support wars and the wealthy who pay too much in taxes anyway.

And it seems to me that those who can't afford to buy their own books are probably not of a mindset to get anything out of them anyway.

Also, public libraries are simply a way to steal money from authors who have to endure the disgrace of several hundred or thousands of people reading their books for free. Those people ought to be paying the royalties to the authors. The libraries allow people to cheat thousands of worthy authors, like JK Rowling, Anne Coulter, Hugh Hewitt, Laura Ingraham and other intellectuals who produce books that most of the public likes. Plus, what's the point in allowing the works of dead authors or books that are out of copyright to remain in circulation? The authors aren't getting any royalties any more, so what's the point in allowing them in libraries, or even in bookstores.
The author of this blog, John Swift's books are no longer needed because as I'm sure he knows, he can't get a dime in royalties from them anymore. I'm sure he would agree.
Everyone knows the literary business is all about making money and nothing more. We don't need a Dead Poets Society, we need a dead authors Society, which should actively engage in burning the books which are no longer earning royalties. It's really very simple.

Books are about making money and not about imparting wisdom, which we have too much of anyway.

And lastly, this blog should charge for it's content since Jon's books aren't earning him a dime in royalties since the government took away his royalties.

Anyone reading this blog and not paying money to Jon is a thief. I guess that makes me one too but I don't mind since I'm a closet conservative.

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