Friday, February 19, 2010

Open Blog Post #1 - Quality vs. Demand: A Library Debate

When I was in high school, I was a big-time reader. I spent all my money on books (I wasn't the library hound I am now, but then again, I didn't have bills at 16) and developed quite the collection. I'm not a fast reader, but I've always been a devoted and persistent one, so when I got involved in a story, I brought the book to school with me. I'd pick it up when I finished whatever in-class activity we were working on.

One day I was reading a Christian-fiction romance novel, completely tame (particularly by today's YA standards - no sex, no drugs, no rock and roll) and very entertaining. It was the third and last book in the series, and I was involved. A friend asked me what I was reading, and having never been embarrassed about my books, I handed it over - and got laughed at. Fine, the book was called The Pirate and His Lady and had the pirate in question leaning rakishly on the rail of his ship while the lady in question stood against the mast with her ebony hair flowing in the wind. It was perfectly mockable, and yet, since that day I've hidden my books from people. I didn't want to be laughed at because of my book choices and my book choices have never leaned toward what the critics consider "quality." So I still carried books around with me, but when reading I kept the cover covered. When I wasn't reading, I kept the book face-down on my desk or in a drawer. When someone asked me what I was reading, I wouldn't give them a title or author - I would give them a vague synopsis in the most general of terms. I only put the least "embarrassing" of my book choices on my Facebook booklist and I cheered the day that the library got check-out terminals where you can serve yourself - no one had to know.

That being said, I've been trying to "read shamelessly" (as I've noted on my blog title), though it's hard to erase over 10 years of reading shamefully. So I have issues with people making decisions on what books are or are not "quality." For me, reading has always been a pleasurable experience - when I've picked out the books. I watch the news, surf the web, and so forth, and I don't consider myself uniformed or uneducated, but I do prefer fun and entertaining books. Stuff I had to read for school, however, rarely made my favorites list. I didn't care for distopian futures or men who turn into giant insects (whether or not it's all metaphorical) or children who turn into savages when trapped on an island. I loved Shakespeare, but we never read a comedy. Nor did we read any Austen or Tolkien or Leroux or Byron. I also preferred my talking animals in Narnia rather than that farm. And don't get me started on Hawthorne. (I've had these feelings even before I found out how he felt about my kind of "trash" in Pierpont's New Yorker article this week. I have one word for you, Mr. Hawthorne: "Pfttt!") (That would be the phoenitic spelling of a raspberry, in case you weren't sure.)

I've been learning about the work of librarians this year, but I haven't experienced the role personally yet, so I only understand the Quality verses Demand debate in theory, not in practice. I'm sure it's very difficult, and I'll have a hard time making these choices in the future. But in a perfect world we'd promote the "quality" books that aren't circulating and never resort to making a decision on whether to ignore mass market "trash" in order to make room for non-moving "quality." And no one would be made fun of for carrying a book with a pirate on the cover. I've always considered quality as a book with good grammar (or at least not unpurposeful bad grammar, if that makes sense) and no mad ravings (though that'd knock out some of those "quality" books - I kid, I kid). I'm aware that there are more extremes, though, in this debate, but in general, I'd hate to say anything negative about a book that someone loves. Fortunately I only hid my books, but others may quit reading altogether, and that's what would be truly shameful.

Looking back at my pirate book, I'm well aware that it's never going to be a classic. The heroine is "too stupid to live," as the Smart Bitches would call Emerald. And I probably wouldn't enjoy it as much today as I did back then. But as I've run out of room in my own collection, and I've had to weed out my books several times over the years, this book still has a place on my shelf.

And I still love pirates, especially the one's that look like Johnny Depp. Reowr!


  1. Hey Rachel, this is Steph from undergrad - I know how you feel! I am reading a memoir about polygamy called In My Father's House and the cover is all froofy antiquey-looking with Olde English Fancy Script, and when I read it on the bus I flip it open really quick so no one thinks I'm reading crap Christian romance fiction. You are inspiring me to not hide the cover so fast. Crap Christian romance fiction has its place!

    And in my library program people always say - if kids are reading Harry Potter or Twilight - hey, that's reading. It's a start.

    Also - I was totally thinking about Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and then you linked to them! Excellent.

  2. Wow! GREAT stuff. I am so thrilled you have posted the Pirate and the Lady for the entire world to see on your blog. Yeah You!!

    I sense this debate is not settled for your personally. I encourage you to think about the role of public libraries in society and the role of bookstores. And from that you must compare the ideas inherent to information needs being met as a public good and as a commodity. Are public libraries and bookstores supposed to do exactly the same thing in a democratic and capitalistic society?