by Hugh Gilmore
Everyone is invited to suggest books for our annual roundup of reader recommendations of books “Most Enjoyed” this year. Your “enjoyed” books can be, but do not have to be, published recently. In fact the older and more “rediscovered” the better. This is not a “best of” competition. It is an opportunity to share rediscoveries with fellow lovers of the printed word. Email me by Dec. 18. – HG.
If I could change the title of this column, I might like to call it “Procrastinated Reviews.” When I began writing for the Local six years ago, my editor told me he wanted cultural commentary, not reviews of recently released books. Okay, I thought, but that’s a shame. It would be good to help boost the careers of writers who are just getting started.
On the other hand, I wondered: How does a book that’s had its day ever find readers again? Perhaps, I thought, I could write about my rediscovery of some books that “had their day” and now linger only in libraries, the Internet, and used-book stores.
The lingering aspect always seemed to be something you could assume about books. The book trade has always trailed behind other businesses that sell durable goods. Bakeries, fish mongers, and flower sellers, for example, all know they can’t keep displaying merchandise that hasn’t sold.
In fashion, seasonal garments that haven’t sold are quickly removed from the floor and sent to wholesalers and thence to a variety of other places. Electronics are always superseded by newer models. Eventually the older models are destroyed and recycled. Eventually, some of them would reappear as museum items.
Not so, the case with books. Once a unique set of words and ideas assumed book form, the object seemed worth preserving. When their retail life ended, books would go to used book stores, or to libraries. Years would come and go, but millions of books would sit on shelves as ready for use as ever.
But shelves must be in cases, and cases within rooms, and rooms within buildings and buildings are set on land. And the books must be cleaned, and the shelves kept straight, and the rooms maintained, and the buildings kept warm or cool, and clean, and illuminated, and staffed, and the land must be taxed, or maintained by charging taxes to all those who dwell within its reach.
Eventually, certainly by the 1880s, the basic limitation on a book’s shelf life was lack of space. Most of the world’s libraries are overstuffed, but more books keep coming in. Millions more each year.
Some of the books obviously must be removed. But which ones? The easy answer is, Get rid of the ones that have had their day. The junky ones. But who, in a democracy, a taxed democracy, decides what is junk? Who is to say that someone who pays taxes does not have a right to have his/her taste reflected in the books acquired and housed in a public library? In the good old days librarians or library committees decided, but such decisions are made democratically now.
This fact was brought freshly to mind by a brief conversation I had with one of my favorite librarians last Friday afternoon. I won’t use her name this week because the subject we discussed is somewhat controversial. She told me that the Free Library of Philadelphia has been working on this overcrowding issue for years. Its latest solution comes in the form of a very sophisticated, very powerful software package.
“What does this program do?” I asked.
She said, “It identifies all library books that have not been checked out at least once by a patron within a certain period of time.”
“What happens then?” I said.
“They’re plucked from the shelves and put on the sale tables.”
“What’s the ‘period of time'”? I asked.
“It varies a little by genre, and there is some librarian discretion, but basically, it’s four years.”
“Gee,” I said, that’s not much.” I was thinking of all the times I received an old inter-library loan book that had an old fashioned pocket with checkout card and that it hadn’t been taken out since 1964, or 1943. I liked the special feeling that somehow I was linked through time with another person who’d wanted to read this author, or learn about this subject.
I said, “I’m disappointed. I kind of thought of libraries as repositories for learning. I’m always disappointed when I can’t find a classic book in the library.”
She said, “Well, Central Library still tries to play that role, but the branch libraries cannot, so we need a winnowing system.”
So that’s it, folks. If you write a book and it doesn’t get checked out of your branch library for four years, it will be removed and sold. If not sold, recycled. If there’s a favorite old book you like to revisit every now and then, you’ll have to make your get-togethers a bit more frequent or your old friend won’t be there when you stop by next time. Kind of like a Rest Home you revisit only when you’re in the neighborhood. Time flies. So do people and books.
More on “Rediscovery” next week.
If you enjoy Hugh Gilmore’s writing, Amazon.com offers five e-book-formatted titles of his work, two of which are also in paperback. Also available wherever good books are sold.