“Librarians are the worst enemies of books there are.”
He smiles sardonically when he says this, an amiable old fart that the library keeps around to shelve books. With his fire-hose arms and gut like a sack of wheat, by law, his name must be Gus or Gord or Hank. It’s questionable that he grew up in a home with a television set or was born after North and South Korea declared war. And when he mutters this quip, he has a mordant half-smile that sets his white mustache diagonally on his face. He was responding to my own gibe- he lit up like a kerosene lamp when I noted that the library “seems none too fond of books”, thinking maybe he’d found a kindred spirit. In reality, I’m just tickled by amiable old farts who have long passed the time of keeping their opinions to themselves in fear of ‘professional repercussions’ and who will instead, at the slightest encouragement, let loose with a flood of invective, dirty jokes, phlegm and wisdom.
Clearly, there’s a tacit class division working at our local university library*, between the doctors of library science who have remade the first three floors, of six, in the image of a retirement home visiting area, and these grumbling proletarian repositories of the past who have no say in the running of the library, but who, if you ask them, still know what a library was. Hank compares the current incarnation to an “arcade” when I ask him what happened to the quiet reading areas and the shelves of books; he says the library science bourgeoisie have callously replaced “some really beautiful reading rooms” with “an arcade”. As of this semester, there are no books whatsoever on the first three floors and at least half of those on the upper three floors have been put in “storage”. Yesterday, I tried to read Henry Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare and found the only copy in the library was a two volume edition: Volume 1 is on the shelf and Volume 2 is in the “remote storage facility”, an air-conditioned nightmare of its own, no doubt- yet another filing cabinet of the soul. Gus probably has no use for Miller- a different flood of invective, dirty jokes and phlegm altogether- but I’m guessing he has an opinion on the bisection of the text as well as putting the majority of the librarium’s “holdings” in a concrete warehouse hundreds of kilometers away like they were radioactive fuel rods. The librarium wants to remain “cutting edge” as it steps unthinkingly into the new millennium- they envision the “physical location” as a “hub” linking up the patrons with each other and electronic media in a “web” of “connectivity”. The architectural ideal is the timeless, placeless plasticity of a mall. Book readers are asked to move quietly to the catacombs.
Maybe you reach old fartdom when you finally lose all patience for hype and bullshit. But, I was never exactly overjoyed listening to the happily chirping parvenus forever fighting to remain current and up-to-date, usually because they need fashions to do their thinking for them. I was never up-to-date, not even when I was young and full of unwitting energy, a bubbling beaker of sperm and confused thoughts; I always felt like I was sliding sideways from the main current of life in the society. I never felt anything warm or charitable for these nondescript utilitarian nowhere-places that are designed to slide as many anonymous people as possible through them like junk food slipping noiselessly through antiseptic guts. The current architectural ideal is a place that you can feel nothing about, not a flicker of affect that might interfere with your lifelong hallucination of yourself. Books- actual physical texts- go against all of this because they bear witness to the fact that there was a time other than now, people other than us- and history is precisely what we’re trying to escape. The specificity repulses us. I was always on the side of the jagged and unrepeatable and horribly specific.
But lately I feel like I have no idea where I am anymore, as if this is now the alien planet. How to even begin understanding a library that rids itself of books? How can places themselves seem covetous? Why does every new building look like a mall? Why does everything the culture produces now seem like an advertisement for something else? A true story: my wife freelances as a resident psychotherapist at various “health centres” in our area; the management of one such location is currently bewildered and annoyed by her ethical refusal to work advertisements for their spa packages into the advice she gives to clients during their sessions. How do these organizations survive when everything they say or do is dishonest? How much lying can a culture endure? And, please, remind me again about the “ethical neutrality” of capitalism.
Now, hear me out! When you feel nothing warm or charitable about the adulteration of your culture, this makes you a “conservative” or even a “reactionary”, at least in America (where every thought or feeling makes you either a liberal or a conservative). “Progressives” supposedly celebrate progress and see the cultural past in terms of racism, sexism, and superstition. Our first mistake is to identify technological progress with cultural progress, as if they were coterminous. Our second mistake is to consider culture not in terms of history or continuity, but only in terms of demography. Our third mistake is to call unthinking acceptance of the status quo (vis-à-vis the past) “liberalism”.
However (and this is the point of at least 50% of what I write here), there is no coherent reason that progressives should accept the adulteration and debasement of their culture in the name of progress. If environmental degradation and the loss of social mobility distress people on the left, then the growing cultural inequality– elevating culture for the few and mean-spirited pabulum for everyone else- should enrage liberals just as much as it does conservatives, and for the love of God, I hope cultural decline still upsets conservatives. And if you need some examples of political liberals who are cultural conservatives, look to the university; I have yet to meet an academic in the humanities who is not a cultural conservative, nor one who would admit it openly.
Or just look to the old-timers in your place of employment. I mean, Gus might be a churlish old tub of grievances, but at least he’s not a full-time compulsive liar like every other functionary of the mall. He’s right- they’re the enemies of books, and all other attempts at clear and enduring thought. But they’re in the majority.
Endnote: * Why not name the guilty parties? I’m not enrolled there, but lately have been making use of the library at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. The library has been radically overhauled in the last year. If the staff would like to hear my opinions on these overhauls, I can be reached courtesy of this site.