Can you have an Extreme Adventure in a library? Phyllis Rose casts herself into the wilds of an Upper East Side lending library in an effort to do just that. Hoping to explore the “real ground of literature,” she reads her way through a somewhat randomly chosen shelf of fiction, from LEQ to LES.
In The Shelf, Rose investigates the books on her shelf with exuberance, candor, and wit while pondering the many questions her experiment raises and measuring her discoveries against her own inner shelf—those texts that accompany us through life. “Fairly sure that no one in the history of the world has read exactly this series of novels,” she sustains a sense of excitement as she creates a refreshingly original and generous portrait of the literary enterprise.
Libraries: Making Space
Choosing books for a library like mine in New York is a fulltime job. The head of acquisitions at the Society Library, Steven McGuirl, reads Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, The London Times, and The New York Times to decide which fiction should be ordered. Fiction accounts for fully a quarter of the forty-eight hundred books the library acquires each year. There are standing orders for certain novelists—Martin Amis, Zadie Smith, Toni Morrison, for example. Some popular writers merit standing orders for more than one copy. But first novels and collections of stories present a problem. McGuirl and his two assistants try to guess what the members of the library will want to read. Of course, they respond to members’ requests. If a book is requested by three people, the staff orders it. There’s also a committee of members that meets monthly to recommend books for purchase. The committee checks on the librarians’ lists and suggests titles they’ve missed. The whole enterprise balances enthusiasm and skepticism. They want a full collection but don’t want to be saddled with books nobody reads.
Boosted by reviews, prizes, large sales, word of mouth, or personal recommendations, a novel may make its way onto the library shelf, but even then it is not guaranteed a chance of being read by future generations. Libraries are constantly getting rid of books they have acquired. They have to, or they would run out of space. The polite word for this is “deaccession,” the usual word, “weeding.” I asked a friend who works for a small public library how they choose books to get rid of. Is there a formula? Who makes the decision, a person or a committee? She told me that there was a formula based on the recommendations of the industry-standardCREW manual.
CREW stands for Continuous Review Evaluation and Weeding, and the manual uses “crew” as a transitive verb, so one can talk about a library’s “crewing” its collection. It means weeding but doesn’t sound so harsh. At the heart of the CREW method is a formula consisting of three factors—the number of years since the last copyright, the number of years since the book was last checked out, and a collection of six negative factors given the acronym MUSTIE, to help decide if a book has outlived its usefulness. M. Is it Misleading or inaccurate? Is its information, as so quickly happens with medical and legal texts or travel books, for example, outdated? U. Is it Ugly? Worn beyond repair? S. Has it been Superseded by a new edition or a better account of the subject? T. Is it Trivial, of no discernible literary or scientific merit? I. Is it Irrelevant to the needs and interests of the community the library serves? E. Can it be found Elsewhere, through interlibrary loan or on the Web? Obviously, not all the MUSTIE factors are relevant in evaluating fiction, notably Misleading and Superseded. Nor is the copyright date important. For nonfiction, the CREW formula might be 8/3/MUSTIE, which would mean “Consider a book for elimination if it is eight years since the copyright date and three years since it has been checked out and if one or more of the MUSTIE factors obtains.” But for fiction the formula is often X/2/MUSTIE, meaning the copyright date doesn’t matter, but consider a book for elimination if it hasn’t been checked out in two years and if it is TUIE—Trivial, Ugly, Irrelevant, or Elsewhere.
Obviously, the CREW formula is not in the same class as E = mc2. A lot of subjectivity is required to decide if a book is Trivial or Irrelevant, even if a book is irretrievably Ugly. And if Elsewhere includes the Internet, the formula raises the whole question of whether it’s worth keeping paper copies of older books in your local library, as almost all of them, if Google has its way, will be available online. The writer of the CREW manual emphasizes that the librarian’s judgment must be constantly engaged in making these decisions. The CREW formula is a guideline, she insists. “It is important to remember that guidelines are not intended to act as a substitute for professional judgment calls and common sense.” Discard works no longer in demand, she recommends, especially second and third copies of past bestsellers. “Retain works of durable demand and/or high literary merit.” It is not clear to me that the author of the CREW manual has any idea of how hard it is to determine “high literary merit” as opposed to “durable demand.” My friend said they had done a recent fiction “weed” in which all the books that met the CREW requirements were then reviewed by a librarian to see if the book had a local connection or local interest and also to make sure that such classics as one of Trollope’s Palliser novels wouldn’t be thrown away, even if no one had checked it out in two years. That’s fine for the Palliser novels, but what about, let us say, Rhoda Lerman? Etienne Leroux? Sigrid Undset, the Nobel Prize–winning novelist whose work my mother’s generation of women revered, who is now largely unknown? Or even Lawrence Durrell—whose Alexandria Quartet I once bought at a library book sale, being discarded from the collection?
Weeding, even in the garden, has become a remarkably controversial subject. There’s a powerful school of thought, more philosophical than botanical, going back to Emerson, that regards a weed as a misunderstood plant. Many people believe that all green life is holy and should not be inhibited. Weeding, to such people, is akin to eugenics and murder. Some people feel the same about books: no book should be removed from a library. They are all worth preserving. Thus, there is a tone of defensiveness whenever librarians discuss their weeding procedures. This is from the New York Society Library’s 2010 Annual Report:
Circulation count is never used as the sole criterion for deaccessioning a book. The Head of Acquisitions then reviews the list weighing a number of factors: other library holdings, books by the same author in the collection, price and availability via second-hand booksellers . . . age of the material, citation in bibliographies, book condition, whether subject coverage by other books in the collection renders the book in question obsolete or redundant, as well as other variables such as illustrators, binding, donor bookplates, and so forth. It is important to keep in mind that many books have research potential precisely because they are out of date and provide a window into the cultural attitudes of a previous time. It is an involved process, and it can take much longer to select a book for withdrawal than it can to select it for purchase.
The novelist Nicholson Baker is perhaps the most vocal critic of deaccessioning in libraries, first in 1996, in a much-discussed exposé of the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) published in The New Yorker, and then in a book called Double Fold. Concerned initially about the disappearance of card catalogs and the way that enthusiasm for information technologies was damaging the traditional culture of libraries, he sued the San Francisco Public Library for access to their old card catalog, which had been replaced by an electronic one as the library moved into a new building. What he discovered went far beyond the issue of paper versus electronic cataloging. He found that there were many books noted in the card catalog that no longer existed in the library. Between the time the SFPL left its old main building and the time it moved into its high-tech, built-for-the-future, and supposedly more roomy new one with its electronic card catalog, somewhere between a hundred thousand and a quarter of a million books were removed from the collection. This was weeding on a scale—and in a time frame—that suggested reckless destruction more than considered selection. Many books that existed in no other copies, many books arguably with historic value, had been simply thrown away and buried in landfill. Partly this had been done because the new library, while boasting great architectural flourishes and lots of architectural space, did not have enough shelf space. Partly it had been done because the current librarian had a view of what books belonged in the collection that differed from that of previous librarians. He saw the library as serving the general reader, as opposed to researchers and literary professionals, arguing that with the Berkeley and Stanford university libraries nearby, there was no lack of research libraries in the San Francisco Bay Area. He conceived of the SFPL rather as a library for a current urban population and therefore saw an opportunity to pare its collections radically.
A weed is something you don’t want growing in your garden—more formally, “a plant that interferes with management objectives for a given area of land at a given point in time.” Every garden represents someone’s “management objective,” and so does every library. The definition reflects the careful relativism and systems orientation of our time. Management objectives might change, and then the weed would be very welcome. But skeptics of library weeding, like Baker, are keenly aware of the difference between gardens and libraries: once you’ve weeded out a book, it isn’t going to grow back again.
Still, Baker may have ignored the extent to which a library must articulate and fulfill its own objectives. Viewing libraries as repositories, he overestimated their preservation function and underestimated their need to serve a specific community. I find myself sympathetic, if unequally, to both parties in this dispute, wholeheartedly to Baker’s book-loving bellows of rage at the destruction of precious objects but also to the librarian’s desire to create an institution that serves its community. That this battle about the form and function of libraries is not over was made clear when the New York Public Library’s announcement of new construction caused protests from people (like me) who fear sweeping changes to libraries.
The New York Society Library is in the fortunate position of not having to worry as much about weeding as many other libraries. They consider the forty-eight hundred books a year they acquire a magic number. If it were three or four times greater, they would have to weed their collection much more severely. As it is, they can concentrate on finding ways to make more space while keeping the collection—at any rate the fiction collection—fairly stable. Last year, McGuirl moved the collections of O. Henry prize stories and Best American Short Stories to closed storage in the basement while leaving the last few years’ volumes on the open stacks. That freed up a lot of room. Eliminating duplicate copies of books that were popular in the past but are no longer read much frees up more room. Inch by inch, space has to be found for the new. Regarding it as a collection with a special character—to record the reading tastes of New Yorkers over the years—the NYSL librarians are reluctant to deaccession unique copies of fiction.
Elsewhere, the process is more complex and potentially contentious—for example at a university library like mine, where professors are ready at every turn to watchdog and yelp. The Wesleyan University library is engaged in a three-year project to weed out sixty thousand volumes. They are out of space, and weeding on the small scale, as the Society Library does, only frees space that is immediately filled. To achieve the goal of weeding sixty thousand volumes, the library has undertaken to consider ninety thousand, or 6 percent of all the books in the library. Lists of books that meet the initial weeding criteria are available to students and faculty, members of which can champion any volume they care to. The scale of the operation is stupefying. I looked at the list for the Library of Congress category PR—English literature—and there were nine thousand entries. This means that nine thousand books, published before 1990, had been checked out only two times or less since 1996 and not at all since 2003. To my deep sadness, I recognized titles on the list. They were works of literary criticism that had been written by friends of mine when we were young and now were considered at the end of their useful life, just like their authors. Their removal from the library was like an actual death, a kind of death I had never imagined.
People who feel strongly about retaining books in libraries have a simple way to combat the removal of treasured volumes. Since every system of elimination is based, no matter what they say, on circulation counts, the number of years that have elapsed since a book was last checked out, or the number of times it has been checked out overall, if you feel strongly about a book, you should go to every library you have access to and check out the volume you care about. Take it home awhile. Read it or don’t. Keep it beside you as you read the same book on a Kindle, Nook, or iPad. Let it breathe the air of your home, and then take it back to the library, knowing you have fought the guerrilla war for physical books. This was the spirit in which I checked out the third book in Etienne Leroux’s Welgevonden trilogy with no intention of reading it.
So many factors affect a novel’s chances of surviving, to say nothing of its becoming one of the immortal works we call a classic: how a book is initially reviewed, whether it sells, whether people continue to read it, whether it is taught in schools, whether it is included in college curricula, what literary critics say about it later, how it responds to various political currents as time moves on.
We like to think that merit is eventually recognized, that a great book will make its way, but we know only the success stories. In Search of Lost Time was rejected by three publishing houses, one of the readers being no dummy, André Gide. The first volume was published by Grasset only when Proust himself agreed to pay the costs. Then, despite all the ha-ha’s about fifty pages on going to sleep, it was quickly recognized as a masterpiece. Gide wrote to Proust and apologized, saying that rejecting the manuscript had been the worst mistake of his professional life. James Joyce’s Ulysses was published marginally and then was reviled even by readers as discriminating as Virginia Woolf. Eventually an audience educated itself to appreciate the novel, embraced it, and fought for it. But you have to be a hard-core optimist to believe that that was inevitable. In another scenario, De Rerum Natura, lost for fifteen hundred years, was found and its merit recognized. But how many other works of antiquity were not found? How many works from past centuries never got published or, published, were never read?
If you want to see how slippery a judgment is “literary merit” and how unlikely quality is to be recognized at first glance, nothing is more fun—or more comforting to writers—than to read rejection letters or terrible reviews of books that have gone on to prove indispensable to the culture. This, for example, is how the New York Times reviewer greeted Lolita: “Lolita . . . is undeniably news in the world of books. Unfortunately, it is bad news. There are two equally serious reasons why it isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive.”
Negative reviews are fun to write and fun to read, but the world doesn’t need them, since the average work of literary fiction is, in Laura Miller’s words, “invisible to the average reader.” It appears and vanishes from the scene largely unnoticed and unremarked. “Even the novelists you may think of as ‘hyped’ are in fact relatively obscure,” writes Miller. “I’ve got a battalion of perfectly intelligent cousins who have never heard of either Jonathan Franzen or Dave Eggers . . . They’ve never read a book because it was praised as a work of genius on the front page of the New York Times Book Review.” Whether reviews are positive or negative, the attention they bring to a book is rarely sufficient, and it is becoming harder and harder for a novel to lift itself from obscurity. In the succinct and elegant words of James Gleick, “The merchandise of the information economy is not information; it is attention. These commodities have an inverse relationship. When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive.” These days, besides writing, novelists must help draw attention to what they write, tweeting, friending, blogging, and generating meta tags—unacknowledged legislators to Shelley, but now more like unpaid publicists.
On the Web, everyone can be a reviewer, and a consensus about a book can be established covering a range of readers potentially as different as Laura Miller’s cousins and the members of the French Academy. In this changed environment, professional reviewers may become obsolete, replaced by crowd wisdom. More than two centuries ago, Samuel Johnson invented the idea of crowd wisdom as applied to literature, calling it “the common reader.” “I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours.” Virginia Woolf agreed and titled her wonderful collection of essays on literature The Common Reader. Now the Common Reader exists slightly less notionally—the average of unsolicited responses on Amazon.
One of my pleasures this year has been getting to know the Common Reader. I go online, to see how the Common Reader has responded, for example, to God’s Ear, my favorite Rhoda Lerman novel, and find to my delight that it has a five-star rating on Amazon. But it has only two reviewers. One, “A Customer,” is so articulate and thorough that I suspect he or she is a friend of Rhoda’s. The other, however, seems wholly unbiased. A retired physician, she lives in Washington State and is looking forward to a new career as a novelist. She has already published one novel. She aspires to be as great as Bernard Malamud, Thomas Hardy, Stefan Zweig, and Proust. Meanwhile, she is active in her community, skis and hikes, reads “avidly,” and participates in a book club. She tends to like books with spiritual content or an adventure arc. Reviews of books alternate with reviews of shoes and muffin pans: “I hate to say it but this shoe is dreadful . . . I put them on and within moments there were painful pressure points on my feet. I took off the shoes and my feet had red marks where the pressure areas were literally ‘killing’ me . . . My feet felt as if they were encased in cement.” She is as faithful to describing the experience of reading a book as she is to the experience of putting on a shoe. Of Stefan Zweig’s Chess Story, she writes,
The descriptions are powerful and cause a visceral reaction that is astonishing. As I was reading, I started to note a racing pulse and sweating and a sense of uncontrollable foreboding. As the story raced to its conclusion, I had the urge to shout, “Halt! Don’t play again!” I wept when I set the book down. The tears were for Dr. B, all of the victims of the Nazi carnage and perhaps also a reaction to what came to pass, the suicide of the author. This gem of a small book explores and disturbs the human psyche like no other.
Twelve out of twelve people found this review helpful, so perhaps, like me, they went on to check out the reviewer’s other preferences. Bob’s Red Mill cereal muesli? Five stars! Aroma Land Massage and Body Oil? Five stars. Crest Glide dental floss? Five stars! She hated a book called One God Clapping by Alan Lew and gave it only one star, but she loved God’s Ear. “Her character portrayals are vivid; they leap off the page and demand your attention. They grab you with a stranglehold on your heart. No matter how she describes their deficiencies, you love them even more and relish each adventure not wanting the book to end. You learn that mitzvahs, good deeds, come in all sizes and shapes.” I would say that she’s exactly right, and I would follow her advice for dental floss, too.
The Common Reader, however, is not one person. It is a statistical average, the mean between this reader’s one star for One God Clapping and twenty other readers’ enthusiasm for this book, the autobiography of a “Zen rabbi,” producing a four-star rating. What the rating says to me is that if I were the kind of person who wanted to read the autobiography of a Zen rabbi, I’d be very likely to enjoy it. That Amazon reviewers are a self-selected group needs underlining. If you are like Laura Miller’s cousins who have never heard of Jonathan Franzen, you will be unlikely to read Freedom, and even less likely to review it. If you read everything that John Grisham has ever written, you will probably read his latest novel and might even report on it. If you read Lolita, it’s either because you’ve heard it’s one of the great novels of the twentieth century or because you’ve heard it’s a dirty book. Whatever brings you to it, you are likely to enjoy it. Four and a half stars.
The idea of the wisdom of crowds, popularized by James Surowiecki, dates to 1906, when the English statistician Francis Galton (Darwin’s cousin) focused on a contest at a county fair for guessing the weight of an ox. For sixpence, a person could buy a ticket, fill in his name, and guess the weight of the animal after butchering. The person whose guess was closest to the actual weight of the ox won a prize. Galton, having the kind of mind he did, played around with the numbers he gathered from this contest and discovered that the average of all the guesses was only one pound off from the actual weight of the ox, 1,198 pounds. If you’re looking for the Common Reader’s response to a novel, you can’t take any one review as truth but merely as a passionate assertion of one point of view, one person’s guess at the weight of the ox.
“I really enjoy reading this novel it makes you think about a sex offender’s mind. I’m also happy that I purchased this novel on Amazon because I was able to find it easily with a suitable price for me.”
“Vladimir has a way with words. The prose in this book is simply remarkable.”
“Overrated and pretentious. Overly flowery language encapsulating an uninteresting and overdone plot. Older man and pre-adolescent hypersexual woman—please let’s not exaggerate the originality of that concept, it has existed for millennia now. In fact, you’ll find similar stories in every chapter of the Bible.”
“Like many other folk I read Lolita when it first came out. I was a normally-sexed man and I found it excitingly erotic. Now, nearing 80, I still felt the erotic thrill but was more open to the beauty of Nabokov’s prose.”
“Presenting the story from Humbert’s self-serving viewpoint was Nabokov’s peculiarly brilliant means by which a straight, non-perverted reader is taken to secret places she/he might otherwise dare not go.”
“A man who was ‘hip’ while maintaining a bemused detachment from trendiness, what would he have made of shopping malls? Political correctness? Cable television? Alternative music? The Internet? . . . Or some of this decade’s greatest scandals, near-Nabokovian events in themselves, like Joey Buttafuoco, Lorena Bobbitt, O. J. Simpson, Bill and Monica? Wherever he is (Heaven, Hell, Nirvana, Anti-Terra), I would like to thank Nabokov for providing us with a compelling and unique model of how to read, write, and perceive life.”
What would the hip, bemused author of Lolita have made of Amazon ratings? I like to think that he would have reveled in them as evidence of the cheerful self- assurance, the lunatic democracy of his adopted culture.
“Once a populist gimmick, the reviews are vital to make sure a new product is not lost in the digital wilderness,” the Times reports. But when crowd wisdom becomes self-conscious, aware of its own power, it becomes subject to manipulation and no longer works. Amazon’s own gatekeepers have removed thousands of reviews from its site in an attempt to curb what has become widespread manipulation of its ratings. They eliminated some reviews by family members and people considered too biased to be entitled to an opinion, competing writers, for example. They did not, however, eliminate reviews by people who admit they have not read the book. “We do not require people to have experienced the product in order to review,” said an Amazon spokesman.
There’s an element akin to secondhand smoke in the world of literature—a general consensus about whether a book is good or not that develops apart from actual ingestion of the book, as in the case of the student who, asked by her professor if she had read Madame Bovary, replied, “Not me personally.” I would have said it was necessary to experience the product in order to rate it, but then I have to remind myself how much more Gaby Bordwin, the designer, got out of A Hero of Our Time not having read it than I did having read it three times.
PHYLLIS ROSE is the author of A Woman of Letters, a biography of Virginia Woolf that was a finalist for the 1979 National Book Award; Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages; Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time; The Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time; and two collections of essays. She divides her time between Key West and New York City.