I have a love-hate relationship with libraries. They're a haven of quiet in an increasingly raucous world; an invitation and encouragement to readers of all stripes; a repository of information both useful and not. On the other hand, they're also a warehouse of literary tripe; a reward and incentive to writers of god-awful books; a reason for furthering the production of written works that should never, ever, see the light of day. Let's face it: any place that has 50 editions of The DaVinci Code and not one single copy of The Elegance of the Hedgehog really does not deserve our tax dollars.
Nevertheless, I go to the library at least once a week. The head librarian and I have a nodding acquaintance. She is a large lady who rules her domain with heavy-handed fairness and does not brook talking, cell phones, too-loud iPods, or laughter larger than a snigger. Occasionally, she look over my selection of books and nods, a high accolade. She has been at my library 18 years and wisely has no other ambitions.
I once asked her what she thought of most of the recently published works displayed on special tables right near the entrance. She looked around to see if anyone could overhear, then said in a hoarse whisper, "Vulgar."
And she's right, of course.
Last week I checked out five books, each by a 'New York Times Best Selling Author.' The titles were catchy--the trend for some time has been a geographical/historical name followed by a word like 'sanction,' or 'covenant,' or 'convention,' or 'pledge'--and promised exciting reading.
The first book I gave up on by page two. The hero, a black belt mountain-climbing martial artist archeologist who discovered Something of Frightening Importance was being chased by a Beautiful Woman With a Gun. "Why are you doing this?" our hero asked his pursuer. "Because I must," she pouted. Buh bye...
The next book has our hero--same general type as hero number one--kill a foreign spy and throw his body off an Austrian ski-lift, then rappel down a conveniently placed telephone tower and escape in an Expensive Hand-built Italian Sportscar.
In book three, a super-secret submarine sinks after having discovered Atlantis beneath the ice-cap. Can you guess where this tale will go?
Book five opens with: Matt Dingleberger thought he might use his gun, but used his fists instead. This is about as close as one can get to "It was a dark and stormy night" and remain reasonably comfortable.
I can admit to making poor reading choices. All these books were whodunits and I should know better. But the fact is, they were all bad books, all poorly written, all designed to give the reader strong visuals without accompanying thought, instant gratification as satisfying as instant replay. They were books that shouldn't have been published, or, if published, done so only for the writers' immediate families and friends. Instead, they had been picked by the library board because they were the favorites of lazy, indolent readers and critics fond of bad imagery.
Books--and reading--have always been about escapism, and we learn from them by default. What we really seek is a different world to which we can travel again and again. A good book takes us to places perhaps familiar, perhaps not. A bad book leaves us at the station. We read to remember and we read to forget.
There are far more bad books than there are good ones, and unfortunately it is true that you can't judge a book by its cover. Would that we could; there'd be fewer disappointments.
But then, sometimes you get a surprise. In the history section, I came upon a three volume set called The Cartoon History of the Universe. Conceived and written by cartoonist/mathematician Larry Gonick, the black-and-white drawings tell a long yarn of discovery, war, peace, nation-building, inventions, sex, and cruelty, all recounted with gentle clarity and borscht-belt humor. Every home should have this collection. It'll delight adults and familiarize younger readers with a past now only rarely taught.
These are, as Amos Alcott would say, "Good books which [are] opened with expectations and closed with profit."