Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Compulsive Reading

The public library, for better or worse, as a book delivery system.

Posted By on Wed, Jul 7, 2010 at 11:39 AM

"He walked on. The old limestone building was a library. That's OK, he thought. Librarians are nice people. They tell you things, if you ask them." — from One Shot, by Lee Child

Librarians are indeed nice people, and libraries are among my favorite places, but I wonder if libraries are history.

I eat lunch once a week with a friend who complains constantly about the small type in this newspaper but reads books on a handheld device that is not much larger than a cellphone. I'd rather read on the walls of caves, but my friend is the future, and I'm the Neanderthal.

Libraries managed to survive this round of city budget cuts earlier this year, but it's probably just a matter of time. The main library on Poplar is an architectural behemoth in the age of Kindle and the iPad. Branch libraries are often little-used and expensive to operate. They'll be back under the gun next year or the year after that.

This is a shame, because if you enjoy reading, then libraries are about the most bang for the buck of any public service. Memphis libraries do so many things right and are putting up a good fight. Their public computers are great equalizers. Both the main library and branch libraries are stocking more copies of more new books and making them easier to browse and check out.

My mother was a librarian who used to bring home a half-dozen books and leave them on the coffee table, figuring I would read one or two of them eventually. It became a habit. I rake four or five books a week off the shelves of new releases at the downtown library. It could not be easier. Two librarians, no waiting. Me and the homeless guys. Ten minutes, and I'm out of there. Typically, I read two of them, browse one, never open the fourth, return them late, pay a few bucks in fines, and repeat.

There are disadvantages to letting someone else select your book menu. Some popular writers are so good that if I pick up one of their books and take it on a road trip, I won't read anything else. When there are so many good books, why are there so many bad movies? Why reinvent James Bond and Jason Bourne when Lee Child's Jack Reacher, Loren Estleman's Amos Walker, and Nelson DeMille's John Corey deserve some screen time?

I probably know more than anyone needs to know about the marriage problems of John and Elizabeth Edwards, thanks to Game Change and The Politician. And about South Carolina governor Mark Sanford and his wife Jenny (beautiful and principled but flat-chested and spurned for a South American cutie) thanks to Staying True. And about Elizabeth Gilbert and Felipe thanks to Committed. But reading about other people's screw-ups makes you feel better about your own.

And reading about self-improvement is easier than actually doing something about it. I devoured Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, Drive by Daniel Pink, and The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande but remain a forgetful slacker. Fortunately, there's a book for that, too — try My Footprint by compulsive eater Jeff Garlin, who plays Larry David's manager on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Why do we read what we read? For one thing, because it's available. In reading as in retailing, shelf space matters. The beauty of the new-releases section is convenience and variety. Like a traveler, you get out of your ruts and meet people you wouldn't meet otherwise.

Sloane Crosley (How Did You Get This Number) is young and funny. Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers) shows how people who do things out of the ordinary are not like the rest of us. Christopher Hitchens (Hitch-22) is interesting whether he's writing about God or himself. Andre Agassi (Open) is several cuts above the average ex-jock as an author. Sebastian Junger (War) brings home the war in Afghanistan.

Would I have read these if I had had to prowl the library stacks with a copy of The New York Times Book Review in my hand? Maybe, but I doubt it. The Dewey Decimal System is a mystery. If something is on the upper floors of the main library, just ask one of the librarians to help you find it. They're nice people, and they tell you things if you ask them.

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