Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Pearl's Wisdom

I thought I was going to be betrayed by Nancy Pearl, archetypal librarian.

And the woman who delighted the world that shushing "action" figure should never betray us mere mortal librarians. (By the way, that figure seems to be available in both a regular and a "deluxe" version, and I think the latter is life-sized.) I read about her in the Yakima Herald Republic Online. Here's the beginning of the article:

"Nancy Pearl is tough on books. She guesses she finishes one for every 10 she starts.

'I really demand a lot,' the retired Seattle librarian says, 'sometimes, I think, too much. But I don't want to waste time on a bad book.'

She demands a lot? She doesn't want to waste time on a "bad" book? What in the heck could that possibly mean?

I was a little disoriented at first. Here's a librarian who dares to make a value judgment about a book? Isn't she supposed to put scare quotes around that judgment? You know, a "good" book or a "bad" book, or perhaps a "controversial" book or a so-called "inappropriate" book.

We all know that these days librarians are supposed to be information relativists, and we've long since given up the traditional role of librarians as cultural gatekeepers of any kind. Whatever is popular, we'll buy. Whatever people want, no matter how trashy or ridiculous, we try to put on the shelves. We're all things to all people. Nothing's good, nothing's bad. Everything is equal, because it's all "information." Jane Austen, porn magazines, snuff films, that children's scrotum book - it's all just constitutionally protected information that your library should buy for you. (Okay, so snuff films probably aren't constitutionally protected. You'll have to buy "virtual" snuff films and maybe call them video games.)

And if everything is equally good or bad, then it doesn't make sense to talk about good or bad anymore. There are no good books or bad books. There are just books.

And now Pearl comes along with this values talk. She starts talking about "good" books and "bad" books. I was thinking to myself, is this woman crazy? Won't they kick her out of the ALA for talking like this? She's almost on the verge of making sense, and that's anathema to the information relativists at the ALA. She's almost using the words good and bad as if they had any real meaning.

Fortunately for Pearl, she is safe from being dismissed from the ALA for making any sense. To ease your mind, read on:

'A bad book,' she explains, 'is any book you don't like. A good book is any book you like.'"

That gibberish was such a relief. Because since a good book is just a book you like, and a bad book is just one you don't, we're back in the domain of utter nonsense, the natural home of the ALA-indoctrinated librarian. We're back in the cozy, inane place where good and bad have absolutely no meaning whatsoever, where there can possibly be no standards of literary or moral judgment, especially about something as trivial as a mere book. Ah, what a relief.


Anonymous said...

I don't know about good or bad, but I personally follow the rule of 50. If I'm under 50 (and I am), I give a book 50 pages to capture my attention [20 if it's short]. When I'm over 50, I read (100-my age) pages, because I'll have less time. There's no point in reading a, dare I say it, bad book when there are so many good books in the world.

Anonymous said...

It was also found that the stupider Librarians, were unable to learn the TwoPointopian Commandments by heart. After much thought Humorless Unionator declared that the Commandments could in effect be reduced to a single maxim, namely: ‘some books good, some books bad. This, she said, contained the essential principle of Librarianism. Whoever had thoroughly grasped it would be safe from other influences.
When they had once got it by heart the sheeple developed a great liking for this maxim, and often as they lay in the field they would all start bleating ‘some books good, some books bad!’ and keep it up for hours on end, never growing tired of it.

--Taupey, with apologies to Orwell

Bunny Watson said...

Taupey, your cultural reference is much better than the pop culture one that came to my mind upon reading this:
There are no good books or bad books. There are just books. I could just hear Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday coughing this sentence out to Wyatt Earp at the end of Tombstone.

Saisquoi said...

This reminds me of a discussion I had last weekend regarding the difference between "academic freedom" and bad taste. Unfortunately, we have a Dean who doesn't seem to distinguish between the two. Or, perhaps, it's not bad taste if a faculty member likes it.


Anonymous said...

Sure, her use of the words "good" and "bad" have tremendous meaning... to her as a reader. I didn't think her comments were aimed at librarians doing collection development, but to readers. There's a big difference.

Anonymous said...

You don't think you are taking things a little to seriously?

Not everything takes place on the political battlefield of librarian porn merchants and aggrieved moralists.

Some times it's just library work.

Remember: a rant that's not funny or on-point is just a wank.

Anonymous said...

Bunny--Literary allusions are easy if you read the "right" books. Let's do a poll on your sylvan campus and ask people to identify quotes from "Animal Farm" vs. some from Derrida or Marx even. And these are supposed ot the the edumacated kids. They know not to start sentences with "And." One hopes.


Anonymous said...

I've often thought a good fund raising activity would be a book burning of books that had no redeeming value, BYOM. (Bring our own marshmallows)

Sadly, the Information Freedom Awareness League thought poorly of my plan, as did the Fire Marshal.

Brent said...

Good books have moving pictures.

Kevin Musgrove said...

Good books have free and gratis six-month holidays in Provence for the purchasing librarian.

faithless minion said...

I wish I could take little things to Seriously, but I can't find it on Google Earth...
"Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow..." (Bob Dylan)
thanks for nothing, Nancy!

Anonymous said...

Oscar Wilde, anyone?

Anonymous said...

Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray - Wilde's tongue-in-cheek argument against good & bad:

The artist is the creator of beautiful things.
To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.
The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.
The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.
Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.
They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
The nineteenth-century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.
The nineteenth-century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.
The moral life of man forms part of the subject matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium.
No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be be proved.
No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.
No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything.
Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art.
Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art.
From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor’s craft is the type.
All art is at once surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.
When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.
We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
All art is quite useless.

Anonymous said...

Since people seem to be taking issue with the lack of value-judgments in the world, I'm sort of curious what people's criteria for "good" and "bad" actually are.

There are materials for which obvious cases can be made about cultural/historical/artistic significance. Beyond that, aren't we all kind of trapped in a vast chasm of overlapping personal tastes, with which we have to make some kind of peace and, usually, compromise? After all, the history of literature has been filled with debates on aesthetics that have never been resolved, and never will, as long as there are differences in personal taste.

I mean, I read the snootiest literature of anyone I know. When I stray into the 19th century novel, my friends tease me for reading popular trash. Deep down, I think everybody ought to be reading Bede and Samuel Richardson for fun, the way I do. Sadly, that is never going happen in this world, and I doubt most people on this list would think my high-falutin' standards ought to decide what's available for them to read in their libraries.

So what's the basis for these value judgments, and what happens if everyone disagrees?