Watch out, world: we’ve got ourselves a 90-year-old hot take!
In the June 1928 issue of The American Mercury, a periodical edited by the famous journalist H.L. Mencken, there’s an article by Fletcher Pratt called “A Glance At The Public Libraries”. I stumbled upon the issue while processing material at the Frances Willard House Museum. It was there because of the article about Willard in the same issue, but the library article was what first caught my eye.
Pratt, a writer of science fiction and history, worked at Buffalo Public Library for a time and used that experience to write this sardonic, dismissive, sexist contrarian take on the public libraries of that time.
Why read it at all? First, as a historical artifact, it provides valuable context from a different era. Second, even though it’s almost 100 years old and, to modern minds, retrograde in its view of library workers and their work, I think it’s important to read contrarian perspectives on issues close to one’s heart and mind. Librarianship is my career and one I love, but that doesn’t mean I should ignore criticisms of it.
It’s also just plain funny, in a tongue-in-cheek, insult comic kind of way. Pratt goes Don Rickles on the profession in a way only someone familiar with it could pull off.
So let’s consider what Fletcher Pratt tells us about how public libraries have changed since 1928 and in what ways they remain the same, if at all. I recommend reading the whole thing to get the full experience. But let’s take a look at some of my favorite parts:
Every public library in the United States now places restrictions on the use of fiction.
Librarians, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore. Restricting fiction seems laughable now, given how popular and dominant it is in the book and library worlds.
American librarians, in fact, have become obsessed with the idea that the national literature will go to the dogs unless they persuade their customers to read something beside fiction. Indignant papers in the library journals and long discussions at librarians meetings are given over to the great question of how to keep the public from reading what it likes and how to induce it to read the moldering stacks of books it doesn’t care about.
That’s what I mean about funny.
Three classes of books—travel, biography and history—are held in orthodox library circles to be the best antidote to this depraved fondness for works of the imagination. To these the best shelves are given, for them the special bulletins are printed, and on them the lady attendant spends the best efforts of her cajolery to make her percentage of nonfiction circulation high.
A favorite device for increasing circulation painlessly is to require every reader who uses a reference book to fill out a slip for it.… Another potent scheme is to take books into the schools; a third is to offer vacation libraries of twenty-five or fifty books for the summer. Are they read? Who cares? It makes circulation, and circulation, in the librarian’s mind, is the summum bonum.
Here is where things get a little more familiar to us moderns. Circulation remains the summum bonum of the profession, however much local value and subject matter still factor into collection development. If a book doesn’t circulate, it won’t last long in a space-limited library.
Nothing is more curious to the outside observer than the typical librarians’ preoccupation with the infinitely little. Recently, for example, an angry controversy raged through the library world as to whether Radio or Wireless should be the heading under which books on the subject were classified. … In the library where the writer once worked hours of discussion at a staff meeting were given over to the absorbing question as to whether it was better to hold a book in the left hand and insert the charge slip with the right, or vice versa.
Book in left, charge slip in right. Wanna fight about it?
This tireless energy over trivialities argues that small minds are at work, and sure enough, there is a certain lack of intelligence among librarians. The reason is not far to see; intelligence follows the cornucopia, and library work is probably the worst paid of all intellectual vocations.
In our defense, tedious discussions about trivialities are hardly exclusive to libraries. But if you’re mad about Pratt asserting a lack of intelligence among librarians, you’re definitely not gonna like his reasoning:
Since girls first discovered that it could furnish them with pin-money while they waited for someone to love them, library work has been a prime favorite with the female of the species. It involves little labor, and that of a highly genteel character; it demands no great mental ability and it places the husband-hunter who enters it on public exhibition, where she can look over and be looked over by all the nubile males of the district under the most refined auspices.
I’m gonna go out on a limb and suggest Pratt would not have fared well in the #MeToo era. Next he tackles library school:
In no case does the course extend beyond two years, and the pedagogues have had to drag in such subjects as the History and Philosophy of Printing to make it last that long. Before the schools got under way the libraries trained rather better staffs than they have now on a month’s lectures with practical experience. The truth is that there is very little to teach; any literate person can learn all there is to a library system in a few weeks. Consequently the library schools have to drill their future B.S.’s and M.A.’s in the beautifully vague principles of “library economy,” and to impress them with the importance of such details as inserting the charging slip with the right hand, or lettering the title on a thin book in the proper direction.
I’ll save the discussion about the pros and cons of library school for another post. But “beautifully vague principles” mixed with arcane details is pretty spot-on—and why I love libraries so much. He then tips his cap to Andrew Carnegie, patron saint of library buildings:
There are never enough branches to go round, but the head librarians, pushed from below by their staffs and from above by aldermen anxious for pork, do their best, and so new branches are added apace. The fund established by the obliging Mr. Carnegie makes it easy; all the city has to do is furnish the books; the Carnegie fund will put up the imitation Greek temple and even the funerary vegetation around it.
Finally, Pratt touts the Newark library as the “highest peak” of effectiveness, unlike that of its neighbor:
Right across the Hudson is the great New York Public, in any one of whose vaulted corridors Newark’s whole collection would be lost. The contrast of striking. In the New Jersey institution one watchman is at the door and a whole corps of eager assistants stand ready to help the visitor; in the marble monument to the Astors one may count a dozen policemen in neat horizon blue idling about to enforce the library rules, while one poor boy struggles vainly with requests for information.
A stately British bookseller and an American writer exchange letters across the pond? Sounds like a cozy English romance novel to me. Turns out 84, Charing Cross Road is neither a novel nor a romance, but a collection of actual letters from over 20 years of correspondence, and it’s delightful.
Frank Doel, one of the booksellers at the rare book store at the titular address in London, is the straight man in this epistolary relationship. This allows Helene Hanff, a Brooklyn screenwriter and lover of British literature, to sparkle with personality. You get a pretty good sense of what Hanff was like right away. It doesn’t take long for her to playfully badger Doel, a man she’d never met, about a book she requested:
Frank Doel, what are you DOING over there, you are not doing ANYthing, you are just sitting AROUND. .. Well, don’t just sit there! Go find it! i swear i dont know how that shop keeps going.
what do you do with yourself all day, sit in the back of the store and read? why don’t you try selling a book to somebody?
— MISS Hanff to you. (I’m helene only to my FRIENDS)
Their letters also place them in the specific historical moment of postwar England where rationing made basics like meat and jam luxuries:
I send you greetings from America—faithless friend that she is, pouring millions into rebuilding Japan and Germany while letting England starve. Some day, God willing, I’ll get over there and apologize personally for my country’s sins (and by the time i come home my country will certainly have to apologize for mine).
She’s also clearly a bibliophile. When the bookstore employees send her a book and a note with their signatures as a Christmas gift, she admonishes them for writing the note on a separate card rather than in the book itself:
I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages some one long gone has called my attention to.
And yet, she’s not precious about them:
My friends are peculiar about books. They read all the best sellers, they get through them as fast as possible, I think they skip a lot. And they NEVER read anything a second time so they don’t remember a word of it a year later. But they are profoundly shocked to see me drop a book in the wastebasket or give it away. The way they look at it, you buy a book, you read it, you put it on the shelf, you never open it again for the rest of your life but YOU DON’T THROW IT OUT! NOT IF IT HAS A HARD COVER ON IT! Why not? I personally can’t think of anything less sacrosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book.
I watched the 1987 movie version right after reading the book. It includes pretty much every word from the original letters, so reading the book will give you all you need. Then again, you’d miss out on somesolid typewriter action, as seen above and here, with Hanff played by Anne Bancroft:
Anthony Hopkins, who plays Frank Doel, also gets in on the action with his Underwood:
Alyssa Vincent (Twitter, Tumblr) and I go way back to our college days, where we were fellow English majors and worked as co-editors-in-chief of our school newspaper. When we were emailing about her contributing to the second issue of the Simba Life Quarterly, I made an allusion to The Fault In Our Stars, which elicited a strongly worded retort very much in the negative about the John Green mega-best-selling book. Intrigued, I suggested we hash it out over Google Chat. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our (slightly obscene) conversation, which powered through a few bouts of spotty WiFi to touch on the effects and implications of the TFIOS phenomenon.
Alyssa: No. He is not. It’s impossible for a boy to be a manic pixie, because a manic pixie fulfills someone else’s destiny, or helps them achieve it. Gus could be a manic pixie dream boy for himself, but I don’t know if that could actually work. I already sound like a kooky feminist (HUZZAH), but in literature, male characters are rarely going to help female characters get along. Unless it’s Peeta in Hunger Games.
Chad: But isn’t that what happened? Poor (Understandably) Sad Hazel has her spirits lifted by goofy, positive cute boy who helps her discover the meaning of life.
Alyssa: But her spirits aren’t lifted! HE DIES. OK, they’re temporarily lifted, but a manic pixie never leaves their mark unhappy. She may be ~**happy**~ because she has felt love, but she’s immediately sad because it’s been taken from her. (Quick note: have you read the book or seen the movie? I’ve done the book but not the movie.)
Chad: I’ve consumed both. I realized after watching it, though, that in the future I think I’ll pass on reading books before seeing the movie if I can help it. Since I knew what was coming, it was hard to fully engage with the film and let it be what it wanted to be. As librarians we know that the book is always better than the movie, so I think both should get their fair shake. I’m curious as to what triggered your very visceral, expletive-laden reaction to it.
Alyssa: PEOPLE THINK HE IS ROMANTIC BUT HE IS JUST SAYING ROMANTIC SHIT AT HER RATHER THAN ENGAGING WITH HER. That is not love. Love is not saying someone’s full name and pushing yourself on her even though it’s pretty clear she doesn’t want a relationship. But fuck her boundaries! She wants love, she JUST DOESN’T KNOW IT. And EVEN WHEN HE DIES, he’s basically just like “Ugh, my life meant nothing because all I did was nothing.” All while Hazel’s like “My life meant everything because of you!” CLASSIC.
Chad: I think this book/movie suffered from the Twilight Syndrome: a plain, depressed girl with low self-esteem and a charisma vacuum has a shallow yet (to her) powerful encounter with a supposedly charming, good-looking dude who notices her. While Hazel’s transition to True Love took a bit longer than Bella’s, it seemed like an equally low bar that she needed to hit.
Alyssa: Exactly. And thank you for saying “supposedly” charming. Because that’s exactly what he is. He’s well-read—good for him! I’m not about to be like “OMG WHAT HIGH SCHOOLER EVEN SAYS THE SHIT HE DOES,” but what bothered me was her complete lack of engagement with it. She smiles, and that’s great, but we’re treated to such a clever girl who’s basically downgraded to fun retorts every so often in Gus’ wake.
Chad: Which causes me to wonder whether this is another example of adolescent girl wish-fulfillment in disguise of a putative love story. They’re high schoolers! Like Romeo and Juliet, if they had survived I’m guessing they wouldn’t have lasted long.
Alyssa: Ooooo, good call. I guess on a bigger level that’s what worries me about these books. Not like books are the only way for kids to learn things, but how are girls supposed to have real relationships when they’re presented with this shit?
Chad: And your quibble about Gus’s charm and eloquence is on point, though perhaps directed at the wrong target. From the little young adult literature I’ve read, teens who talk way more eloquently than in real life seems to be the status quo.
Alyssa: I think it was exacerbated in this book. I’ve read a bit of YA, and while the kids are clever, they’re never this blasé about it. And we can’t chalk that all up to “Well, he had CANCER so he’s so mature.”
Chad: While he did seem to be a better-than-life character, I recognized his type as the goofy, likable guy in high school that everyone pretty much liked, including the teachers. As was the case with Sutter in The Spectacular Now, I was glad to see an un-Edward-like male character.
Alyssa: Really? I have to see TSN, but I feel like Gus would look down his nose at Sutter. But that’s neither here nor there, since I can’t back that up with actual facts. Yes, it’s awesome to see a diversity (at least in personality) of male characters as they relate to women. And I will applaud John Green on the book-realistic sex scene. I think that if you really love the person you first have sex with, that’s basically how it goes down.
Chad: Clearly I’m not the target audience for this property, but I’m baffled by its mega-success. Perhaps John Green’s deep cult following helped elevate it. It hit a nerve somewhere for the legions of tween and teen girls who eat this stuff up. What’s the appeal in this book specifically?
Alyssa: I’m wondering the same thing. I picked the book up because it came out right near the tail end of my MLS schoolin’, and all the YA librarians were LOSING THEIR SHIT OVER IT. I think the appeal might lie in the fact that he’s a funny, nice, super-cute guy who is into a “plain” girl who’s very smart. And if there’s something that plain tweens comfort themselves with, it’s a) that they’re smarter than the pretty girls, and b) that a boy will finally notice them for that before college. That sounds so mean, but I would also sign that comment with “xoxo, a plain former middle-schooler.” Really, I think it’s the idea of a boy wanting to talk to you about what you’re interested in. For all the shit I give Gus, he read a book that was very important to her. For girls of all ages, that is total catnip.
Chad: How would Middle School Alyssa have reacted to it?
Alyssa: I WOULD HAVE LOVED IT. Honestly, I really think I would have. I’m a little cynical to his comments now, but I think I would have told my stuffed animals “See! He’s out there! There’s a funny, nice boy who likes reading as much as I do who’s going to love me forever!”
Chad: Naturally I see things from the male perspective, and as a young lad I think I would have seen Gus as a cool, nice, fun guy who got the girl because he was himself and actively sought her. Big difference from the angsty bad-boy types who were terrible role models yet still got the hot babes. Sure, he was pretty driven in his quest, but what did Hazel lose from being with him? (Aside from him.)
Alyssa: I don’t disagree with you. It is great to see two people who are honestly being themselves come together. That’s hard enough to have happen in real life. I guess I just feel for Hazel because Gus needed to be the star. Hazel is the type of person that would happily hold the spotlight, but I guess I wish she wasn’t? That she somehow also wanted to be the star? But then that’s total projection, and not fair to the story.
Chad: I also saw a bit of myself in Hazel. For a long time I tended to be a “no” person, preferring to do more solitary things and enjoy being introverted. But it was, of all things, watching the Jim Carrey movie Yes Man that helped to jumpstart me out of that. He was the same way: always saying no to things out of fear, worry, or boredom. But that leads to a small, lonely life. Though it was the Queen of the Manic Pixie Dream Girls herself, Zooey Deschanel, who helped pull him out of his existential funk, I sympathized with his, and likewise Hazel’s, journey from a sedentary, insular person to someone who would do crazy things like go to Amsterdam.
Alyssa: I think I just can’t get over their supposed “banter.” I’m not against a driven dude, but I guess I viewed early-book Gus the same way I view a cocky guy at a bar. Like, Cool it, dude. I know I’m hot and funny. Maybe give me a chance to know you before you launch into another soliloquy?
Chad: I struggled with the banter too. Again, that seems endemic to YA. I really struggled with Eleanor & Park for that reason. (I also struggled with Eleanor’s very tortured inner monologue, yet TFIOS was a much easier read for me despite still having a female protagonist.)
Alyssa: Another one I have to pick up. And I applaud that reading of it—that who cares if he’s a little grandiose—she came out of her shell and she’s better for letting her life be touched by someone. I guess I just wish the genre could fast forward to a time where we see a teen girl opened up by something other than a boy. Why can’t it be a movie? Or a book? For a few moments, I thought the book that meant so much to her would… do more? Be more? But it just ends up being a device in her relationship. I’m not trying to be like “down with people!”, but I do think it’s super dangerous to have girls think that the only way their worlds can be shaken (in a good way) is by romantic love. It’s not the only thing. That’s something I tell myself a lot, because I met Kurt (fairly) young, and it changed so many things in my life that I find myself trying to remember the other ways in which life changes. And I think more girls need to know those ways.
Chad: Clearly as a culture we’re still trying to shake off the Disney pixie dust that has clogged romantic storytelling for decades. But like glitter, that stuff does not come out easily. I thought having the book being central to her identity was a great step forward. Who was the last young female protagonist for whom that was the case? Belle loved reading, but it’s not like the Beast helped her reenact scenes from Shakespeare. Hazel had a very keen interest, Gus (sincerely) took effort to share in it, and they were both better for it, despite being grenades.
Alyssa: OH MY GOD CAN WE STOP WITH THE GRENADES.
Chad: It’s a metaphor. Get it?
Alyssa: UGH YES. You do not have exploding cancer. I appreciate that that was probably the most teenager-y thing either of them thought, but still. I definitely agree that it’s important that a book played a central role in her identity! It’s great! But it’s not enough.
Chad: You don’t think people with terminal illnesses worry about their effect on their loved ones?
Alyssa: Honestly, I don’t know how younger people with terminal illnesses react. I’m not saying that they don’t worry about their effect, but I don’t think it becomes their whole lives. Now, do I think Hazel has a personality that lends itself more to that more solitary “I’m gonna hurt everyone so I should keep to myself” assumption? Yes. But I don’t think that’s true of all people.
Chad: I do hope more female-driven, non-romantic stories get made in every medium. Frozen had the romantic element, but at least the sister dynamic was front and center. (A conversation for another day, to be sure.) TFIOS didn’t break through as far as you would have liked, but to me it went a little farther than you give it credit for. Though maybe a little far at the Anne Frank museum.
Alyssa: RIGHT OH MY GOD. Though again, I thought that that might be something teens would do. I sound so old. I’ll admit that this conversation has me seeing it a little more fairly, but my first (and likely only) read just had me sort of thinking “Um, I can’t take this smooth of a talker-atter seriously.” And I probably should have, but it’s just a tic I have. Boys: STOP TALKING AT GIRLS.
Chad: I’m with you there. I’m suspicious of anyone who talks that much with that much eloquent banter, let alone a high school athlete who loves violent books. I knew those types of guys. Some of those guys were friends of mine. Gus, you’re not one of those guys.
Alyssa: Exactly. So that’s where the book lost me from start to finish.
Chad: I had to keep saying to myself that “This movie is not for me.” This shouldn’t excuse the filmmakers and John Green from making something excellent, but there’s a difference, from goal and execution, between TFIOS and 12 Years A Slave. Same with the book too. The recent “Should adults read YA?” debate brought all this out onto the Internet. Should we hold YA to a different standard?
Alyssa: I had such a hard time with that article. Because the core of her argument is ridiculous: just like 13-year-olds probably won’t get a lot out of Anna Karenina (though they could technically read it), adults may not get a lot out of 13 Reasons Why. I don’t know if it’s about a different standard. I mean, I think it’s more about why you’re reading a book. More often than not, I’m reading a book to be a) challenged or b) entertained, or c) both. As long as a book does that, it’s been worth my time. But I do understand that people have much more developed standards than me. In terms of 12 Years A Slave and Anna Karenina, I worry that those types of works get credit immediately because they’re about difficult subject matter. Do they really deserve credit? Or are people just nervous about “not getting it”?
Chad: Yeah, there’s plenty of material for adults that just sucks.
Alyssa: I think that’s why adults reading YA is such an easy target—like, how could “kids books” teach you ANYTHING or be good at all unless you’re simple?
Chad: Whatever I’m reading, I want to learn from it. I’ve also concluded that I’ll read for myself, because I want to. Reading TFIOS allowed me to learn what young people (pass my false teeth, grandma) want to read. Even if it sucks, it tells us something about them. My response to the article was that adults should definitely read YA, the good stuff at least, but that they shouldn’t stay in it. There are SO MANY BOOKS out there, especially for adults. Expand your horizon!
Alyssa: No, absolutely. I find it weird when people are like “Well, I only read mysteries/YA/chick lit/ETC.” Um, really?
Chad: I felt compelled to read Eleanor & Park and TFIOS because they were high in the zeitgeist and I wanted to challenge myself to read something other than history or nonfiction. But I don’t see myself going down that road. They are also easy reads, so after a hefty history tome they are welcome palette cleaners.
Alyssa: I dip my toes into YA every so often, but I feel like I need something more to chew on. That makes me sound like the insufferable Slate writer, but I didn’t really read YA when I was a young adult, so it makes sense to me that I wouldn’t be drawn to it now.
Chad: Which is why I’m generally OK with TFIOS selling a bajillion copies. If young’uns or even adults read it, who knows where it could lead them?
Alyssa: Exactly! And like you said, the characters are better than what’s been going on in the past, so at least it’s forward motion.