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The Challenging Selectman

A Kind Reader sent me this article about a challenge to fiction in a public library in Massachusetts. It’s kind of weird.

It started when the new library director went to ask the town selectmen for money to build a fire escape to make better use of some third floor space.

Instead of a nice discussion about whether people who can make it all the way up to the third floor should just be on their own in case of fire, the director got an earful about the library having any fiction books in the collection.

The Challenging Selectman, which would be a good title for a novel that he would never read, “questioned the amount of fiction in the library’s collection, and explained he is wary about spending taxpayer money on a luxury that is more about entertainment than education.”

That’s an understandable question that was decided in public libraries decades ago. Public libraries are about infotainment, not education.

He also claimed that DVDs and such are an “expanded use of the library” compared to the lending library begun by Benjamin Franklin.

I guess if you go back far enough for comparison, everything is an expansion of everything. Having books in libraries is an expansion of the Library of Alexandria, which had scrolls.

If you restrict the comparison to just the last few decades, having DVDs isn’t really an expansion. Libraries have been including A/V materials since at least the 1950s and possibly further back.

I don’t know how old this selectman is, but it’s very likely he has never lived in an era where public libraries didn’t provide A/V materials or where a majority of their collection wasn’t fiction.

So just from that perspective the challenge is strange. Instead of emphasizing education, he seems to be comparing the library to a past of more than a century ago.

He also argues that “when the town is nearing its borrowing limit and still has to pay for roads, bridges and an upgrade to the sewer plant, the library takes a back seat.” That’s a different issue, though. Is the problem too much fiction in the library, or just spending too much in general?

It might be the fiction, because it gets stranger. Apparently, his objection to fiction isn’t that it isn’t educational. Here, you’ll have to read his comments to make sure I’m not just making stuff up.

The selectman “said his home library has more than 4,000 books, many of which were purchased from libraries clearing their shelves of little-used titles. He doesn’t have much use for fiction, though. ‘Napoleon is always Napoleon, but in a fiction book the names are all different, so I can’t retain them,’ he said.”

The traditional objection to fiction in libraries, and by traditional I mean the one used a hundred years or so ago, is that fiction isn’t educational, and specifically that popular fiction is trashy and bad for the masses.

Fiction can definitely be educational, although popular fiction is often pretty bad by literary standards.

Regardless, that objection makes some sense. The Napoleonic attack on fiction makes no sense at all.

But in fiction are the names all different? How? Do they change or something? To test this theory, I went to my shelves to find some fiction I’ve read before. At random I pulled out Pride and Prejudice and Great Expectations.

Upon examination, I discovered that Elizabeth Bennet is still named Elizabeth Bennet. Miss Havisham is also still Miss Havisham. So far, so good.

But what about the trashy popular fiction? Maybe something’s going on there that I don’t know about. That was harder to research, because I don’t buy trashy popular fiction. That’s what I use public libraries for.

The best I could do was a copy of The Da Vinci Code that an overnight visitor once left. I read a bit. There was a character called Robert Langdon. I rang a friend to see if she had a copy of the book, and could she check something for me. Yes, Robert Langdon was in her copy as well. And Elizabeth Bennet was in her copy of Pride and Prejudice.

Great Expectations will have to await further research since she didn’t have a copy, but I’m pretty sure I’m right about this. The names in fiction aren’t all different. I mean, they’re different from Napoleon most of the time, but just as Napoleon is always Napoleon, Elizabeth Bennet is always Elizabeth Bennet.

I find that rather comforting.

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Comments

  1. SC Brouwer says:

    Perhaps the selectman has been reading Russian novels, to his deep and abiding shame. The 3 Karamazov brothers are called by some 20 names!

  2. Andrew says:

    The best thing about trashy popular fiction is that all the plots are the same even if some of the names change from book to book.

  3. Midwest SciTech Librarian says:

    Well since this Selectman loves Napoleion so much, perhaps the town of Uxbridge should follow historical precedent and banish him to the island of St. Helena.

    • Sarah K says:

      We could send him some reading material, too. Perhaps a copy of Victor Hugo’s discourse on the Battle of Waterloo, from Les Miserables? But maybe that’s cruel and unusual punishment…

  4. me says:

    ‘Napoleon is always Napoleon, but in a fiction book the names are all different, so I can’t retain them,’ he said.”

    Sounds like early onset Alzheimers to me.

  5. Matthew Wiliams says:

    That’s one of the weirdest arguments I’ve ever heard. And what is a selectman anyway? He doesn’t sound very select.

  6. The Librarian With No Name says:

    If it helps overcome the selectman’s oddly specific form of amnesia, we’ve got several fiction series that include Napoleon as a character. He could try Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, which includes both Napoleon and dragons, or Orson Scott Card’s Tales of Alvin Maker, which has Napoleon and magical Mormons. There’s also Becoming Josephine by Heather Webb, which has Napoleon and awkward sex.

    As for justifying the DVD collection, we have Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (bowling Napoleon!) and two separate versions of The Count of Monte Cristo (Napoleon plus several characters who just will not shut the hell up about Napoleon.)

    Hey, this is kind of fun! It sure beats the usual challenges to the same old books suggesting that homosexuals and Muslims are not actually the agents of Satan in America.

  7. Tammy says:

    The selectman (what an odd title) must not read non-fiction very extensively, either. When I read books about Greek history or literature or translations of Greek texts the authors provided introductions stating what convention he or she used for naming people and places. So, while Napolean may always be Napolean, Odysseus could very well be Ulysses (for some crazy reason).

    What a ridiculous (and easily countered) argument.

  8. Two comments. One, I find it weird that one of two “Related Stories” was “Boy dies from injuries in post-Christmas zip line accident in Easton.” Two, the guy wants to get rid of most fiction and emphasize factual books. Sounds like common core education ALA is supporting. Sounds like the library director is right up ALA’s alley.

    • me says:

      “Two, the guy wants to get rid of most fiction and emphasize factual books. Sounds like common core education ALA is supporting. Sounds like the library director is right up ALA’s alley.”

      Did you get confused by all the changing names? The selectman wants to get rid of the library’s fiction collection not the (female) library director. Reading comprehension ftw!

  9. Frumious Bandersnatch says:

    Maybe it’s simply the variety of different names that’s throwing him. In the interest of not confusing semi-literate small town politicians, I vote that henceforth all lead female characters in all fiction works be named “Jane”. All male leads will be named “John”. Please update any previously published novels accordingly.