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While I share Mr. Mehan’s dismay with libraries resorting to removal of timeless works of literature in an effort to save money and provide space for what their patrons say they want, I have to wonder whether the emphasis of his article is on the wrong problem. Nothing in his piece would indicate that librarians in Fairfax County or anywhere else have conspired with one another to purge every vestige of great literature from library shelves. Mr. Mehan did not uncover any plot keep Americans unrefined and uneducated. It seems to me that the people using the libraries made that decision for themselves by preferring the banal to the profound.
Like others in our mostly shallow and superficial world, those who frequent libraries obviously prefer information communicated to them in the fastest, most viscerally appealing manner possible without regard to any long-term value. This desire for style over substance merely proves that the majority of Americans long ago abandoned intellectual pursuits and opted instead for unlimited access to mindless entertainment and sexual titillation. Most folks are so preoccupied with the temporal they completely lose sight of the transcendent. Parents encourage this attitude by not demanding more from themselves or their children when making decisions about what they read. Schools exacerbate the problem when they reject classic literature in favor of trendy, politically correct propaganda with little or no permanent literary value.p>There is a reason great literature survives the test of time. The principles and ideals embodied in these works have universal application to people living in any age. The great protagonists in classic literature struggle with problems endemic to the human condition. These morality plays demonstrate for us the rewards of good choices and the consequences of bad ones. Finding answers to life’s great questions requires much effort and deep reflection. The problem today is that the self-absorbed narcissism of our culture obscures our ability to see the worth of anything requiring more than a 20-second attention span. br> — Rick Arand br> Lee’s Summit, Missouri /p>
I am deeply sympathetic to Mr. Mehan’s “cultivated judgments in these literary matters,” and, like him, bemoan the ongoing trivialization of American culture. But I cannot agree with him that it is a travesty for the public libraries in Fairfax, Virginia, to be moving towards a customer-centered operating model.
Taxpayer dollars should not be spent on maintaining public library collections that contain the likes of Virgil’s Aeneid, The Works of Aristotle, or The Education of Henry Adams, for no real purpose than to pretend that these works are still important to the great mass of ordinary people. They are not. If they were, maybe at least one person would check them out more than once every two years, keeping them off the “purge” list. (As Mark Twain said, a classic book is one that people praise but don’t read.)
Moreover, books are extremely cheap in this country, and there are numerous avenues for interested readers to obtain almost anything they want to read. Indeed, I suspect that the classics are not in demand in public libraries precisely because the people who want to read these works are much more likely to purchase their own copy. So a lack of access to the classics is hardly a problem.
Why then should public libraries use up limited resources and shelf space to stock such books? If there is any justification for public libraries in 2007 (an open question), surely it is to provide the less well off members of our society with an opportunity to obtain desired reading materials. If such people prefer to read John Grisham to Charlotte Bronte, then that is what public libraries should make available.
What Mr. Mehan really is upset about is the public’s taste in literature. Again, as a person who enjoys the classics and believes they have something important to offer us, I share his concern. But it really isn’t the responsibility of the public library system to spend taxpayer dollars trying to “elevate” the reading preferences of the public. (Query whether the circulation statistics from public libraries are even an accurate barometer of the public’s taste in literature?) A private library or other private institution can play this role if it wants.p>But a government agency should serve the public in the most cost-effective manner possible. It sounds like the public libraries in Fairfax are trying to do just that. Would that more government agencies did the same.
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