Lord Tennyson, Poet Laureate of England during Queen Victoria’s reign, wrote a lot of great poems. I’ve been reading some of them online, and discovering the beauty of his language.
And so I got a hankering to read Idylls of the King–probably his most famous work, after The Charge of the Light Brigade. Back in the Bronze Age, most of us read little pieces of the Idylls in junior high school English Lit. I thought maybe I might be old enough to appreciate it now.
I went to my local library to get a copy of Idylls of the King, one of the classics of English literature. They didn’t have it. “Never heard of it,” said the librarian behind the counter. “What kind of idols?” He looks at me like I might have some potentially disruptive mental problem.
“Not idols,” I explain. “Not I-d-o-l-s, but I-d-y-l-l-s. They’re Arthurian poems.”
Now he’s really staring at me. Like, “What planet is this kook from?” I can see the adjective “Arthurian” is really throwing him. He’s also twitching a little bit, as if feeling with his foot for the button on the floor that summons the police. So I just said “Thanks, anyway,” and walked out.
In fairness, if I had felt like filling out a form, my library would have borrowed the book for me from another library. The inter-library computer system would have found the book no matter where it was, and eventually I’d be able to read it. This is a good thing. By this method I’ve been able to read several obscure books that had to be sent from far away.
But according to a librarian friend of mine, the days of the library as a place for books and readers is drawing to an end. Classics, schmassics–we only keep hot new books on our shelves. And so what? You want some boring old classic, we’ll find out who has it and order it for you. We’ve only got room for hot new stuff–no room for old stuff.
This’ll work for a while, until there is no library left that still has the classics. Our library had a set of The World’s Great Books, from Homer to Hegel, on its own self-contained display shelves, on wheels so it could be easily moved out of the way. It wasn’t bothering anyone, but the library board decided to get rid of it, selling off Plutarch and Dante and Milton and all the rest of ’em for 25 cents each. The director was sick over it, but she couldn’t get the board to change their minds. Besides which, they are primarily interested in other things–primarily in getting children to try homosexuality: if the books they’ve been putting on the shelves lately are any indication.
Today’s hot new stuff will be tomorrow’s garbage; but the classics will still be the classics.
In Gresham’s Law, bad currency drives good currency out of circulation (because people hoard good money and always try to pass off the crummy money).
I think there’s another kind of Gresham’s Law that applies to libraries–bad books drive out good books.
We will need those classics, someday. But who will still have them?