Summer Reading

I’m on vacation for most of August, sitting by Lake Erie enjoying the breeze, reading, and (at the moment) writing a bit. Among the books I’ve been reading are three that couldn’t be more different: Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media, Roger Kimball’s The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia, and the Everyman’s Library edition of George Orwell’s Essays. I’ve been enjoying them all in different ways, which I think makes me more Orwellian than Chomskian or Kimballian (if those are the proper adjectival formations).

Manufacturing Consent and The Fortunes of Permanence are politically opposite but  methodologically almost identical, which might surprise people familiar with only Chomsky or Kimball. Both books focus only on the worst of their enemies and ignore any mitigating evidence or circumstance that doesn’t suit their purposes. With Manufacturing Consent, I can almost forgive this, as the injustices committed by the U.S. Government at times are considerably greater in scope than those committed by the leftist academics Kimball demonizes. Herman and Chomsky do a pretty good job of explaining how the U.S. Government and Big Business use the mass media as tools of misinformation designed to bolster the image of the U.S. and American corporations at the expense of anyone who criticizes them. Someone would have to be hopelessly naive to believe that governments and powerful interests worldwide are always trying to make their side of the story the story, but the analysis of specific cases is powerful evidence for the how.

When reading it, though, I have to wonder how naive someone has to be to believe that it could be otherwise, or that the U.S. Government and American corporations are especially wicked because they act in the way they do. What’s missing isn’t the proof of how they act, but the corrective attitude that acknowledges that the U.S. Government is no more wicked or duplicitous than other governments, only more powerful. I’m inclined to believe Lord Acton that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Were all the communist regimes the U.S. illegally overthrew themselves the picture of perfect justice? The implicit tone and focus throughout the book is that if the U.S. Government interacts with any other countries or people it is almost always in the wrong, with the concomitant assumption that the other countries or people are therefore always in the right. Can this really be true? Is the world really made of perfect heroes and villains? The saving grace is that Herman and Chomsky occasionally admit that some truthful news and information manages to struggle through their Propaganda Model and they are providing an  important alternative point of view on the injustices of a government that would prefer not to admit them.

Not so with The Fortunes of Permanence, which displays both the best and the worst that Kimball has to offer. Kimball is great on cultural topics but ridiculous on political ones because of his Manichean worldview and limited scope. Get him going on John Buchan or The Dangerous Book for Boys or Rudyard Kipling and he’s lively and perceptive. Even letting him have a go at the knee-jerk relativism pervasive in our culture can be fun. But when he starts ranting about the enemies of permanence (in values, traditions, etc.) and he’s either willfully naive or completely blinded by faith in the Republican Party and all it stands for. Since Kimball seems like a very smart man to me, I have to wonder. For example, his enemy is almost always the same: “academic multiculturalists.” (And no, this book is from 2012, not 1988.) Relativism is destroying all our values? Terrorists are attacking us? The culture is awash in vulgarity? Traditions and values are eroding? Blame those darned academic multiculturalists. From what I can tell through reading a number of his books, Kimball encountered a bunch of frivolous intellectual popinjays during a sojourn in a humanities grad program and was scarred for life. I can sympathize. I put up with the same uncritical, relativist nonsense in grad school as well, but I had enough perspective to know that academic multiculturalists don’t rule the world because first, they don’t even dominate academia or the humanities, and second, outside of academia no one pays any attention to them except, apparently, Roger Kimball.

It’s especially peculiar that in a book about the erosion of what T.S. Eliot called “the permanent things” Kimball ignores the elephant in the culture that drives innovation and change in everything from values to automobiles at a relentless pace: an economic system that survives only by developing new everything all the time. Oldfashioned conservatives understood that one of the most powerful forces against traditional values and culture was capitalism and its constant need for novelty. After a brief analysis near the beginning of the way an HBSC bank ad campaign promotes relativism, economic concerns disappear from the book. The U.S. Government is always good, corporations are always beneficent, and all would be right with the world if we could just get rid of those all-powerful academic multiculturalists! Compare T.S. Eliot in The Idea of a Christian Society, pondering the aftermath of the Nazi invasion of Poland, which left him and others shakened with “a doubt of the validity of a civilisation. We could not match conviction with conviction, we had no ideas with which we could either meet or oppose the ideas opposed to us. Was our society, which had always been so assured of its superiority and rectitude, so confident of its unexamined premisses, assembled round anything more permanent than a congeries of banks, insurance companies and industries, and had it any beliefs more essential than a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends?” Eliot had enough sense to know that a devotion to finance was more dangerous to “the permanent things” than a devotion to academic multiculturalism, however one happens to define that beast. Kimball knows this, too, but rarely mentions it. When it comes to his criticism of cultural or intellectual relativism, Kimball has a compelling subject; it’s just that he lays all the blame on his favorite bugaboos while ignoring other much more likely sources. What I like about Kimball is his intellectual seriousness and cultural criticism, but the implication that everything bad in our culture is somehow the fault of leftist intellectuals strikes me as willful blindness.

After those hopelessly partisan though enjoyable books, how refreshing to turn to Orwell’s essays. If you know Orwell only through Animal Farm and 1984, then you don’t know Orwell well enough. He’s long been something of an intellectual hero of mine. The best virtue of George Orwell, aside from his delightful prose, is his unflagging intellectual honesty, a virtue appallingly absent in most political writers. Orwell was a committed socialist and a staunch critic of totalitarianism, in a time when being a member of the British left often meant going along with the party line from Moscow and licking Stalin’s bloodstained boots while judging the Soviet Union by its intentions and Britain by its worst results (does the rhetorical ploy sound familiar?). To criticize Stalin over, say, starving millions of his own people or the Moscow show trials, was to play into the hands of the enemy, i.e. the capitalist British government. A good socialist just doesn’t do those sorts of things. To show, as Orwell did in An Homage to Catalonia, that the communists fighting against Franco in the Spanish Civil War were basically a bunch of ruthless bastards willing to betray anyone to get their way was itself a betrayal. That’s because political fanatics don’t believe in honesty, only victory, whether they’re fanatical warmongers who think the road to American greatness lies in invading countries that haven’t attacked us or fanatical communists who think that any means, no matter how horrible, justifies the end of communist utopia. Orwell wouldn’t hide from the fact that there are bad apples in every lot, even your own.

Orwell differs from most political writers in that he criticizes the unjust or ridiculous wherever he finds it, not just if it’s caused by someone on the “other side.” Comparing Kimball and Orwell on the British Honours is instructive. Here’s Kimball:

But what seems at first to be an effort to establish cultural parity turns out to be a campaign for cultural reversal. When Sir Elton John is put on the same level as Bach, the effect is not cultural equality but cultural insurrection. (If it seems farfetched to compare Elton John and Bach, recall the literary critic Richard Poirier’s remark, in Partisan Review in 1967, that “sometimes [the Beatles] are like Monteverdi and sometimes their songs are even better than Schumann’s.) It might also be worth asking what had to happen in English society for ther to be such as thing as “Sir Elton John.” What does that tell us about the survival of culture? 

I found this passage slightly amusing and outrageously pompous. “Recall” that 1967 article in the Partisan Review! Um, yes, I’m recalling that, because a 45-year old article on the Beatles is exactly the sort of literary classic I make sure to keep in ready memory, especially since no publication ever had a more profound impact on the American psyche as the Partisan Review. Notice that no one has actually put Sir Elton John on the same level as Bach. Even so, what relevance to the discussion does some critic 45 years ago claiming that sometimes the Beatles wrote better songs than Schumann’s have? The analogy is terrible. My god, Kimball, are you implying that some Schumann lieder are to be considered on the same level as the works of Bach? The Mass in B Minor alone could kick the stuffing out of all of Schumann’s lieder and the St. Matthew’s Passion could sweep along behind and take out the symphonies! By the time the Brandenburg Concertos and the cello suites were through monkey-stomping what was left of Schumann’s ouevre anyone with a conscience would recall the glory days when all Schumann had to contend with were the Beatles. And why pick on Elton John’s knighthood? I find it very hard to believe that Kimball is unaware that plenty of scoundrels have been knighted for doing considerably less than raising over $30 million for charity and giving us Madman Across the Water.

Here’s Orwell on the 1944 Honours List:

Looking through the photographs in the New Years Honours List, I am struck (as usual) by the quite exceptional ugliness and vulgarity of the faces displayed there. It seems to be almost the rule that the kind of person who earns the right to call himself Lord Percy de Falcontowers should look at best like an overfed publican and at worst like a tax collector with a duodenal ulcer.

And the next paragraph, just because it’s funny:

But our country is not alone in this. Anyone who is a good hand with scissors and paste could compile an excellent book entitled Our Rulers, and consisting simply of published photographs of the great ones of the earth. The idea first occurred to me when I saw in Picture Post some stills of Lord Beaverbrook delivering a speech and looking more like a monkey on a stick than you would think possible for anyone who was not doing it on purpose.

Kimball goes after Sir Elton and Orwell after Lord Percy de Falcontowers. However, Orwell also had the intellectual honesty to criticize the failures and shortcomings of his political comrades, something you will rarely if ever find in Kimball or Chomsky. Orwell escaped the flight from complexity in a way few writers do.

Okay, back to my reading.

The Codex is Dead; Long Live the Codex

ACRLog had a post last week about humanists wanting print books rather than ebooks. Here’s a key passage:

Ebooks seem like sweet low-hanging fruit – they have enhanced searchability, accessibility at any time or place, and reduced storage and preservation costs. What’s not to love? Ebooks seem to make our students very happy. Often they don’t want to read a book cover to cover (although their professors might wish they would), and searching for relevant passages seems to satisfy their needs for many assignments. And journal literature seems exempt from the preference for print – I haven’t heard many complaints about deaccessioning back runs of print journals represented in JSTOR’s collections, for instance.

When thinking of humanities scholars and their books, I don’t see how it matters if most students don’t want to read their books all the way through or want to treat scholarly monographs the way they treat encyclopedias, as collections of information tidbits to pick and choose among. The scholarly monograph in the humanities isn’t designed to be read that way. It’s not a report of research results, but the result of research, and the analyses and arguments develop throughout the book or at least throughout the chapters. And what’s more, scholars don’t just dip into one book at a time to get some useful fact; they immerse themselves in books and frequently move among many different books while working.

The writer notes that the same faculty who demand print books for their work are happy to read novels on their ebook readers while relaxing or traveling. “It’s one thing, they tell us, to read for pleasure on a screen – but it’s quite another to read for understanding, for critique, for engaging in the scholarly conversation. And this isn’t a generational matter – some of the faculty I know who seem most committed to print are younger than forty.” I don’t know why this would surprise any librarians who work in the humanities. It’s easy to forget amidst the technological splendor that the codex is an extremely useful tool. Humanists often work on research projects that involve examining multiple texts and comparing them, sometimes moving from book to book and sometimes from passage to passage within those books. Spreading several books on a desk and flipping back and forth between passages is relatively easy, and much easier than trying to do the same thing on any current ebook reader. Annotating a book with pencil in hand is also faster and easier than doing it on any ebook readers I’ve yet seen. It’s easy enough for me to think of examples from my own work. This summer I was writing a book chapter that was more or less intellectual history. The bulk of the chapter focused on four or five primary texts as well as a handful of secondary sources. I was trying both to analyze specific arguments occurring throughout the primary texts as well as compare the arguments to those in the other primary texts. The easiest way for me to do this was to have the books spread out around me, so that I could quickly put down one and pick up another or flip back and forth between several relevant passages in the same book.

Working with printed books is at the moment the fastest and easiest way to do this, which is probably why the scholars who do this sort of work the most like printed books. Everything else is clunky by comparison, especially ebook readers. This kind of work explains why humanists like ebook readers for casual reading but not for scholarly work. Leaving aside the DRM restrictions that make getting and reading ebooks so irritating at times, the ebook reader technology just isn’t sophisticated enough for widespread humanistic scholarly use yet. When it’s possible to flip instantly among several books and between passages on a device that’s easy on the eyes and allows annotation as quick as a pencil, this might change. Indeed, I was unsurprised by the Ebrary ebook survey that showed “The vast majority of students would choose electronic over print if it were available and if better tools along with fewer restrictions were offered.” To that I would add two caveats: first, better tools with fewer restrictions aren’t being offered, and second, the majority of students aren’t humanities scholars. My library did a large campus survey of faculty and students last year. 92% of humanists viewed print books as “essential.” This will change when the new tools become as adequate and easy to use as the old tools.

Sure, there might be ways around this, assuming one can get all the necessary books in digital format. (For the project I was working on this summer, I used books that were print-only and hard to get because few libraries held them, and they weren’t for sale or I would have purchased them for my own library. So much for PDA-only libraries relying on used-book dealers to meet their retrospective collection development needs.) But assuming I could, what current technology would suffice to replicate the ease of moving among books and passages of books? Maybe having six tablet computers would work. They would have to be devices that displayed PDFs well, too, so that the secondary journal literature could also easily be read. That sort of defeats the purpose of ebooks, because if I had to carry around, much less purchase, a handful of ebook readers the main purpose of having an ebook reader is eliminated.

I think this is an example where breathless ebook prophets are pushing a format that for now remains an inadequate tool for humanistic scholarly research, and I suspect they’re doing so because they never do any of that type of research, so they either don’t know or don’t care about the inadequate tools. Technology that doesn’t make work easier is bad technology, no matter how much some people might like it for their casual reading. When the tools improve, no one will be protesting the demise of the codex. The ideal might be one of those virtual reality gesture-input computers like in Minority Report. All it might take is a computer that could simultaneous project multiple, easily manipulated texts in the space surrounding a scholar, texts that could be read, highlighted, annotated, and flipped through as easily as printed books. Making copying and pasting of quotations easily into whatever passes for a virtual reality word processor would be a boon as well. When that technology is as ubiquitous in academia as printed books, then the problem will be solved and humanists might abandon the codex. And if they don’t, that’s the time to start chastising them for their reactionary views, because it’s not reactionary to resist technology that makes one’s life more difficult.

The immediate future will be considerably more banal, but I can see the trend with both the new Ebrary ebook downloads and the new ebook platform on the new Project Muse beta site. Both allow quick and easy downloading of portions of books into PDF format, and the entire book if you don’t mind it being broken up into sections or chapters. This mimics the availability of scholarly articles through many databases, and everyone admits that even humanist scholars have no problem with electronic articles, just electronic books. That’s because most of them print the articles out and read them on paper, which they will now be able to do with lots of future ebooks. I’d rather have the virtual reality library, but until that happens PDF printouts might be as close to an ebook-only future as most humanists are likely to get. Libraries might stop buying printed books some day. The codex is dead. Scholars will then print out their PDF ebooks to make reading and research easier. Love live the codex.


Libraries and Enlightened Views

I’ve been reading Gabriel Naude’s Advice on Establishing a Library (1st ed. 1627, 2nd ed. 1644; trans. into English, 1661). Naude’s treatise is one of the earliest works on librarianship in any modern sense, and lays out a plan for systematically collecting a research library. Among other things, Naude was the librarian who developed Cardinal Mazarin’s personal library, the Bibliotheque Mazarine, and requested it be open to the  public, thus creating the first public library in France (at least as far as I can tell). Until relatively recently in human history, libraries were private, the property of royals or the rich, and served to collect but not disseminate knowledge, and Naude was among the first to develop the idea of a comprehensive, "universal library" open to the public and collecting works on almost every subject, libraries the historian Jonathan Israel has called "workshops of the early Enlightenment."

What’s especially interesting considering the time and place is Naude’s enlightened views on collection development. Consider some of his defenses for acquiring unpopular, heretical, or just plain wacky books:

On books with new ideas:

Neither may all those who have introduced or modified anything in the sciences be omitted, for it is merely flattering the bondage of man’s feeble wit if the scanty knowledge that we possess of these authors is buried under the disdain to which they are inescapably subject for having set themselves up against the ancients and having learnedly examined what others were used to accept as by tradition. . . .  I affirm that all these authors are requisite to a library . . . since it is certain that the knowledge of these books is so useful and valuable to him who can consider and draw profit from all that he sees that it provides him a thousand openings and new conceptions, which, being received by a mind that is open, inquiring, and free from prejudice, “bound to no master fealty to swear,” make him speak to the purpose on all subjects, deliver him from the admiration which is the true mark of our weakness, and enable him to discourse upon whatsoever presents itself with a great deal more judgment, foresight, and resolution than many persons of letters and merit are used to do. (23-24 in the U. of CA Press ed.)

On unusual books (Cabbala, divinations, etc.):

For, though most of them teach only hollow and unprofitable things, and though I hold them but as stumbling blocks to all who amuse themselves with them, nevertheless, to have something with which to please the weaker wits as well as the strong and at the least to satisfy those who desire to see them in order to refute them, one should collect the books on these subjects, although they out to be considered among the rest of the volumes in the library like serpents and vipers among other living creatures, like tares in good wheat, like thorns among the roses—and all this in imitation of the natural world, in which these unprofitable and dangerous things help to round out the masterwork and the scheme by which it was accomplished. (26)

On heretical works:

Since it is necessary, therefore, that our scholars should find these authors somewhere available in order to refute them; since M. de T. posed no objections to collecting them; since the early Fathers and Doctors had them at hand; since many of the clergy keep them in their libraries; since there are no scruples about having a Talmud or a Koran, which belch forth against Jesus Christ and our religion a thousand blasphemies infinitely more dangerous than those of the heretics; since God permits us to profit from our enemies. . .; since they an be prejudicial only to those who, lacking the basis of right conduct, suffer themselves to be carried away by the first puff of wind that blows, and seek out the shade of a beanstalk, and—to conclude in a word—since the intention which determines all our actions for good or ill is not vicious or hardened, I think it nether an absurdity nor a danger to have in a library . . . all the works of the most learned and famous heretics. . . .” (27-28)

How hard it must have been at that time to defend such a library, I thought upon first reading it. A Catholic librarian defending a comprehensive research library owned by a Cardinal during the Reformation. The defense isn’t that the books are right, or even good, but that they exist and are part of the world, and educated, enlightened, unprejudiced minds should read to learn and test their beliefs rather than just to confirm their prejudices. What a daring idea for its time.

Naude was enlightened for his age, and he’s still enlightened for ours. Consider stories like this, about a "conservative" blogger and dim thinker who toured the White House and discovered (gasp!) books on socialism in the library, and thus concluded Obama might be a socialist. Ooooh, those scary socialists! Imagine the poor education and lack of reasoning ability it would take to consider such a thing at all problematic. I’ll ignore the fact that anyone who thinks Obama is a socialist doesn’t know much about socialism. (No President who hands 30,000,000 new customers to big insurance companies is a socialist.) Instead, consider the mindset of someone who obviously believes that people read books to confirm their prejudices and not to learn. Owning or even reading a book on socialism is prima facie evidence that one is possibly or probably a socialist. I suppose reading Inside the Third Reich makes one a Nazi. For such people, education is nearly impossible, because of the unwillingness or inability to encounter ideas contrary to their own.

This sort of crude, ill informed belief isn’t confined to the right, by any means. One of my writing students–a good liberal whose very poor understanding of conservatism was based entirely  upon reading David Brooks’ columns in the New York Times–was in my office and once asked me about my political beliefs. Specifically, he wondered if I was a conservative because I have several books on conservatism on my shelves. Politics drives this sort of blindness more than other subjects, perhaps, because it would never have occurred to him to see all the books on Plato and ask if I were an ancient Greek philosopher. His reasoning became quite clear in the ensuing conversation. Only political conservatives would read books on conservatism, just as liberals read only liberals and his libertarian friend read only Milton Friedman. Thoughtless liberals may not be enemies of Enlightenment, but they’re not necessarily friends or examples. He probably has the Alvy Singer Defense ("I’m a bigot, but for the left, fortunately"). Or there was my socialist friend in library school who refused to read The Wealth of Nations because it’s "capitalist, isn’t it?"

The pattern is the same, and is much like the cloistered, stultifying mindset that Naude was battling in the early 17th century and that Enlightened libraries actively resist. Open inquiry and intellectual freedom are cornerstones of Enlightenment thought and foundational values for most libraries academic and public. The reason we collect books on all subjects isn’t because we are neutral and just want to represent all points of view. The false neutrality might make it easier to win local political battles, but it’s a value that’s incompatible with another value championed by librarians: intellectual freedom.

Intellectual freedom isn’t a neutral value, but instead one of the constellation of Enlightenment values that support research universities as well as academic and public libraries. In academic libraries, we don’t build extensive collections of the sort Naude envisioned because we’re neutral, or because we think every
idea should have equal representation and be considered equally useful or valid. We build those collections to support the habit of open inquiry and the increase of knowledge. If I buy books promoting totalitarianism, it’s not because I think totalitarianism is right or true, and in fact think it’s utterly imcompatable with the foundational values of libraries in a liberal democracy as well as being an assault on the nature of human beings. To the extent that public libraries serve as the "people’s university," their collections serve the same purpose, to allow at least the possibility of open inquiry even if few take advantage of it. It should clear from examining our country and culture that there are always plenty of people hostile to open inquiry, intellectual freedom, and reading to learn rather than reinforce their prejudices. When those people write books, we collect them so that open minds can be informed about them, not by them, and can test their beliefs against the arguments of those who wish to shut down argument.

Humanism and Libraries

Those who weary of the unreflective pragmatism pervasive in librarianship should appreciate Andre Cossette’s Humanism and Libraries: an Essay on the Philosophy of Librarianship, newly translated from the French by Rory Litwin for his own Library Juice Press.  The slender volume is a clear, refreshing discussion of the philosophy of librarianship, and Litwin should be congratulated for making it accessible to English-speaking readers.

Humanism and Libraries makes a distinction between library science and library philosophy and tries to establish the definition and aim that unifies all libraries and provides their philosophical foundation. Library science “is the theoretical construction of objective relationships among the activities of librarianship,” and should be contrasted with philosophy, which “is the theoretical integration of library practice as a unity, the encompassing understanding of the meaning of the profession.” Library science studies the activities of libraries, while library philosophy explores their underlying unity and justifies their function in society. Because of their practical training and pragmatic tendencies, librarians tend to function without a coherent philosophy, which isn’t fatal for daily operations. “For librarians, the fact of not having a coherent professional philosophy does not prevent them from being motivated by ideas and principles, but these bear more resemblance to religion than to a genuine philosophy.”

He asserts that a philosophy of librarianship would need a definition of librarianship and a set of goals for all libraries. For the definition, he claims inspiration from Jesse Shera and proposes the following: “Librarianship is the art and science of the acquisition, preservation, organization, and retrieval of written and audio-visual records with the aim of assuring a maximum of information access for the human community.”

This seems simple enough. It’s the discussion of aims that becomes complicated. The aim is crucial, because Cossette takes a teleological approach to library philosophy. “The vast human project of the Library can only be evaluated according to the aims toward which it is directed.” Though I disagree in part with his assessment, I’m in agreement with the approach, as it is exactly what I proposed in my essay on “Technological Change, Universal Access, and the End of the Library,” where I argued that “part at least of any philosophy of the library must include thinking about the telos or end of the library. We must ask and try to answer the question: what is the end of the library?”

Cossette examines three possible ends: preservation, education, and information access. Some have considered the aim of libraries to be preservation. Cossette makes the excellent point that “if the role of the librarian only consists in preserving texts he is merely a technician and can not be considered a professional, nor scientific.”

Cossette also denies that education is a sufficient end, but his reasoning is much shakier here. He first denies that education can serve as the end of the library because it’s “classist.” “In maintaining the illusion that the ultimate goal of the library is education, thinkers in library science perpetuate an ideology that is inseparable from the division of society into classes, which exists in the interest of the dominant class. This bourgeois librarianship, which aims to disseminate high culture, to grant access to the treasures of civilization, is alienating for the vast majority of working people…. This librarianship is classist also for the reason that it universalizes a system of values that belongs to the dominant class.” This objection seems weak for a number of reasons. Something being “bourgeois” isn’t a philosophical objection to an idea as the ultimate goal of an institution. Libraries are perhaps bourgeois institutions, and there’s an end on it. If access to the treasures of civilization alienates the majority of workers, then so much the worse for the workers. However, the biggest weakness is that Cossette’s definition confuses education with indoctrination or perhaps acculturation. Libraries as educational institutions don’t “disseminate high culture,” or at least that’s not all they do.

In addition to denying education as a possible end of libraries, he has a serious problem with the notion of librarians as educators, which a lot of academic librarians consider themselves to be. He’s opposed to the idea, quoting Kenneth Kister that the “educator is mainly interested in critical analysis of the material involved, whereas the librarian is largely concerned with such services as acquisition, organization, retrieval, and distribution of that material.” He argues that just because librarians teach people how to use libraries doesn’t make them educators. Librarians who believe they are “have a poor sense of the fundamental nature of librarianship. They have neglected to take account of what all types of libraries have as a common goal: the maximal dissemination of information.”  (This is his end for libraries.)

He claims that “Librarians are not engaged in a pedagogical situation, which means they are able to play a role that is completely different from that of a teacher, whose function is normative, hierarchical, and distanced. His fundamental role consists of providing the information requested by the reader, as rapidly and effectively as possible. In academic and school libraries, it is plain that users require, in the majority of cases, information for their educational needs. But it would be an abuse of language to claim this as a reason to call a library an educational institution or a librarian a teacher. The aim here is merely to teach students how to access information.” (My emphasis.)

But is this true? I don’t believe it is. Academic librarians teach people both to access and evaluate information, and collection development librarians also build library collections not just by including some works but by excluding others, which often involves some sort of intellectual evaluation. Cossette is so dedicated to defending his primary claim about the end of libraries that he ignores what academic librarians actually do.  Librarians as educators upsets Cossette’s scheme because then academic librarians and special or public librarians couldn’t claim to be experts in the same field of expertise. Such a rigid definition itself fails to take account the possibility that all libraries might not have a common goal.

He concludes with the fairly banal point that the telos or goal of libraries is the maximal distribution of information.

The contemporary library becomes a service for information retrieval with the aim of providing all people with pertinent information toward educational, cultural, utilitarian, recreational, or other aims…. It is not a question of imposing on readers this or that type of information as a pretext for fulfilling a supposed educational or cultural mission. Rather, the librarian leaves it to the user to determine the purpose of his information request and accords him the full freedom to choose for himself the information that he will use.

Elsewhere, I’ve called a version of this the Universal Access Principle (or UAP), “ the proposition that libraries should provide free access to all information to all persons all of the time.” At the time I argued that this principle is confused. “The belief underlying the UAP allows for no evaluative choices, and yet it is used to justify an evaluative choice–i.e., that citizens should be taxed to support this principle. It is founded upon a radical ethical relativism, asserting that we have no way to decide what is good or bad, and thus we must let individuals decide for themselves, but then it decides for them. Specifically, it decides for the citizens that it is good for them to underwrite ethical relativism.” I’m not sure I still agree with my previous assessment, especially the claim about ethical relativism, but I agree with the basic point that the UAP claims a neutrality that cannot possibly justify it as an end of the library. It claims to be value neutral, but is cryptonormative instead. And the hidden norm isn’t the ethical relativism I once thought, but instead Enlightenment liberalism.

Even after deciding upon the UAP as the telos of the library, Cossette sneaks education and acculturation in through the back door when he addresses the role libraries play in informing citizens and helping free the oppressed.  “In providing needed information to all citizens, especially the most disadvantaged, the library lends its support to the realization of democratic ideals: it contributes to the formation of an informed electorate that is capable of rational decisions.” This is definitely not the goal of neutral information providers, and if this is the essence of libraries then there can be no libraries in totalitarian states. He says that ”librarians working in democratic libraries are professionally neutral in facing political, moral, and religious problems that divide readers. If there is controversy, they defend intellectual freedom.” However, the defense of intellectual freedom is not a neutral political position.

This section concludes by bringing in more voices affirming the non-neutral neutrality of librarians. “They provide free access to all to a collection that contains controversial texts and ideas. The impartiality is made possible by their professional ‘indifference’ to all competing opinions. ‘If he [the librarian] has no politics, no religion, and no morals, he can have all politics, all religions, and all morals.’ The contemporary library is a center of liberalism, ‘but its function is not to preach it but to be liberalism in operation.’” The ideas quoted so approvingly don’t make much sense, though. Librarians can’t defend intellectual freedom and have no politics, and though it makes political sense to claim so librarians aren’t really professionally impartial about ideas or books. A library that is the “center of liberalism” cannot possibly be neutral. Cossette affirms as much when he finally discusses libraries and humanism in his conclusion. Libraries are humanistic because they aim toward creating a certain sort of human being. “How can we call a service that aims for the creation of autonomous individuals who are sufficiently well informed to bring about all of their various projects anything but humanistic? … The work of librarianship is truly a human endeavor, that is to say an activity of humankind for humankind, that has as its end the well being of humankind.”

Earlier, Cossette had claimed that the end or goal of libraries was the maximal dissemination of information in a neutral manner, but even he can’t maintain that as the end. In the conclusion, we are told the end is the “well being of humankind,” and its well being in a very particular way—the creation of autonomous individuals informed enough to complete their various human projects. That’s an awfully ambitious goal for librarians who are supposedly neutral. Obviously, the UAP claims neutrality, when in fact it isn’t neutral, but aims to create a liberal culture of free autonomous human beings. This is where I think Cossette and the “neutral” liberals he quotes are confused. If the UAP is the founding philosophical principle of librarianship, then libraries are not in fact neutral and can’t possibly be. They are necessarily institutions of education and acculturation—to create educated, informed liberal democratic citizens. Librarians may build collections housing diverse views, but they don’t believe those diverse views, and they are not neutral about them. Some of the ideas are better than others, and librarians help decide that. Cossette wants to have the library be neutral towards information while claiming that neutrality serves emancipatory goals, but that’s disingenuous. Libraries as he conceives of them are institutions actively participating in the Enlightenment project of human liberation through education and tolerance. It’s educational, critical, and bourgeois. It assumes that critical thought is as necessary as information, and helps provide both. Though beginning as an Aristotelian, Cossette turns Kantian in the end.

Cossette’s definition and ultimate end of librarianship assumes that all libraries have something in common, the library-ness of the library, as a Platonist might say. He has to spend so much time deriding the educational claims of academic librarians because if they are educators in any meaningful sense then they have something peculiar they might not share with public or special librarians.  However, by the time he concludes with the humanistic, liberal end of libraries, this attempt at unity is no longer necessary. By undercutting the supposed neutrality of librarians, he has reintroduced an educational role for both academic and public librarians. Though public librarians sometimes deny their educational role and affirm their neutrality, some occasionally embrace an educational and cultural mission. That’s the point I got from the Darien Statements (which I evaluated here).

I disagree with his attempt at unification, because academic and public libraries have different, though sometimes overlapping missions. There may well be no library-ness of the library to examine. This doesn’t mean there can be no philosophy of librarianship, only that such a philosophy will have to be more complicated than providing access to information. Ultimately, I agree with Cossette’s conclusions that we can only understand and philosophize about libraries by understanding their place in a society and culture. The end of the library cannot be an end in itself, but must reflect the ends of society. By acknowledging the role of libraries in liberal democracies, Cossette says as much himself.

Though I’ve found much to criticize (and left many interesting arguments untouched), I highly recommend Humanism and Libraries. If it weren’t so thought-provoking, I would never have addressed it in the first place. Regardless of whether one agrees with all of Cossette’s methods or conclusions, taking the journey with him through this discussion should give any librarian much food for thought.

Professional Metareading

Today I read a lot of Dilevko and Gottlieb’s Reading and the Reference Librarian: the Importance to Library Service of Staff Reading Habits (which I’d never heard of but found out about here). It shares some perspectives (as well as the LCSH "Librarians — Books and Reading") with Peter Briscoe’s excellent Reading the Map of Knowledge: the Art of Being a Librarian, though the former analyzes survey results while the latter is more a personal manifesto on being a librarian. Both advocate wide reading as a goal to become a better librarian. Dilevko and Gottlieb focus, in my opinion, too narrowly upon the reference librarian and on the specific effect of reading habits upon library reference service, but then again they do what they do well, and it’s unfair to criticize a book for not doing something its authors never intended to do just because I would have liked to see them tackle other areas of librarianship.

The first chapter deals with the deprofessionalization of reference, especially with the rise of the reference call center of the LSSI model and the way it deliberately focuses on the simplest and most common queries and ignores the rest as a way to reduce professionally trained and educated staff and cut costs, and compares that desire to the way ran their organization until they outsourced everything to India. The  Amazon call centers sound harrowing, with loud buzzers and lights flashing when workers weren’t answering emails fast enough, or forced overtime with managers giving out candy bars to motivate and infantilize employees. At least now when we buy from Amazon we can all be relieved that the harrowing and humiliating jobs are  done in some foreign country by people totally unlike us for a tenth of the cost, so we don’t have to feel bad about them. The book was published in 2004, based on research done in 2000-01, and I wonder if that’s still as much of an issue. I know LSSI is still around, but I haven’t heard much of a buzz about outsourcing reference for several years. However, that could be because it’s become so common as not be worth mentioning.

Divelko and Gottlieb argue that wide reading of newspapers, magazines, journals, books fiction and nonfiction improves reference service for both public and academic librarians. Some chapters focus exclusively on academic librarians and the benefits to professors and students when librarians read broadly as well as deeply in some academic discipline. A little knowledge of a lot of topics and a lot of knowledge on a few topics help in reference, instruction, collection development, and liaison activities, and the professors interviewed recommended taking classes, earning degrees, reading journals, learning languages, or at the very least reading introductory textbooks in the areas they work with so as to know something about the organization of knowledge in the discipline. In other words, professors want academic librarians to act like academics, to have academic fields of inquiry and an intellectual engagement with the world of scholarship. Go figure.

Sometimes the expectations seem unrealistic. The ideal librarian would be as knowledgeable as every professor about every subject. At some point I made a mental list of the ideal candidate for my job. That librarian at a minimum would have PhDs in philosophy, religion, and history, as well as fluency in Greek, Latin, German, French, Italian, Arabic, Hebrew, Japanese, and Chinese. When that candidate comes along, I’m doomed. Good thing I have my quasi-tenure. Nevertheless, in general, I think the point is that the more academic an academic librarian the more successful that librarian will be in several areas of librarianship, and I wholeheartedly agree.

The final chapter, "Reading as a Species of Intellectual Capital," analyzes changes in reference work through the lens of Bourdieu. "To use Bourdieu’s terms, advocates of digital reference services are deploring their ‘species of capital’ — their belief in the efficacy of technological innovation as represented by the call center model — in order to render less valuable the ‘species of capital’ of reference librarians whom they accuse of being concerned only with ‘"reviewing the professional literature" and other odd tasks’…." The authors conclude that these "supposedly valueless tasks" contribute a lot to a successful library experience for the users, but that some librarians are attempting to discredit ‘"the form of capital upon which the force of [an] opponent rests.’" Ignoring call centers for the nonce, does this strategy seem familiar? "Techonolgical innovation has become a weapon allowing one group of individuals to exert power and influence on their own behalf while marginalizing the contributions of those who are skeptical of the ultimate value of such technological advances. It allows the first group of players to paint themselves as innovators in the profession, and it renders the second group a ‘negligible quantity’" (211).

Dilevki and Gottlieb are not impressed, and clearly articulate the point of this familiar rhetorical strategy: "The terms of the debate thus permit any skeptic of technological innovation to be branded an opponent of progress and thus an impediment to the field’s survival" (211-12). These accusations, though often in mild enough form befitting librarians, seem rife enough in library discourse. The advocates of constant technological innovation often look for any sign that library users are moving in their direction, while ignoring the overwhelming organization of a considerable portion of academia. In the humanities, those might be the librarians who praise and wonder at a tiny flowering of "digital humanities" while ignoring the undeniable able fact that most humanists do now and have always engaged in the study of texts without accompaniment of multimedia. Confirmation bias is rampant in this company. However, at least in the humanities, how easy might it be to turn the tables? To reply, when challenged about the latest technological innovation or sad, shallow method of connecting people, "No, I’m unfamiliar with that tool, but tell me, what’s the last scholarly book or article you read, or what academic field of study do you have any mastery of?" Since it’s clear that faculty and students benefit from having librarians with subject knowledge of academic fields, it’s quite possible that the current terms of debate do a disservice to our users and ourselves by urging librarians to be computer support and keyword searching specialists rather than academic subject specialists.


Academic Reader’s Advisory

I almost put a question mark after the title. This morning I received one of those ALA Editions emails advertising three recent reader’s advisory titles. The whole concept seems very foreign to me. Certainly I get the idea – helping people find books they want to read, probably based on what they’ve liked in the past – but it doesn’t seem to be anything we do in academic libraries as a matter of course.

Once a few years ago I did get a question that was almost reader’s advisory like. It’s the only time I’ve ever gotten it, so I even remember. Someone was looking for books with musician characters because they were assigning a research essay and wanted to suggest books to students. For a minute or so I wondered how I was going to help the person, but then realized some public reference librarian had probably already done my job for me. Sure enough, within a couple of Google searches I found several reader’s advisory lists of novels with musician characters. At the time I thought to myself, how do they do that?

On the other hand, I guess some of us do reader’s advisory of a sort. In a research consultation, we’re definitely dispensing some advice on what to read. "Peer-reviewed, scholarly books and articles are just the thing you need!" In the technical sense of the phrase, this is reader’s advisory, right? We’re advising readers.

I have a feeling that the public librarians get more satisfied patrons, though, or at least patrons with a different sort of satisfaction. I would imagine (and I could be wrong) that the people who come away from a good reader’s advisory consultation are looking at all the copacetic books on their list bursting with anticipation, whereas often after a successful consultation with me a student goes away with a list of great looking sources but not necessarily with a gleeful look in their eyes as they contemplate reading the stuff. I want the gleeful look; I’m just not sure how to get it.

To Read or Not to Read

I seem to be reading a lot lately about how people don’t read anymore, especially these young people. On my recent flights, there sure seemed to be a lot of people reading books, but maybe airline travel is restricted to the especially literate, though that wouldn’t explain the four hours I once had to spend listening to the woman next to me extol the virtues of Boyd’s Bears as she traveled to a Boyd’s Bears convention. And you thought library conventions were bad.

It’s a good thing I’m not worried about the kids not reading today, because I’m putting together my syllabus for my writing seminar, which begins all too soon. The reading list isn’t especially heavy in terms of page count. I always considered such courses torture because I’m such a slow reader. In a Victorian novel course I took in graduate school, I’m not sure I finished any of the novels except The Mill on the Floss, and that’s because I had to present on it. It seemed I’d get a third of the way through one of Dickens’ interminable tomes and we’d start on yet another one. Even The Mill on the Floss I had to read so quickly I remember almost nothing about it. I think someone dies.

So the pages are relatively small in number, but dense, especially the Rawls. If you’ve ever read any Rawls (John, not Lou), then you know what a tedious writer he can be. It’s a pity someone so brilliant couldn’t write more gracefully. Still, if the prevailing views of students are correct, whatever are we to do with them? Just now I was trying to decide between a Philip Pettit or a Quentin Skinner essay to represent the republican position. I decided on both, but if these kids today don’t read, perhaps I should just teach neither. Perhaps we should abandon research and writing altogether. Why bother if the kids are so incorrigibly dumb?

From a professor at Illinois who’d obviously been around a while even then I heard about some of the protesting hippie teaching assistants teaching rhetoric in the late sixties. Instead of essays, they’d have the students make collages and such. Maybe we could abandon reading and writing completely and just do that in class. Collages have the advantage not only of looking prettier than essays, they’re also much easier to grade while stoned.

The touchstone of the new aliteracy for some seems to be that the kids today aren’t reading literature anymore. Capital L Literature apparently used to be important to the culture, and everyone who was anyone ran around discussing T.S. Eliot or Allen Ginsberg while drinking cocktails or smoking pot (respectively), or ruminating on the supposed complexities of Beckett or Sartre. The kids just don’t do this anymore, and it bothers some people.

Let’s hope the students get a smattering of great literature during their college years, but otherwise, is it so bad if they don’t read novels for fun? Some of them no doubt will go on to be the educated intellectual types who will lament for the future because the next generation will be so ill read. But if most of them grow up reading nothing more substantial than news or blogs or the occasional magazine, will they be that much different from how most people have always been? Did we ever really live through some literary golden age when masses of people read more not because it was what they wanted to do but because there wasn’t much else to do.

The nineteenth century in England and America seemed to be a relatively literate time, but was there not perhaps a large difference between those who for enjoyment read the John Stuart Mill or Matthew Arnold and those who read the serial installments of The Old Curiosity Shop and flocked to Dickens’ celebrity tours of America? When literature was entertainment, were we any better off as a society? Now that literature is less popular, doesn’t there still seem to be a lot of reading going on? And is the person who daily consumes another genre novel somehow more critical and analytical than the rest of us, more fit to be a citizen than those who skim headlines on Google News or read political blogs?

Perhaps, though, the curmudgeons and naysayers are correct, and somehow this year the students will be worse than they were last year. The dumbest generation goes to college. Apparently I’m not even protected here in my ivy league ivory tower, since if William Deresiewicz is to be believed, one of the disadvantages of an elite education is that it is “profoundly anti-intellectual,” and it also offers too many temptations to mediocrity.

I hope I don’t end up with all the mediocre, profoundly anti-intellectual students in my class. No use fretting I suppose, because there’s not much I can do about it anyway.

The Appeal of Cultural Decline

I don’t know why, but I seem to be a sucker for books on cultural decadence. Give me a provocative book showing that the Western or American Civilization has been going to hell in a handcart since the fall of Rome or the Reformation or WWII or the beginning of the Reagan era, and I’ll probably at least skim it. Tell me that we’re amusing ourselves to death, or dumbing down our educational system, or that we live in a vulgar, violent mass culture “rooted in the cash nexus of corporate capitalism” and I’ll probably be entertained for a while.

That last quote is from the Choice review of America’s Meltdown: the Lowest-Common-Denominator Culture by John Boghosian Arden. I know nothing about this book other than the table of contents and what I read on the website, so I’m not recommending it. I picked up for holiday reading while browsing the stacks this afternoon in the American culture section. I’m sure I’ll spend an enjoyable couple of hours finding out in more detail about the melting down of America.

Why the trope of cultural decline is so appealing, I don’t know, but I do know I’m not alone in this. This theme has been appearing in Western literature and literature that has influenced the West since there was such literature. By Homer’s day, men were not what they had been in the heroic age. Then Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden. Talk about cultural decline! Certainly some of these concerns have been realistic, no matter what one thinks of the particular cultures. Roman culture did in fact decline. Christendom did in fact disintegrate. The culture of the Old South of Gone with the Wind has in fact gone with the wind, whatever there was of it that really existed outside the nostalgic minds of unreconstructed Southerners.

Nostalgia is often an underlying motivator behind tales of decline. Back in the old days things were always simpler or cleaner or purer or calmer or safer. Locally, there’s no doubt this is true. Trenton, New Jersey, where I live, was most likely safer 60 years ago than it is now. On the other hand, the air and water in many factory cities in Britain are probably cleaner than they were 150 years ago. Protecting the environment requires eternal vigilance, but on the other hand it’s been a long time since the Cuyahoga River caught fire. Nostalgia is so untrustworthy, though. Nostalgics always seem to remember only what was good in the past and only what is bad in the present. Some parts of America might have been better to live in in the 1950s, say, as long as you were white and middle class. (That’s still true today, I suppose). But the conservative nostalgia for the fifties ignores the conflicts of the time as well as the potential for not being in the advantaged classes.

I certainly have my own nostalgic eras about which I like to read. There have been times when I felt more comfortable with 16th or 18th century literature than I do with that of my own time. Like the nostalgic, I can easily see what might have been appealing in any given celebrated era, the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome, the supposed cultural and religious unity of the Middle Ages, the excitement of creating a native poetry in 16th century England. But I wouldn’t want to live in any other era. Issues of hygiene, health care, and indoor plumbing aside, it’s easy to forget that until very recently the lives of most people even in the best off countries were hard, short, and poverty stricken, just like the lives of billions of people today. Nostalgics always seem to think they would have been aristocrats with all the advantages of modern medicine and technology, just like those who claim to be reincarnated all seem to be reincarnations of famous people of the past. Everyone is a reincarnated Napoleon. No one seems to be a reincarnation of the guy who emptied Napoleon’s chamberpot.

Librarians in general don’t seem to be very nostalgic, at least about libraries. How many of us long to return to the innocent days of print indexes or card catalogs? How many of us would want to eliminate the Internet because of the information revolution it has created? I would no more want to get rid of the Internet than the flushing toilet, though I’m glad I don’t have to face that choice. And the day we manage to remove the card catalog from the choicest space in Firestone Library will be a day of celebration, for me if not for the likes of Nicholson Baker.

It would seem that one can enjoying reading about cultural decline without being particularly nostalgic, then. I couldn’t point to any era that I would rather live in. The past doesn’t seem like it was better, but the future still looks like it might be worse. The contradictions of the unnostalgic view of decadence. I suspect for many critics of decadence the feeling of decline is simply the juxtaposition between cultural ideals–Arnold’s “sweetness and light,” culture as the best that has been thought or said that leads us to perfection–and the mass culture around us, forgetting that, as far as I can tell, the mass culture of every era has similarly fallen short of any ideal. Our culture may be declining or disintegrating as the doomsayers chant, or it may be that the decadent interpretation of culture merely shows the health of our ideals. If we ever stop producing criticisms of the declining culture around us, that would probably signify the death of our cultural ideals, thus the irony that when we stop critiquing our declining culture it will be because the culture has declined so much that we are no longer capable of critique.

So because I want to encourage and celebrate the health of our cultural ideals, I’ll spend some time this holiday season reading about how our society is hopelessly corrupt and decadent, basking in the warm glow of knowing that someone, somewhere, still thinks there’s something worth saving.

Sickbed Reading

Indulge me a bit if you will. I’ve been sick for the past week or more, and spent several days doing little more than sleeping, reading, and watching the Addams Family. I’ve had to go without solid food, caffeine, or alcohol, thus without, some might say, necessary accouterments of civilized life. To make up for that, I read some short stories and reflected upon popular versus scholarly editions.

Lately I’ve been reading Philip K. Dick, H.P. Lovecraft, and M.R. James. Most of my fiction reading is confined to vacation time and now sick time, when I want my brain to relax. That may sound like I think fiction is a lesser read, but it’s probably my reaction to several years spent studying English literature. I read more widely for fun than I did in college, but I don’t take literature as seriously as an academic subject. It took a long time before I could read fiction or poetry without trying to find something clever to say about it or applying some critical theory to it.

It’s also rare that I find anything I like. My favorite literary genre is the essay, and there’s something I find very satisfying about a good writer exploring a small subject in a thoughtful way. For popular fiction, I prefer P.G. Wodehouse and the British detective novelists of the thirties and forties (Nicholas Blake, Naigo Marsh, etc), but usually I return to the same writers again and again, especially Henry James. However, when I noticed recently that the Library of America had given its imprimatur to Dick and Lovecraft, I thought I would give them a try. To save my valuable reading time, I usually wait for authors to die and for a cultural movement to establish them before I bother reading them, and the Library of America does a great job of this usually. (I’m still hoping they publish an edition of Robert Benchley and pay me to edit it.) I’ve been an M.R. James fan for years, and I recently bought the Penguin 2-volume complete short stories of M.R. James, annotated by S.T. Joshi. They arrived just in time for sickbed reading.

With Dick, I actually began with Selected Stories, the Pantheon volume edited by Jeremy Lethem. As the the stories themselves, I thought they were okay. I don’t know how they rank as science fiction, since they might be the only science fiction I’ve ever read, but they were entertaining and thoughtful for the most part. The non-literary thing that struck me most about the stories is how bad Dick was at predicting the future. He has characters hop from their interplan rocket ships and sit down to typewriters. The future world of some stories has a victorious Soviet Union and lifelike robots, but no personal computers. This gave me another sort of pleasure, as I compared what by now is the present of some of these stories to the world around us. The unvirtual materiality of Dick’s vision interested me in a way I wouldn’t have expected. But this led to scholarly disappointment. I then wanted to know when these stories were published, preferably with dates of composition as well. Obviously these were Cold War-era stories, but the “about the texts” page was woefully inadequate, and there were no notes. I was viewing Dick as a writer who needed to be historicized, and Lethem let me down.

Contrast the LoA Lovecraft edition. All the LoA books are beautifully bound and printed, joys to hold and read, and all the ones I have are annotated more or less heavily. (The Henry James set is almost complete with 14 volumes so far. The five volumes of short stories make great Christmas gifts.) The Lovecraft edition was no exception, though the editor, Peter Straub, relied upon both the texts and the notes that S.T. Joshi had provided in three other editions of Lovecraft’s work that he edited. It makes one wonder why Joshi wasn’t asked to edit this. Straub may be more famous, but would that be relevant for someone buying the LoA edition? I wonder. Still, it had the chronology of the author, notes on the texts, and annotations I’ve come to expect. I didn’t rely on them much, expect to figure out how “Cthulhu” might be pronounced, but some were interesting to read, and they let me date the story accordingly. This isn’t as important for Lovecraft, since he seemed to be deliberately archaic, anyway. If you read both Dick and Lovecraft in tandem, you would probably be struck by the dichotomy of styles. Dick’s prose is spare and lean and he’s often trying to understand what it is to be human. Lovecraft never met an adverb he didn’t like, or a foreigner he did. He certainly can evoke a mood of horror, but I’ve never read anyone so incapable of empathy. Still, the edition was perfect.

Then comes the James edition annotated by Joshi. This would seem to be my sort of edition, heavily annotated, semi-scholarly introductions with bibliography, appendices with juvenilia. But what I found instead was that the scholarly apparatus crushed the delicate stories. The introductions strained to be scholarly, but had little to work with. The annotations provided historical tidbits on people and places real and fictitious, but none of this helped illuminate the stories for me at all. Joshi seems to have made a career of editing and writing about the better popular fiction of the twentieth century, and I’m not maligning his work. It just seemed so unnecessary in this case. Unlike Dick, where I wanted to place the stories in their historical context because of the odd future expectations, and unlike Lovecraft, where some explanation of broader themes that apparently evolve in scattered works help illuminate slightly the stories, the James scholarly apparatus added nothing. The stories stood by themselves. Except for a couple of added stories, my old Wordsworth Classics M.R. James Collected Ghost Stories (available used for $1.99) was just as good.

Maybe I’m being uncharitable to both Lethem and Joshi, though. I probably shouldn’t have been evaluating scholarly editions on an empty stomach.