Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Cultural Anxiety Grips Your Local Library

By Heather Mallick Toronto Star Columnist
A Pirates of the Caribbean DVD in a public library is absurd, budget chief Mike Del Grande says, given that you can find the dreadful (adjective mine) thing in any of Toronto’s fast-disappearing video outlets. At a time when libraries are facing huge cutbacks, offering Hollywood films is “program creep.” Del Grande is right, as far as it goes. Toronto’s big, beloved library system is intended to “lift” the local reader into a higher sphere. Libraries are a self-improvement scheme just as miners’ book clubs were in the poverty-stricken colliery towns that D.H. Lawrence was so desperate to escape. Lawrence’s novels are difficult, gorgeous, obstructive things that are taught in university and anyone who voluntarily borrows one from his local library and reads it through is arguably the better for it. Presumably Del Grande is saying that libraries should offer Lawrence novels rather than a Bridesmaids DVD. We should offer both, is what the libraries say. DVDs take up 9 per cent of the library’s $17 million acquisition budget, and lowbrow stuff makes up about half of that. It is shameful on the face of it. It’s not that Pirates of the Caribbean, a film about a ride at Disneyland, is easily purchased, it’s that it’s impossible to outrun. I love American popular culture — Will Ferrell movies are a great joy to me — but I do draw the line at things like Pirates and Shrek, both of which have produced endless sequels of increasing stupidity. I sneer with confidence, as you can see. But what if you’re the 12-year-old daughter of new Canadians and you’re asking your library to “lift” you by helping you fit into Canadian culture — or the lack of it — by teaching you what the other kids like? And they do like rubbish in market-flooding quantities. Watching that Pirates DVD will let you into the Canadian club. And after that, reading novels by Lawrence, Douglas Coupland, Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields and Jeanette Winterson will be your intellectual ticket out. Toronto libraries are open to all and offer all, painful as that may be to the budget chief, whose job it is to be miserly. When you don’t read much, all reading is good, from the James Patterson industrial collective to those weird, slurpy Nora Roberts romances. “True fiction at it’s finest,” one Amazon reader enthuses. So they don’t teach you to punctuate or develop even basic critical judgment, but they give pleasure and keep you human. Library critics are also complaining about the amount of non-English language material on offer. Surely libraries should be a non-stop blast of English! But sophisticated libraries do what bookstores do: They give the customer what she or he wants, which will be French, Spanish, etc. The subtext of all this is brow — lowbrow, middlebrow and highbrow — and a fight over multiculturalism that the hard-right is fomenting. Also grinding away beneath the surface is the constant fear of dumbing down as a culture until we are sanding through our skulls to find . . . nothing at all. Libraries are at the centre of cultural anxieties, many of which are status anxieties in a time — I am not understating this — of finger-biting economic terror. How do we compare to our neighbours? Is my kid’s school better than yours? Did my kid get a better degree and eventually a better job? Did my references to Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley in Pirates endear me to my classmates? Am I a freeloading library devotee or a Thatcherite economic unit moving myself into a higher category? Is the left’s desire for total equality blocking my parental crusade to give my children an unfair advantage? I hear Del Grande with respect, booklovers with affection and Farsi readers with admiration. Each has a case to make. We thought Bay Street was the battleground for economic equality but it turns out that the local library — battered, pleasant, a bit smelly, and who knows where those germy books have been — is where civilized Torontonians have made a stand. The well-loved library, rather than snow-clearing, is our Last Chance Saloon.

No comments:

Post a Comment