Yesterday, after lunch, I went to the shelf of unread books in our house (or, more accurately, I went to the six shelves of unread books in our house).
Mike might say that my book buying patterns before we moved to Laos bordered on obsessive-compulsive. I say that my stockpiling books with all the single minded focus of a squirrel storing up nuts in the autumn was merely demonstrating that I can plan ahead when I so choose to avert disaster (in this case a book vacuum disaster, which would be a disaster indeed).
I was tired yesterday, which was partly due to having just finished the third rewrite of my own manuscript and partly to having just eaten a large plate of spaghetti at noon. I would like to retract my recent statement about not being hungrier than normal – this week I am perpetually ravenous and I think the baby has doubled in size in the last two weeks. I certainly have.
So tired, full, and feeling very pregnant, I was in the mood for something light. But perhaps I should still have known better than to pick up a book given to me by another expatriate in town who was cleaning out her own library – a book with the word “sultry” in the title and the phrases “hot as summer night, reckless as forbidden love” on the back cover.
A word about romance novels. It is not my intention in this post to diss the entire genre. I freely admit to occasionally reading romance novels. Sometimes I come across one that is both entertaining and well written. Yesterday, however, was not my lucky day, despite the promise on the front cover that this book would “strike every chord within the female spirit.”
I gave it twenty minutes and fifty pages before I threw it down in disgust. This morning over breakfast I tried to explain to Mike just how bad this book was. Words failed me.
“What are you going to do with it then?” Mike asked.
“Give it away or throw it out,” I said, and then thought about that for a moment. “Actually, I think I’ll just throw it out.”
“You wouldn’t give it to the local library?” Mike asked.
I thought about Luang Prabang’s library and it’s two small rooms stocked with a collection that’s largely decrepit and dated.
“I have other books for that library,” I said. “I think this one just needs to go in the bin.”
“Who made you the empress of Lao libraries?” Mike asked, baiting me just a little.
“Reading this book will add zero value to anyone’s life – here or anywhere else,” I said.
“But what if some people would think it was a good book?” Mike pushed the point.
“Some people,” I said firmly, “are ill-informed and ignorant and not going to become any less so by reading trash like this.”
“What qualifies you to judge that?” Mike asked.
“Decades of extensive reading and writing,” I said. “Not every book that’s published can go into a library, and I think I’m better placed than 90% of the world’s population to judge whether a book is worthy of being there.”
“I think objectively you’re right,” Mike said, “and that statement scares me. Today it starts with you styling yourself as the empress of Lao libraries, tomorrow you’re gong to want to set yourself up as the benevolent dictator of a small island nation.”
“I would be quite a good benevolent dictator,” I said, returning the baiting with interest. “Except it would be a lot of work. I think I’ll pass.”
“So when would you let someone read this book, then?” Mike wanted to know.
“If they couldn’t speak English, and they were trapped on a desert island with no other books at all, then they could have this one so that they could practice English,” I said.
Mike wasn’t at all comfortable with this stance. He argues that I’m setting myself up as a censor and that censorship has traditionally not led anyone anywhere good. I say that there’s a difference between censoring books on the basis of ideology you don’t agree with and filtering out the ones that are just really badly written and devoid of any substantial intellectual content (although, come to think of it, I wouldn’t be passing Mein Kampf along to the local library either, so maybe I do believe that there are some merits to censorship).
I struggle to throw books out, I really do. Books are precious objects to me and it’s an almost physical pain to see one go in the trash. But I really do believe that there are some books out there that aren’t worth anyone’s time. There are enough good to amazing books in this world, with more being published every month, that no one need clutter their mind and dull their tastes with really poor prose.
What would you do? Would you donate a silly, stilted, romance novel to the local library or would you toss it? Why?