The Empress of Lao Libraries

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).

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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?

20 responses to “The Empress of Lao Libraries

  1. I would toss it (and I’m also very reluctant to throw out ANY sort of book). But it’s not going to enrich anyone’s life, and it may even be harmful to some unsuspecting, impressionable Lao girl who’s formulating her view of romance and love. But then, I’ve never been a fan of that genre. 🙂

  2. I would toss it – after tearing off the cover. Why? Cuz trash is trash. And if Mike wants to argue that point, ask him first…who made him Emperor of Lao’s Dump? (said in a very cheeky manner). Then…tell him to come to my house to discuss these differences of views. Awww nevermind…he is already outvoted so need to travel this far! 🙂

    • I hadn’t thought about tearing off the cover. Hmmmm… That oddly seems even more sacrilegious than just throwing the thing out. Though the longer I dwell on it the more it may be appropriate in this case.

  3. Toss it with no guilt. Why? For the most honorable of reasons: it’s the Golden Rule. Do for others what you would wish others to do for you.

    • This is a bit of a problem, however, because I would quite like other people not to be my censors – even for something like silly romance novels. Though I guess my life would not have been impoverished if someone HAD censored this from my library.

  4. I would give it to the Lao librarian to decide the merits of the book and its appeal to potential readers. Even the worst writing can teach, inspire and enrich- or even just provide just a little amusement 🙂 I’m sure the library would appreciate having the choice for themselves.

  5. I too am an avid book reader who has difficulty tossing books in the trash & will almost always donate them whether or not I think they’re garbage. Almost always. There have been a few in recent memory that, while I’ve managed to finish them (thanks mum, for raising me to always finish what I start), at the end I can’t help but feel disgusted that I’ve just wasted several hours of precious time on this horrible dialogue-or lack thereof as more often is the case. It is these books that I pack off to my colleagues in the explosives training department to hack up or generally deform into training aids for the folks who are responsible for finding the real threats. Not only do I feel good for donating items to a budget-tight department, but I get a sort of mild, if not concerning, satisfaction of sending a truly awful piece of work off to a more suitable home. Of course, now that Ive said this out loud I feel a little bad that I would condemn another person’s sweat, toil & hardwork to such a violent ending. On the other hand, at least I’m not alone in my feelings!!

    • Yeah, I hate to thumb my nose at what I presume is other people’s hard work and honest trying (I mean, I’m sure no one ever wakes up in the morning and deliberately sets out to write a crappy book – although I am pretty sure that some people don’t try nearly as hard as they could to make things as good as they could). But even if someone’s tried their best and the result is still sub-standard I’d argue that by choosing not to read it (or recommend it to others) we’re not condemning it so much as showing discrimination. And I think passing things along to an explosives training dept is putting it to better use than letting it rot in a landfill :).

  6. I’m not going to comment on romantic novels, but I am concerned about books that are considered Christian classics but which, in my opinion, teach bad theology and which have encouraged poor or even damaging doctrines to be preached across the world. I have one book in mind, at the moment, which I was given a copy of to pass to library of books on spirituality and which I think actually needs destroying because of its contribution to the proliferation of ‘prosperity gospel’ preaching around the world. But who am I to make that kind of decision and would I be right to try and protect people from something like this?

    • My dilemma exactly. Or, more accurately, Mike’s (though I do see his point that it’s a question of concern to set yourself up as judge, arbiter, and filter).

  7. I would probably toss. I agree with what you said–there is so much good literature out there.

  8. Trash it. Bad shows and bad books actually take away from our lives, I think.

  9. i’m sure there is a table leg out there somewhere needs some propping up 🙂

  10. I remember reading all night to finish a bad book (not romance though!) and then crying when I heard the dawn chorus because I’d wasted my night on something worthless!
    Give it to Zulu for chewing practice, I say!

    • Ha ha!!! Very good idea, except I do not want to teach him to rip apart books. He’s already had a few go’s at a magazine lying on the floor recently. The book went in the bin, is the short version of that story. And I’ve been cleaning out shelves (including more than a dozen books that were on the shelves in the room you stayed in :)).

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