Cutting Throats and Slashing Purses

Books, Libraries, Writing

Recently, British children’s author, Terry Deary, spoke out against libraries. Well, he wasn’t attacking libraries, but “the concept behind libraries, which is no longer relevant.” Libraries shouldn’t feel singled out. He also has an issue with schools and, apparently, historians as well. Although he raises some legitimate criticisms of the latter two, he does so in a way that smacks of profound anti-intellectualism. Certainly, no school system is perfect. I’m sure most people would agree that we could be doing better, but Deary dismisses formal education on a conceptual level:

“Schools are an utter waste of young life. Learning things that will never be any use to you. The only reason they are there is to keep kids off the street. They were a Victorian invention. The Industrial Revolution took kids from their families and made the parents work in factories long hours. Then they said, ‘we can’t have these little kids working here.’ So what do we do? Lock them all up in the same room all day and we’ll call it school. I spent hours learning trigonometry, physics, none of which prepared me for life.”

As a proponent of liberal arts education, I find ideas like this particularly depressing and shortsighted. Yes, you may not need trigonometry to write children’s books, but trigonometry taught you how to think about things, how to problem solve, how to apply general concepts to specific situations.

Seattle Public Library

He is equally shortsighted about libraries. I’m not even sure where to start. Like with schools, he traces the evil of libraries to the Victorian age:

“Because it’s been 150 years, we’ve got this idea that we’ve got an entitlement to read books for free, at the expense of authors, publishers and council tax payers. This is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature.”

Free Library of Philadelphia

This would make great sense, if we had since solved the problem of impoverished people. Unfortunately, there are still people who cannot afford to run out and buy whatever book they want whenever they want. He seems to think that the only thing libraries do is hand out books. I have not been to Britain and cannot speak first hand about their libraries but I cannot imagine that they are so different from libraries in the United States where people can get on the Interent, get help researching genealogies, get tax help, check out not only books but movies among myriad other things.

Deary can claim that he is against the concept of libraries, but he words suggest that his issues stem more from simple selfishness: “Books aren’t public property…Authors, booksellers and publishers need to eat. We don’t expect to go to a food library to be fed.” I guess the 25 million books he has sold has left him hungry.

What’s particularly shocking is how upset he is that other authors don’t take the same stance. He says:

“Why are all the authors coming out in support of libraries when libraries are cutting their throats and slashing their purses? We can’t give everything away under the public purse. Books are part of the entertainment industry. Literature has been something elite, but it is not any more. This is not the Roman empire, where we give away free bread and circuses to the masses. People expect to pay for entertainment. They might object to TV licences, but they understand they have to do it. But because libraries have been around for so long, people have this idea that books should be freely available to all. I’m afraid those days are past.”

It’s odd that he sees books as only a way to find entertainment. As someone outspoken about schools, as someone in favor of self-education, he doesn’t seem to see the educational value of libraries, maybe most famously stated by fellow author Ray Bradbury:

“I spent three days a week for 10 years educating myself in the public library, and it’s better than college. People should educate themselves – you can get a complete education for no money. At the end of 10 years, I had read every book in the library and I’d written a thousand stories.”

Henry Miller Library

Deary boils his argument down to simplistic math: every book in the library can be read by many people, therefore, those people did not pay for that particular book. This is the most shortsighted aspect of his argument. Libraries are of tremendous value to authors. Yes, someone who reads a library book has not directly paid the author for that specific book. But how many people have read one of his books for free from the library and have gone on to become fans, buying multiple books down the road? How many people have been short on cash when an author releases a new book and read it from the library only to later purchase a copy? These things are hard to quantify, but twenty plus years working in libraries has shown me these things to be true.

But more importantly, libraries support a culture of reading. Libraries introduce children to books. Libraries host book events giving authors a wider audience. In short, libraries make readers and without readers, Mr. Deary may wish he had taken his physics lessons more seriously.

What do you think? Do libraries hurt or help authors?