Due to a scheduling quirk, Bad Librarian’s got four days off. In celebration of this event (and in an attempt to avoid a sophomore column slump, he seeks the inspirational quality of a thriving metropolis) he’s going to New York City for a little good-time erudition, culture, and sitting-in-Central-Park-springtime leering. “You see,” he says, “I just had to write a self-referential, mostly-fallacious bio, and the whole writing about myself in third person thing is kinda sticky much like whatever I just touched on the underside of my armrest.”
Golly, how utterly cliché! But what could Bad Librarian be referring to? Sticky thing underneath his armrest? Is he writing his column in transit, laptop perched upon his knees? How urbane and hip he is! But what’s with the goo? Has Amtrak gone to such pot?
“Well no,” he replies. “I’m on the Greyhound.”
There is a sound like Paaaaaaaahhhh!!! as the collective-angst-of-us-who-have-experienced-Greyhound-travel escapes our mouths in breathy exclamation.
We/he/I have been on Greyhound too much for one man, is the lamentation. I recall in particular one such trip from Denver to Seattle undertaken in the naïve wish to experience the vast American Midwest in Kerouacian fashion, on that chariot of the proletariat: a Greyhound bus. Oh my God. I would dig out my journals from that trip, but I’m sure I can recall the gist: It smells like Doritos. I’m bored. Please don’t touch me. Who knew Doritos were such a popular snack! I’m really, really bored. Hey, when you’re done with that egregiously vile porn mag, could I, you know, take a look? Doritos, hmm tasty.
Yeah, that was awful. When offered a 36-hour bus trip, my advice would be to politely demure (or run like hell). My one coherent memory of that trip was of myself sitting by this strange fountain in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah, eating lunch. Surrounded by Mormons. The sun was wonderfully bright and I was, for a time, outside the bus and away from the smells and the stale air of its confines and it was truly lovely, but at the same time I was horrifically frightened. Why? Because I was in Salt Lake City.
You’ve probably figured out, courtesy of my obtusely worded statement regarding my relationship with Joseph Smith and company, that I am a heathenness reprobate doomed to eternal hellfire. Thus, you won’t be surprised when I tell you I’m lying about being on the bus on my way to New York City as I write this. It’s what we in the writerly trade like to call a “fictive dream.”
In reality, I’m still sitting in the Greyhound terminal—- a dilapidated shack in the warehouse district off the highway. You’d think they’d have put it somewhere more convenient to foot traffic, seeing as people who ride the Greyhound DON’T HAVE CARS. But here I sit. And the bus is a half hour late. Some lady dressed all in garish primary colors stole my spot in line:
Me: Excuse me Miss, I believe I was in front of you.
Me: Pardon me, I don’t mean to be rude, but I clearly was.
Me (befuddled): It truly seems clear that I was in front of you in line, and in my humble opinion you are behaving in a most antisocial manner.
Her: You exist in a moral construct, I do not. No.
So I’m leaning against a wall where the line has formed, sitting on a floor that hasn’t been mopped in weeks and my back hurts and I’m pissed. Our bus is creeping up on 45 minutes late and no one has come to explain the delay. On Amtrak by God, I’d be eating a scone and reading the Wall Street Journal by now. But here I am sitting on a floor tiled with Doritos shrapnel. I hate the bus. I really should’ve taken the train. I’d be there by now. Who cares if the brakes don’t work! (I’m referring, of course, to the current shut down of the “high-speed” Acela train that runs up and down the Northeast Corridor of these United States. Apparently the faulty breaking system was discovered three years ago and they just now decided to stop running the thing so like, maybe they can check it out).
Even worse about my whole experience of the horrid failure of American mass transit (I could digress about the corporate welfare monopoly under which our transportation infrastructure is run. Oh, and good luck getting health care!) is that it really messes up the whole angle I was working vis-à-vis this column you’re reading. I had this thing laid out so pretty in my head - all of it. It was going to be a beautiful piece. I was riding the bus on my way to New York, waxing episodic about the books I brought along for the trip, and the segue into library business was seamless. Brilliant. But now I’m sunk.
Hey there, guy (it’s my support group rallying), don’t fret. Weren’t you just talking about the fictive dream? Fake it, buddy. You can do it. That handy third-person bio of yours says you’re a writer of fiction, ahem, among other things. How hard could it be?
So true, so true, but reality, as it is wont, has once again interceded and freed me from the binds of imagination. The best-dressed passenger in this otherwise motley group, a smashing gent wearing a sharp blue blazer and polished shoes standing in front of me (or he was in front of me till Rainbow Brite stole my spot) has apparently had enough and is taking it upon himself to get to the bottom of our delay. I’m confident he’ll sort this mess out right quick and we’ll be aboard shortly.
And so, an hour after departure time, we climb aboard. The bus is repulsive, sticky, and strewn with fast-food refuse. I’m listening to Blur on my headphones (it’s what I grabbed on my way out) at the highest possible volume and any attempts to get local flavor (audibly) are hereby, thankfully, ceased.
To begin in earnest: The book I brought on the bus is W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. It was first published (in English) in 2001 so it’s not terribly current, but he’s dead and thus not writing anymore and that’s really not my fault so deal with it. There has also been a recent, obviously posthumous, release of his collected essays, Campo Santo, so there is that: my currency. He died rather tragically in a car accident at age 57 just as his literary reputation had begun to solidify, perversely insuring his critical and financial success. Sebald is a writer of surpassing intellect, and without hyperbole, to read his work is to feel in the presence of genius, or at least a very, very clever friend with many an interesting story, and digression, to tell.
Austerlitz, like all Sebald’s work, is part-autobiography, part-travelogue, with myriad dexterous movements into art-history, plain-history, and architecture, with the low-key pulse of human blood; pathos; coursing beneath. The language is beautifully translated by Anthea Bell, whose previous translations include the Asterix and Obelisk comics, in the idiom of Tintin, which I loved as a kid. Elements of Sebald’s work can, however, be daunting. Like the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard (Gargoyles, Wittgenstein’s Nephew, et al . . . amazing), he totally forsakes line breaks in the interest of uninterrupted monologue. But unlike Bernhard, he intersperses images into his writing providing natural opportunities for a breather. It’s quality stuff, albeit a little heady.
In order to balance this read, I also brought along, one-time member of Michael Jackson’s posse and freakishly rich child star, Macaulay Culkin’s new book, Junior: A Novel. Gads, I only wish. I am not privy to a reviewers’ copy of this forthcoming literary masterwork, but be assured, it is just that. Check out the unhinged description in Advance Magazine (we use it in the library trade): “a dizzying kaleidoscope of words and images, Culkin takes readers on a twisted tour to the darkest corners of his fertile imagination. Part memoir, part rant, part comedic tour-de-force, Junior is full of the hard won wisdom of . . .” Okay, I’ve had enough, the Bhagavad-Gita it ain’t.
To be fair, I haven’t read Mac’s book, and likely won’t but for a quick browse some boring day in the biblioteque. But c’mon. If he, or Ethan Hawke, or any of these other dilettante millionaires had any serious literary aspirations, wouldn’t they use a pseudonym? Of course they would. A writer wants to be known by the merits of his writing, not as the dude in Reality Bites or Home Alone II.
Take John Wesley Harding for example, a small time rock star with the decency to use his given name, Wesley Stace, on his literary debut, Misfortune, (which I don’t have an advance of either, hint, hint). Stace’s work will automatically be taken more seriously than Mac’s just for that reason, albeit with a significantly smaller upfront advance. Case in point: I’ve heard Misfortune compared to Susanna Clarke’s Booker Award finalist, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (a damn entertaining read by the way), while Mac’s book, well, the comparisons are less flattering. The dynamic is clear; even if Mac’s book is good, and it may well be, it will never be taken seriously for the very reason that it is a celebrity attempt at literature. Watch my bitterness take tangible form as that book goes on to sell a million copies in spite of me.
Those people aggravate me, you know, those movie stars and film-industry folks in general. They are the most overpaid element of the artistic community by far. How about bringing a little of that Greyhound-like socialism to bear, Tom Cruise? How many writers or painters or sculptors could he support for a year with a day’s pay? I find the monetary inequality of the artistic community infuriating. But, for the sake of my blood pressure (and something to write about in the future), I’ll now move on through my previously shattered segue via the buss’s late arrival. I’d thought it would come straight out of Sebald. Regroup and visualize:
Hey, WG Sebald seems like an interesting cat.
Why yes, he is.
You say he’s dead?
When did he die?
I don’t know offhand.
Well, look it up.
Well I would if I wasn’t on the fucking bus.
Hey take it easy pal! My name is not Bruce Willis! But speaking of looking up useless information, how has the internet effected librarianship? It seems that Google goes a long way to making your job obsolete.
Wow, that’s an astute observation, and one that miraculously provides me with a wonderful transitory paragraph into what I’ve been meaning to discuss for the last 1,500 words. Thank you.
You wouldn’t believe the kind of random stuff people call up the library trying to figure out (and I’m breaking librarian code by mentioning this, but yes, you can call up the library and ask any question you want and they’ll do their best to find the answer for you). The capital of Belize? No problem. Rainfall in Saskatchewan? Sure. The lyrics to Take On Me?. Hold on. But Ah-Ha (bad pun), here’s the rub. Anyone with an internet connection and half a brain could figure out any one of these answers in 30 seconds, thanks to the good search engines out there. Thus, the majority of people who call the library with this type of question are, A) 175-years-old and have never heard of the internet, B) Insane, C) Incredibly lazy, D) All of the above.
So yes, in that sense, Google has taken over the basic researcher’s role and become something like a personal librarian, though a damn sight less sexy in horn rims. But believe it our not, there are still lots of people out there who are not yet fluent with the internet (to go along with the aforementioned lazy-asses), or the little search engine tricks that can take the search for the phrase “Take on me”, from 141,000,000 hits on Google to “Take on me, lyrics” at 39,000 hits. It’s a silly example, but instructive as a ratio. An element of being a librarian has then become being a teacher of the internet, and the library itself has become something of a virtual café, particularly in inner-city communities where not everyone is ready-wired at home.
Another important issue, and one that is true of books as well as the web, though the latter much more so, is, of those 39,000 references to “Take On Me, lyrics”, how many are actually providing the correct lyrics? I would venture a charitable guess at maybe 100. So how then does one go about filtering through that massive amount of data for accurate information? (My example here loses some steam, but try finding conclusive, non-contradictory information about say genital warts for example yeah ) The answer is by cross-referencing and multiple sourcing, a librarian’s bread and butter.
Learning to decipher information particularly in our current proto-fascist universe of fake news is just as important as finding it. With the amount of information accumulating each day in both the virtual and physical realm, our task, as consumers and purveyors of information, becomes less about finding the data and more about filtering it, as responsibly and unobtrusively as possible. I am continually surprised how many intelligent people will take something for truth on the web without even thinking about where the information is coming from, without even checking who supports the website.
Many online sources are written with a clear agenda in mind (the agenda is usually about making money, although not always) and often can’t be trusted for impartial data. I find this particularly true with fear-mongering medical websites (you may have noticed that Bad Librarian has been having some “men’s health” issues, so he’s been checking out the medical sites). Of course there’s no home remedy for your (you name it) disfiguring ailment, but hey, you’re linked right up to a website that can sell you the cure for five easy payments of $19.99! The reality is that the web is an advertising boon, masquerading as a purveyor of information. As consumers of that information, we must always consider the source.
Sure, the internet is very good place to start doing research, but for depth and complexity, it can often be sorely lacking. Take wikipedia.com for example, the hugely popular reference website updated by users, where much of the information, by that very virtue, is inaccurate or incomplete. Don’t get me a wrong. Kind of like communism, wikipedia is a brilliant idea. But the actuality of a user-controlled encyclopedia is a little scattershot—much like asking your buddy for his take on the root cause of the War of 1812.
As the digitization of the information universe moves along, sorting the wheat and chaff will become even more complicated, and having people around who are trained in just that kind of sifting that is, librarians will certainly be handy. The profession will certainly have to grow as the search for information becomes more technical. Programming may become as necessary of a skill as knowledge of the Dewey Decimal System (though that probably won’t be necessary much longer), but the need for librarians, or really, human search engines, will increase as technology’s capacity for information storage rockets along.
In short, yes, the internet has challenged the role of the librarian. If anything, it’s just made it a more interesting job. Anyway, somebody’s got to be around to say “SSSSHHHHHH!!!”
Addendum: New York was fabulous, despite the bus ride. Also, the itching and redness has subsided . . . it was a false alarm. Check out the next installment when the Bad Librarian scores a trip to Peru and practices human sacrifice in the Andes (or at least, reads something about it on the plane).