Libraries Dumping Hemingway for Grisham

WaPo fronts a story about my local library getting rid of unread classic novels to make space for bestsellers.

You can’t find “Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings” at the Pohick Regional Library anymore. Or “The Education of Henry Adams” at Sherwood Regional. Want Emily Dickinson’s “Final Harvest”? Don’t look to the Kingstowne branch.

It’s not that the books are checked out. They’re just gone. No one was reading them, so librarians took them off the shelves and dumped them.

Along with those classics, thousands of novels and nonfiction works have been eliminated from the Fairfax County collection after a new computer software program showed that no one had checked them out in at least 24 months.


Library officials say they will always stock Shakespeare’s plays, “The Great Gatsby” and other venerable titles. And many of the books pulled from one Fairfax library can be found at another branch and delivered to a patron within a week. But in the effort to stay relevant in an age in which reference materials and novels can be found on the Internet and Oprah’s Book Club helps set standards of popularity, libraries are not the cultural repositories they once were.


Classics such as Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” are among the titles that haven’t been checked out in two years and could be eliminated. Librarians so far have decided to keep them.

The blogospheric reaction to this has thus far been negative. Ann Althouse laments the fact that computers are changing our reading habits and shortening our attention spans. Cernig fears this further evidence of the “dumbing down” of the culture. Gaius thinks most classic books are “boring” but believes the “commonality” of making people read them worthwhile. John J. Miller figures that if libraries merely become “government-run versions of what the private sector delivers so efficiently nowadays” then “maybe we don’t really need them anymore.”

I read quite a lot, although almost exclusively non-fiction these days. Yet, despite convenient access to a world class public library system, I never go. I figure anything worth reading is worth buying, at least in paperback, so that I can mark it up with highlights and marginalia, and shelve it for future reference. Indeed, the only thing I would conceivably use a public library for would be for novels, audio books, and the like. In that regard, it strikes me that Fairfax County is doing exactly the right thing here.

It’s hard to conceive of why a public library, whose sole purpose is to encourage people to read and make that opportunity available to the disadvantaged, would want to stock books that no one is reading at the cost of having patrons frustrated at being unable to find books they would read. If that happens very often, the marginal reader that public libraries are there to serve will likely give up and stop going.

Furthermore, the idea that some fiction is especially worth saving while other is mere lowbrow trash has always struck me as peculiar. William Shakespeare was essentially the Steven Spielberg of his day, cranking out popular plays for the theater-going public. His works are classic because they have stood the test of time. Or, if no one is checking his works out of the library, perhaps they haven’t.

The local branch library is not a museum. It’s not the Library of Congress or the National Archives, either. It’s a loaner system for active users.

And let’s not lament the fates of Hemingway or Lee. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is available at Amazon for as low as $2.40 (in hardcover, no less) and “To Kill a Mockingbird” for $0.01. And, if you can’t afford that, the local library will get you a loaner within a week; I’m quite sure the copy at the branch on the other side of the county hasn’t been checked out.

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Congress, Education, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anthony C says:

    It’s also worth noting that Shakespeare is brimming with filth. It’s all in there. They should really emphasise that more when teaching it…

  2. just me says:

    There was a time when Jane Austen’s books were considered drivel.

    Sure not every bestseller is going to stand the test of time, but give it about 50 to 100 years and some of the books currently viewed as mind candy will be viewed as classics by future generations.

    I love reading, and read almost anything that sounds interesting-fiction, non fiction-and given the sparse space in some libraries, I can understand why books that aren’t being checked out are being taken off the shelves-and if Hemingway isn’t on the shelf, there is inter library loaning available almost everywhere now. It isn’t like people are being denied the ability to access or read Hemingway if the local library doesn’t have it on the shelf.

    Although I admit here that I would rather read Hemingway than Grisham.

  3. floyd says:

    Andrew Carnegie gave me most of my education for FREE! It would be sad to see the public libraries stoop to the level of the public schools. I must say that Grisham is a wordsmith on par with Steinbeck though, and certainly on par with Hemingway.