Regular readers know that when I post excerpts from my Wall Street Journal drama columns each Friday morning, I always mention that the Journal provides no free link to my pieces and suggest two alternative options, buying a paper copy of the Journal or subscribing to the online edition.
Apropos of this, a reader writes:
Cause I don’t read your blog every day & cause I don’t stay home in front of a computer all day, I always find a third option to be most effective: going to the library.
But hey, they don’t still have those things, do they? Not since everyone went online, right?
This posting made me laugh out loud, but it also reminded me of something I never think about anymore, which is that I stopped using public libraries a number of years ago. Don’t get me wrong: I love libraries. I worked in my high-school library (it was my first job, in fact), and I can’t count the hours I spent haunting big-city libraries as a young man. During the decade I spent working on The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken I had access to the closed stacks of the main branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, and I checked out books by the bagful.
Alas, I no longer go to Baltimore each week, nor do I have access to the stacks of a university library, and the branch of the New York Public Library located in my neighborhood is roughly the size of the one in Smalltown, U.S.A., on which I cut my teeth forty years ago. When I need information, I now look first to the Web, then to my personal library, which is small but choice. Should those alternatives fail to satisfy me, I walk two blocks to a very large Barnes & Noble and explore its shelves. If that doesn’t do it, I do without, or order a used copy of the book in question from amazon.com.
I wonder how common my experience is. It may well have less to do with the current state of library-going than with the fact that I live in New York City. Would I go to the library if there were a good one in my neighborhood? Probably–but I’m not so sure. When I was young I read in great shelf-emptying gulps, thereby accumulating the intellectual capital off which I’ve been living for the past quarter-century. Now I read far more selectively, concentrating on new titles, though I also re-read books habitually. I operate on the principle that any book worth reading more than twice is a book worth owning, and my shelves reflect that belief. I’m sure that the Web has cut down considerably on my library-related needs, but it may also be that libraries simply don’t have as much to offer me as they used to.
Speaking of the Web, I mentioned yesterday that my anxiety-fraught upgrade to OS X made it possible for me to use iMusic, Apple’s Web-based “record store.” Since then, I’ve bought a couple of dozen songs at ninety-nine cents a pop. Most of the ones I downloaded were singles from the Sixties and Seventies that I still remembered with great fondness (Little Feat’s “Strawberry Flats,” Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up”), together with a sprinkling of newer tunes that I’d heard in passing and wanted to own (Suzanne Vega’s “Caramel”). I also spent quite a bit of time looking through iMusic’s jazz section, which is surprisingly well-stocked, but at first glance I didn’t see anything I wanted that I didn’t already have. Frank Sinatra’s version of “Witchcraft,” the one pre-rock standard that I bought, is only available on Sinatra’s greatest-hits compilations, none of which I care to own.
In short, iMusic has yet to work a revolution in my record-buying habits, no doubt because I’m too firmly entrenched in them to make any sudden changes at this point in my life. Anyone who owns 3,000 painstakingly shelved CDs is unlikely to throw them all away overnight. I expect that for the present, I’ll mostly keep on using iMusic the way I used it last night, buying old songs that I liked a long time ago and new songs by artists to whom my younger friends have drawn my attention. Still, it’ll be interesting to see whether my own attachment to the Album as Art Object now starts to diminish. I thought, for instance, of downloading Jonatha Brooke’s live album, but I decided to wait and buy the CD version instead. I’ll let you know as soon as I loosen up enough to buy a complete album from iMusic. That’ll be the day.
P.S. Dear iTunes, would you please get with the program and make the Amazing Rhythm Aces’ “Third-Rate Romance” available for downloading?