Teacher, You Forgot to Assign Us Extra Homework!

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My faith in humanity has been restored. Actually, it's fairly easy for me to restore my faith in humanity, and the one place that can reliably do it is the public library.

I love the library, even when it doesn't have the book I'm looking for (it didn't), and even when the checkout people are rude or asleep. It's just so cool to me that everyone is there to find something out, whether it's the incredibly skinny boy looking at manga, or the too-cool-for-school teenage girl sneaking a peek at the travel guide to Greece (what's she planning?).

And every strange book is there, all mixed up with the others, great next to good next to ridiculous next to great! At least sometimes everything is there, and so that's how I go from all happy and inspired to pissed off and irritated.

It all comes back to shelving. You want to know what really ticks me off? Having a shelf in the library called "Assignment Books."

Now no doubt, there must be something about shelving books in this way that it makes it easier to stock multiple copies of The Scarlet Letter. But honestly, is there any more effective way of stabbing a book in the heart and throwing its body in the dumpster than calling it a homework assignment? Not only does it brand it as work rather than play, but it also takes it off the happy, I'm-just-looking-and-thinking-about-reading-something shelves. It puts it off in browser's Siberia, where no one will ever find it. And it seems particularly heinous when it's in the children's section, where it's all about exposure.

This isn't just libraries, and it isn't just classics. I was looking for The Habit of Being, a collection of letters by Flannery O'Connor (it's totally excellent, I highly recommend it) in a most wonderful bookshop, The Biography Bookshop in Manhattan (which has now apparently moved and been renamed BookBook). I couldn't find it, and when I asked a person who worked there, they said "Oh, check out Women's Writing," or something like that, and lo and behold, there it was. But really, Women's Writing? Do they have any idea the extent to which that would piss off Flannery O'Connor? Lucky for them, she's long dead, but still. Her letters aren't women's writing, they're writing, or they're letters. In trying to make a safe space for them, it seems to me that they're putting them off in an airless corner to wither.

Why must we always do this? It's so very…short-sighted? Inaccurate? Divisive? And yet, I know, there has to be some classification system, or we end up in the Strand where I always get overwhelmed and have to walk out without buying anything.

It is a conundrum, and it drives me crazy.

However, this is also true: When I was at the most excellent Brooklyn Public Library (the main branch! as we like to call it, exclamation point and all), I was walking through those YA stacks, and there, nestled right next to DiCamillo, was Dickens. David Copperfield, in fact. Just as ready to be picked up and paged through as anything else. And there I was, all happy and inspired again. I hope they never stash the poor thing in assignment books; it deserves so much better. Though the truth is, as I write this, I think my sympathy is misplaced. Because surely excellent books can outlast anything we do to them. Can't they?

4 thoughts on “Teacher, You Forgot to Assign Us Extra Homework!

  1. What the heck is wrong with good old Dewey Decimal? Call me old-fashioned but I still think it’s a great way to sort books.
    Also, may I just vent my rage about the “new” checkout system wherein the books are scanned and not stamped and you get a checkout receipt like at the grocery store? I loathe and despise it, and does *anybody* not lose the little receipt and forget when the books are due? Would it really be so hard to stamp them in the back??

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  2. I know my library system actually gets a list of the books assigned by the local high schools each year (or semester) and shelves them in ‘assignments’ when they’re supposed to be being read. Which I find a little more palatable–I think they go back to being normal books once thirty-five teenagers don’t need copies.

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