Imaginary Florida Man Better Read Than You

Chuck Finley, apparent library patron extraordinaire, checked out 2,361 books from the East Lake County Library in Sorrento, Fla., over the course of nine months. That's about 260 books per month. The guy was tearing through novels at a rate of NINE PER DAY.

Except of course he wasn't. This being Florida, Finley was the invention of two library officials looking to save books from being purged. The library gets rid of anything not checked out in two years, and they devised the scheme to stave off losses.

You know what jumped to mind? That scene in "Wild," where the guy tells Reese Witherspoon she should burn the pages of her books as she reads them on the trail, to lighten her pack. "It doesn't make you a Nazi," he says, when she looks shocked.

There is something uncomfortable about the idea of burning a book. Or throwing it away. Of seeing it destroyed. I grew up being taught books, the physical item, were important and imbued with value.

But they're not, really. Not in the way that "book burning" as a symbolic act once threatened. We carry libraries in our smartphones now, ensuring ideas and words persevere. Actual books, cheap paperbacks, are no longer constructed to survive anyway.

And yet it's just an uncomfortable idea. It's easy to understand the motivation of the librarian who devised the scheme. A Chicago Tribune columnist called the person a "hero."

That's probably a bit too far. There's plenty of reasons the fake patron was a bad idea--but apparently it's not an isolated incident. Several news stories reported there are other instances of this happening. Some of them may be related to funding levels that are tied to circulation, but in this instance it appears to be only the love of books.

If you gave me the option to turn every book I own into a perfect digital copy, and lighten my load, I wouldn't. I also don't want all my books in physical form. There's got to be a balance. And libraries have to change; many are now doing digital loans in addition to their physical catalog.

I've seen a question posed a few times and ways lately: are libraries still relevant?

The answer is a clear Yes, but the incident in Florida muddles the issue. Libraries are absolutely relevant, but they will have to change. Maybe Sorrento, Fla., doesn't really need that particular copy of "Cannery Row." Maybe there's other resources that can have a bigger impact.

But hats off to Chuck Finley and the librarians involved. I'm all for harmless mischief, particularly involving the written word, and I hope they don't lose their jobs for this. Mostly it seems a good reminder than libraries will need to evolve, but if they can then they can achieve even greater impacts.

Posted on February 7, 2017 and filed under Books.