Is Reading a Zero-Sum Game?

I posted a poll on Twitter, the other day. There wasn’t any real intent behind it, except maybe the idea that I’ve been looking at the same picture of the same trees for too long, and needed something new to pin to my profile page.

The question was Would you be interested in a private, membership library? Yes or no. I didn’t even manage to come up with a snarky third option.

Full disclosure: I didn’t think the question was political, at the time. I didn’t really think anyone would have strong opinions about membership libraries, and I actually didn’t know that I had strong opinions. I have paid fees to libraries that do not lend directly to the public; about 50 dollars, as I recall, but I’m not sure if that was per year or per semester.

Everything is political. Some days, I think I could announce to the internet that Horny-Toad sperm tastes terrible, (that’s pure speculation of course) and I’d immediately wind up with five people protesting that I’m being unfair to horny toads.

So, the first response I get is from someone I know (Twitter Style) and they are very against private libraries, and here’s why: in their opinion, private libraries would take funds away from public libraries.

You note, of course, that we’ve already skipped to where they are talking about future private libraries and I’m talking about present tense ones.

Oh, okay.

So, I ask if the subject matter would make a difference. What if the library were dedicated to something utterly obscure? Ventriloquist dummies, or phrenology? Something not generally of public interest? Something that would get a city librarian fired, if she spent a few thousand bucks on it?

And that’s where the conversation begins to separate out.

It’s not that we have any deep, dark differences. We’re both people who support the reading community, and books, and writers, and education, and all the things that go with it.

It’s just that she believes libraries are a zero-sum game–that my ventriloquist dummy library on the other side of the town, diminishes interest in public libraries, and therefore in funding for them–and I don’t.

She’s horrified by the idea that someone will start a private, membership-only library and that lower-income people will wind up being left out.

I’m equally horrified by the idea that private ownership of books is seen as a threat. I have trouble differentiating between private libraries (good) and private libraries (evil). Or even, for that matter, where “library” begins and “private citizen who owns books” begins. After all, if my ventriloquist dummy library is a threat to funding… wouldn’t bookstores, and e-readers, and Amazon also be a threat to funding? And wouldn’t I have more interest in funding public libraries, if private citizens simply weren’t allowed to own books?

I found myself looking for the line–the point at which a private library goes from good to evil–and not finding one.

She tried to explain it to me–size, maybe, or renting separate space, or maybe the first time you take out an ad in the local paper–but I just wasn’t getting it.

And I’m pretty sure she wasn’t following my logic, either. After all, we started out in different arguments. In hers, reading is a zero-sum game. In mine, it’s not.

I believe that every book in a community enriches the community as a whole. Whether I read it or not. Whether I want to read it or not. Whether I’m able to read it, or not. It adds to the culture of literacy.

I believe that if I walk next door to borrow a book, the door will be opened.

She expects it to be slammed in her face.

(Did I mention that we come from different backgrounds?)

So, I’m still sitting there. I’m waiting for someone to define a way in which my own library–my collection, my house, and my culture of literacy–is not one of the evil libraries. A way in which I’m not essentially a membership library, already.

And she’s listing all the fabulous, valuable things that libraries do.

But she’s not explaining why I should be allowed to keep my books, but that private library over on 16th street is an abomination.

Loaning books to your friends is not the same thing…

And I wait to hear how it’s different.

How many members make a library? (And what, exactly is a member?) How many books? Am I good, if I just don’t offer copying services to the members?

If I invite friends over to study, and we all exchange books, and talk, and whatever… we’re not competing with the public library until we all decide to go dutch on ordering a pizza, right?

What if we’re not friends? What if we’re randomly matched study-buddies? What if I set up a Little Free Library, and never even lay eyes on the people who borrow my books? What if I just make people sign a contract that they will not dog-ear the books, and they won’t eat cheerios while they’re reading?

No… I can’t wrap my head around the idea of reading as a zero-sum game. It just doesn’t work for me.

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