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Call It Slop

March 07, 1993|David Kipen

Who ever heard of a buried treasure six stories off the ground? Yet the treasury of local literary lore catalogued in more than 300 wooden catalogue drawers on the L.A. Central Library's sixth floor might as well be buried, for all the attention this trove gets from the public.

To be fair, the cabinets could be better marked. Marked at all would be nice. But what kind of signage could possibly do justice to 70 years of the Rejected Fiction File? This cultural time capsule comprises 19 drawers of furry-edged 3x5 flimsies, each containing a former staff librarian's summary of a new book and spelling out, with frequently hilarious lack of prescience, why not to acquire it.

What library patron in 1929, for example, would want to read a "dull . . . incoherent and hardly intelligible" novel whose "literary merit" and "permanent value" were both reckoned at "none"? How was poor librarian H. Mitchell to know that something with a derivative title like "The Sound and the Fury" would make such a splash?

How many in 1934 would wade through a novel in which "bodily functions play a disproportionate part," and "one is always within scent of a toilet"? Sadly, not enough to make Henry Roth write another classic after "Call It Sleep." And who, in 1963, would waste his time on a "melodramatic . . . unimportant first novel with no depth"? Well, Buck Henry and Calder Willingham, who not only read "The Graduate" but managed to make it into a fairly important movie. Just as well they didn't consult librarian M. Ehre who clucked: "Our neurotic hero hasn't learned much at college."

Self-congratulatory hindsight shouldn't judge the librarians of Mr. Mitchell's day too harshly. After all, some of them had the vision to start up the California File. The only resource of its kind in existence, the California File devotes a catalogue card to every novel ever set even partially in California, up until the library fires of 1986 flushed the library into its present exile on Spring Street. After that, librarians created the CalFic database, in which they've indexed all California fiction ever since. Some day the library hopes to get a grant to put all the pre-1986 files on-line too.

The California File indexes all California novels not only by author but also chronologically and regionally. The regional index offers nothing less than a literary Baedeker to the entire state of California. Want to write the definitive Hollywood novel? First look up "Hollywood" and check out the legions who've tried. (Even the definitive Woodland Hills novel boasts two competing claimants.) Planning a trip around the state? Why bother with guidebooks when you can take along novels set anywhere from Acampo to Zuma Beach?

Cousin to the California File is the mighty Subject Index, which has been doing for the better part of a century what the Library of Congress is starting only now to do: classify fiction by subject. Every library in the world, ours included, catalogues fiction by title and author. But to find "The Name of the Rose" cheek by jowl with "Northanger Abbey"--for that, and for all the other drawers too numerous and too wonderfully arcane to mention, you have to come downtown.

Until May. That's when the Los Angeles Central Library and its fiction files will close to the public--not permanently, thank heaven, like the county branches recently shuttered by the Board of Supervisors, but just for the summer. It's going to take that long to transport all the library's holdings from Spring Street back to the newly restored palace on Hope Street that Bertram Goodhue originally designed for it in the 1920s.

It's not known whether all the wooden catalogues will remain available for browsing when the library reopens in October. There's early talk of shifting them behind the counter where librarians, who use them more than the patrons anyway, can consult them while taking reference calls.

Also, higher-ups understandably "want everything in the new building to be new and shiny," says one librarian, and the fiction files are neither. They are old and brown, their brass fixtures tarnished, the cards inside yellow with foxing, and if you kneel down sometime when everyone across the room is hunched over perfectly useful CD-ROM catalogues with names like InfoTrac and ProQuest, they smell like a library.

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