What the Academy Awards, Oscar Pistorius, and Public Libraries Have in Common

The new national neurosis is cultural hoarding.


courtesy ABC

Does it surprise anyone in a nation that has turned hoarding into a hit cable TV franchise that we've got trouble letting go of things that have clearly outlived whatever usefulness they might once have possessed?

The Academy Awards, the conflation of celebrities with role models, and public libraries: All are worthy of the sort of unsentimental, unflinching cost-benefit analyses we typically direct only at our least-favorite relatives, co-workers, and politicians.

Week after week, A&E's Hoarders showcases folks who are holding on to every litterbox their cat or child ever soiled and every Ronco pasta maker or sandwich press they ever purchased. What Faulkner said about the American South's uniquely regional inability to move into the future – "The past is never dead. It's not even past" – is now officially a national neurosis.

You need look no further than this Sunday's marquee television event to grok this more fully than the title character in Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily," who spent years sleeping next to her lover's corpse rather than sign up for ABC's "Live Oscar Sunday" begins at 7p.m. Eastern time and, if past performance is any indication of future results, the 85th Academy Awards ceremony will last longer, have less plot, and deliver fewer laughs than the director's cut of John Carter of Mars.

Last year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts finally located the cryogenic tube housing Billy Crystal and thawed out the well-preseved former host just in time to see a modest uptick in viewership. This year, the Academy is banking on Seth MacFarlane, the very funny and irreverent auteur behind the TV shows Family Guy and the movie Ted (which starred a stuffed animal fond of smoking pot and casual sex). In a commerical announcing his hosting duties, MacFarlane tells kids to ask their parents what the Oscars are and tells parents to ask their kids who the hell he is.

courtesy Hoarders

That doesn't bode well for the Academy Awards, which has recently expanded the number of films considered for best picture and other honors in a bid to maintain relevance in a mediaverse in which individuals thankfully have ever more power to choose what they watch, where they watch it, and how they value it.

Which brings us to a very different sort of Oscar, one who symbolizes a long-cherished ideal that deserves to be tossed out along with the Academy Awards: the bizarre notion that public figures should be role models. During the last Summer Olympics (another spectacle whose best days seem firmly in the past), the legless sprinter Oscar Pistorius was held up as an inspiration to us all because he overcame his disability en route to finishing last in a 400-meter semifinal at the London Games.

courtesy reality

Now that he's being investigated by police in his native South Africa for killing his girlfriend, observers seem open to rethinking the easy equation of athletic prowess, political success, or general media visibility with anything resembling moral virtue (the recent confessions/convictions by/of folks as varied as Lance Armstrong and Jesse Jackson, Jr. are contributing factors as well). Which means that such people are only about 20 years behind college dropout and former basketball great Charles Barkley, who declared in a 1993 Nike ad, "I am not a role model," after spitting on a girl, cursing at fans, and elbowing a hapless and half-starved Angolan opponent during a 68-point blowout.

Chances are that you heard about Pistorius's arrest while surfing online at work, fishing a newspaper out of the garbage at a Starbucks, or watching ESPN at the gym. Just about the last place you would have caught wind of the news is a public library, whose primary patrons these days seem to be the employees who work there, homeless people looking for a crash pad, and porn watchers whose home internet connections have been choked off by concerned family members.

Popular children's book author Terry Deary – he writes the Horrible Histories series, which chart just how awful the old days really were – has come under fire for calling libraries "no longer relevant." Citing declines in use and shrinking availability of tax dollars, Deary told the (U.K.) Guardian that it was time to revisit the idea that the public has a right "read books for free, at the expense of authors, publishers and…tax payers." Libraries, he notes, were created at a time when books were expensive, schooling wasn't universal, and the term "British queen" referred only to royalty. Further proof that Deary is right that times have changed since the 19th century? Virtually none of his hate mail is being delivered by traditional postmen.

This much seems certain come Sunday evening: Your local library will be closed, Oscar Pistorius will be pronouncing his innocence, and the Academy Awards will run overtime.

How best to pass the time if you choose to turn away from the dreary past and embrace the meh present? Hoarders is, alas, currently on hiatus, yet A&E's website invites us to watch not just whole episodes but, god help us all, deleted scenes from past seasons.