A Weird Occurrence

I went to the public library today to pay off my chikdten’s accumulated overdue fines, which collectively amounted to nearly $80, and pick up another John Le Carre novel, the second in my resolution to read all his books in as nearly the order of publication as I can manage (given whatever holes there are in our library’s collection and whatever may be checked out whenever I go in to pick up my next read–The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, following Call for the Dead).

While there, I also decided to pick up another book by Joseph Conrad, having just re-read Heart of Darkness, a book I still don’t really get, but which has my favorite line in all literature: “Droll thing life is—that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose.”

And I found a Conrad book titled The Nigger of the Narcissus. A bit shocked, although the word appeared often enough in Heartvof Darkness, I picked it up, and, curious about how Conrad’s “nigger” perspective played out, decided to check it out.

But at the desk, the bar code in the book wouldn’t scan. When the clerk tried to look it up, it was not in the system; it had been removed from circulation, but mitvremoved from the shelves.

Why? Shelf space is clearly not the issue. My best guess is the title. At all accounts, I found it both curious and disappointing. Now, perhaps, I’ll have to order it.

If I do, it won’t go on my office shelves; I can guarantee that.

About James Hanley

James Hanley is former Associate Professor of Political Science at Adrian College and currently an independent scholar.
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11 Responses to A Weird Occurrence

  1. Troublesome Frog says:

    The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is excellent. That is all.

  2. J@m3z says:

    Yes. Yes, it is.

  3. pierrecorneille says:

    I haven’t read it either (although I’ve read Heart of Darkness). Is it old enough to be available for free on project gutenberg or archive dot org? I get a lot of my old books from those places and just download them to my kindle. (I think you can also pdf it to your desktop or laptop, if you don’t have an ereader.)

  4. lancifer666 says:

    Perhaps they have removed all works that use the word “niggardly” as well, even though the word has nothing to do with the disgusting “N” word.

    (In 2007 Washington, DC’s African American Mayor, Anthony Williams, gladly accepted the resignation of his white staff member, David Howard, because Mr. Howard uttered the word ‘niggardly’ in a private staff meeting.

    Webster’s Tenth Edition defines the word ‘niggardly’ to “grudgingly mean about spending or granting”. The Barnhard Dictionary of Etymology traces the origins of ‘niggardly’ to the 1300’s, and to the words ‘nig’ and ‘ignon’, meaning “miser” in Middle English. No where in any of these references is any mention of racial connotations associated with the word ‘niggardly’.)

  5. pierrecorneille says:


    I’m aware of a similar anecdote, but I forget the exact context. It had something to do with someone giving a speech somewhere.

    I’m mostly with you. If the word means something different from the n-word, then we shouldn’t punish people for using it.

    However, I do think that people in this day and age who say “niggardly” ought to be prepared for other people not to know it and to take it the wrong way. It may have nothing to do with the n-word etymologically, but it sure sounds like the n-word, and it’s not in very common use. And it’s not unheard of for two similar sounding words that have different etymologies to be confused (although I’m lacking in examples). I also suspect that in some cases, a person might use “niggardly” but intend it to be heard as the n-word, and then later claim that they meant “miserly” and not the n-word. That doesn’t necessarily happen a lot, or at all. I’m just throwing that possibility out there.

  6. michaeldrew says:

    So did they let you take the book or did they want to take and put it in storage or whatever?

  7. “Why? Shelf space is clearly not the issue. My best guess is the title.”

    I obviously don’t know anything about your library, but I wouldn’t be surprised if in fact, shelf space might indirectly be an issue. My understanding is that libraries have to take a long view of their storage costs and de-accession things regularly. Even if I’m right as it applies to your library’s case, why it chose this particular book and not another isn’t entirely clear to me, unless the title itself is the reason. Still, anything by Conrad probably falls under what most canons would call a “classic,” and therefore wouldn’t necessarily call for de-accessioning. One other thought: does the library have a “collected works of Joseph Conrad” that includes that book. If so, then maybe the library took that into consideration when de-accessioning.

    (Even though I work in a library at the moment, I’m talking about this mostly as a layperson. I don’t deal with de-accessions or collections decisions, and it’s an academic library, which probably has different priorities.)

  8. lancifer666 says:


    I agree that anyone that uses the word “niggardly” should be prepared for negative reactions from people that are racially hyper-sensitive and have relatively average vocabularies.

    I also think that anyone that expects the word “niggardly” to be restricted from public usage for its phonetic similarity to the “N” word should be mocked and cowed

  9. Matty says:

    I’d agree but with a caveat that if someone has a history of repeatedly accusing black people, and only black people of being niggardly and then using “no I meant miserly” as a defence at some point people would be justified in saying they are using word games to try and hide from accusations of racism.

  10. AMW says:

    Next time you’re at the library ask if they have this title.

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