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More Bedbug Hysteria in Canadian Libraries

Two weeks ago, we revealed how a New York Times story relied on fear and misinformation to spread needless hysteria about bedbugs in public libraries. We spoke with many of the sources that reporter Catherine Saint Louis had relied on, including entomology professor Michael Potter, and discovered that the odds of getting a bedbug from a book in a library were “so low that it’s not even worth talking about.” Professor Potter was kind enough to provide us with a report which revealed that while bedbug incidents have increased holistically, the threat they pose to public libraries is well behind hotels, motels, college dorms, nursing homes, office buildings, public transportation, and movie theaters.

Yet in the past week, Saint Louis’s irresponsible reporting has inspired Canadian news outlets to engage in crass sensationalism. On December 13th, CBC News claimed that bedbugs were infesting multiple branches of the Vancouver Public Library. But the story relied upon hearsay from library patron Gail Meredith, who conveyed to the CBC that “the pest control people came to the conclusion that the only thing that was going on in my life that was likely to bring them in is my library books.” The article doesn’t confirm this with the pest control people, nor does it attempt to corroborate this incident with the VPL. (Robert Zimmerman, the only reporter listed in the article, did not reply to our request for comment.)

Reluctant Habits made several efforts to contact the Vancouver Public Library to determine the details of the 41 bedbug incidents cited by CBC News. There were phone calls and emails with VPL spokesman Stephen Barrington, who claimed that he was “between meetings.” By Friday morning, Barrington had fled his office for the rest of the year, as hard-working Canadians are wont to do. A helpful VPL employee named James Gemmill passed along a message to VPL chief librarian Sandra Singh. As of Friday afternoon, Reluctant Habits has not heard back from the VPL.

Fortunately, there were more explicit details from Toronto.

On Wednesday, the Toronto Star waded into these murky alarmist waters. Star photographer David Cooper claimed that his wife Peggi-jean had discovered three bedbugs in a checked out copy of Peter Robinson’s Watching the Dark. But Reluctant Habits has learned that the Coopers preferred breaking an attention-grabbing story to one of their employers rather than resolving their problem directly with the library. According to Toronto Public Library spokesperson Ana-Maria Critchley, the Coopers went straight to the Star rather than the Toronto Public Library.

“I’m not even sure if she returned the book,” said Critchley by telephone on Friday morning.

Critchley confirmed that the Toronto Public Library has indeed experienced its share of bedbug problems. In the past twelve months, there have been 24 bedbug incidents in thirteen branches. But the Star‘s Alyshah Hasham fudged the facts to fill in the sensationalist sudoku. Aside from the fact that these 24 bedbug incidents in the past year represented a drop from 30 incidents during the preceding year, it’s worth pointing out that thirteen of these incidents originated from chairs. The remaining eleven were located in books. This slight majority towards furniture is not the even split that Hasham claims it is. Additionally, the Star undercounted the items borrowed by Toronto Public Library patrons. I confirmed with Critchley by telephone and email that 33 million items were borrowed last year, not the 31 million claimed by Hasham.

deathodds

With only eleven reported incidents in 33 million books, your chance of getting a bedbug from an item checked out from the Toronto Public Library is 1 in 3,000,000. According to the National Weather Service, you stand a better chance of being struck by lightning three times during any given year. According to the National Safety Council, you are more likely to die from a dog attack, a flood, contact from hornets, wasps, and bees, a legal execution, or a fireworks discharge, or a flood.

I was able to reach Hasham on her cell phone on Friday afternoon to give her an opportunity to respond to this story. She told me that she could say nothing on the record until she had cleared it with her superiors. I also asked her how any person calling herself a journalist could spread alarmism like this, misrepresenting a minor problem. She responded off the record. I told her that she was doing tabloid journalism, not real journalism.

I left a voicemail with New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan on Friday morning to see if she could remark upon publishing a news story predicated upon a vastly overstated issue. Surely the Times bears some responsibility for inspiring other news outlets to generate attention over an overwrought problem. Much as Sullivan rebuffed my emails and my tweets, she did not return my call. She has, in fact, refused to address Saint Louis’s story. And while Sullivan and Saint Louis continue to remain silent about the Times‘s reportorial incompetence, other outlets continue to take their cues. Because a good yarn playing on a readership’s fears is more important than being accurate.

“I hear stories all the time about bedbugs in libraries,” said Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann by telephone on Friday morning. The entomology professor at Cornell had been quoted in the Star story. I asked Gangloff-Kaufmann if we could ever know from the Star story just how the Coopers contracted the bedbugs in Toronto.

“I don’t think we know,” she said. “I don’t know what his daily life is like. I don’t know what his neighbor does.”

Gangloff-Kaufmann said that it was likely that the Coopers’ bedbugs came to their home through the book, but pointed out that bedbugs are more likely to be found in furniture. “That goes for any place.”

When I asked Gangloff-Kaufmann if she felt that the recent spate of bedbug stories were founded on hysteria or misinformation, she didn’t wish to answer. But she did concede that the risk of contracting bedbugs from a library was out of proportion with certain responses.

“What is the risk? Fairly low. But the tolerance is zero.”

12/22 UPDATE: I asked entomologist Michael Potter for his thoughts on how bedbugs might have found their way into books in Toronto and Vancouver libraries. He informed me that there was a slight possibility of bedbugs congregating and laying eggs in the bindings and edges of hardcovers and paperbacks.

“If you had a heavily infested dwelling,” says Potter, “there’s always the likelihood that, with time, some bugs could move from former hiding sites and begin residing in books. How often this happens with books taken out from the library is anybody’s guess — infrequently for sure, although it can happen — just as you can pick up a stray bug here and there in any number of other activities.”

Potter told me that if books are situated near a permanent infestation (such as a nightstand next to a bed), the odds, despite being exceptionally minute, do increase. But he reports that worrying about contracting bugs from the library is “certainly no more than obsessing over picking them up from the dry cleaner, cozy upholstered booth of your favorite restaurant, taxi cab or bus seat, or your kids coming home from school for the holidays.”

He was kind enough to provide the following picture, showing books that were permanently stored in a heavily infested apartment:

bedbugspecks

“For people who remain concerned about the prospects of bed bugs being transported into their homes on library books,” says Potter, “they can do a quick spot check for signs of the little black fecal spots. Do I do this when I check out books? No. Nor do I go to the trouble of storing my suitcase in the bathtub when I stay in hotels, opting instead for a cursory inspection of the bed and headboard area.”

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The Best Fiction of 2012

There are eight million year-end lists in the naked city. Why the hell do we need another one? Well, I made every effort to keep my trap shut on this dog and pony show for many weeks, figuring that fine minds and excitable souls would ensure that the right butterflies landed in the net. But a number of novels that challenged me, knocked me in the gut, or opened my eyes to the world in new ways have been left behind by tepid tastemakers who wouldn’t know the glorious rush of literature if the late great Harry Crews ran at them with a rifle and a pack of wild dogs. So I feel it my duty as a book lover to weigh in. I read nearly two hundred books in 2012. By a stroke of good fortune, I was able to interview every author who made this list. If you would like to hear these authors in conversation, feel free to click on the links. In the meantime, let’s rock and roll.

megana1Megan Abbott, Dare Me: Before The Millions devolved into an unreadable circlejerk for risk-averse snobs, I tried to impart to these mooks why Megan Abbott was the real deal, pointing out how Abbott’s sentences employed a chewy and often operatic rhythm that was often the only way to deal with the dark edges of existence. But Abbott’s latest novel about cheerleading pushes her distinct voice further with a rich collection of wildly inventive verbs (“Everybody whoops and woohoos, jumping on the bleachers, grabbing each other around the necks like the ballers do”) that will make you wonder how you missed so much beyond the football games. She writes defiantly against the ironic or the ideal cheerleader, but her astute and enthralling observations about teens pushing themselves to their physical limits, often without parents and often with deadly adults entering their lives, left me pondering why nobody went there quite like this before. I’m very glad that Abbott is still on the case. (Bat Segundo interview with Abbott, August 2012)

Paula Bomer, 9 Months: Ayelet Waldman may have kickstarted the conversation about bad mothers a few years ago, but Bomer actually has the courage to chase maternal judgment through the pain and hilarity of its truths rather than attention-seeking pronouncements. 9 Months follows Sonia, a pregnant mother who boldly leaves her husband and even goes so far to have carnal relations with a Colin Farrell-like trucker. You could call 9 Months a Gaitskillian picaresque tale, but this doesn’t do justice to Bomer’s fierce and funny insights into how motherhood’s perceptions change from region to region, how judgment has a way of stifling a pregnant woman’s career track, and the casual cruelty of solipsistic singles who can’t understand these finer distinctions. (Bat Segundo interview with Bomer, August 2012)

cchung1Catherine Chung, Forgotten Country: This devastating and deeply visceral debut about a South Korean family fleeing to the Midwest has so many rich observations about identity, figurative ghosts, reflections you can’t escape in the existential mirror, and the pros and cons of family unity that it’s difficult to convey just how good it is. Roxane Gay suggested that the manner in which the narrator’s sister Hannah removes herself from her family “takes your breath away while it breaks your heart.” But this novel somehow manages to capture joy during these emotional moments, even while confronting cruelty, racist masks, and premonitory violence. Chung’s characters are real because we come to feel their explicit and implicit pain, the type of qualities found in nearly every family. I’m baffled by how this wonderful novel was so overlooked. (Bat Segundo interview with Chung, March 2012)

chipdelanySamuel R. Delany, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders: It’s easy to understand why so many timid souls couldn’t make their way through this bold, long, and ambitious book. The book bombards the reader with so much sex, sex, and more sex that the reader is forced to come to grips with this as a way of life, even if the reader doesn’t share the desire for cock cheese or coprophagia. Yet it’s a profound mistake to dismiss a book, as one vanilla urchin did, because you lack the courage to push beyond your comfort zone. Delany’s opus may seem to be a repetitive depiction of a couple fucking, but the patient and careful reader will discover a surprisingly moving book about growing older, how underground subcultures are increasingly ignored, and how history is not so much about one person’s overnight success but sum of brave gestures from strangers. (Bat Segundo interview with Delany, May 2012)

A.M. Homes, May We Be Forgiven: Years ago, when American novels were still permitted to capture everything, books like The Adventures of Augie March were conversational centerpieces that captured the imagination of popular and literary audiences alike. Yet in recent years, literature has shifted to the twee and superficial. We apparently need our books to bray loud with sheepish sentiments, such as this dreadful sample from Dave Eggers’s A Hologram from the King:

His decisions had been short sighted.
The decisions of his peers had been short sighted.
These decisions had been foolish and expedient.

When prose this unintentionally hilarious is allowed to rise to the top, it’s enough to make you wonder how the deck is stacked against the voices that really count. Especially when the rare book like A.M. Homes’s May We Be Forgiven comes along, demanding something more than unpardonable pablum. Homes was the truly ambitious American novelist this year. Her sixth novel dared to map the surrealistic nature of life with great humor and inventiveness: two paramount qualities missing from that doddering dope in San Francisco. Here’s what happens in the first few pages of the book: kitchen seduction, a bizarre murder, divorce, a man thrust into the role of surrogate parent. You read this book asking yourself how Homes can ever find a narrative trajectory for Harry Silver, whose scholarly devotion to Nixon suggests a Godwin-friendly update to Don DeLillo’s Jack Gladney. Somehow, despite Internet sex and bar mitzvahs in South Africa, May We Be Forgiven becomes a hopeful book about accepting the family and friends who come to you. It features amusing cameos from real-life figures like Lynne Tillman, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, and David Remnick. And it acknowledges its debt to Bellow with the wryly named firm of Herzog, Henderson, and March. (Bat Segundo interview with Homes, September 2012)

harikunzru2Hari Kunzru, Gods Without Men: With all due respect to Douglas Coupland, the Translit label is dodgier than New Adult. Coupland was right to celebrate Kunzru’s smart and spiritual novel for its ability to span history and geography “without changing psychic place.” But when you’re using Hollywood terms like “tentpole” to reinforce your label, there’s a good chance you’re blowing a bit of smoke up the Gray Lady’s ass to get a little attention. Still, none of this should steer readers away from this fine novel. Gods Without Men contains everything from a hilariously inept rock star to a predatory linguist whose efforts to collect Native American stories belie a sad privilege. How much of the world’s difficulties can be chalked up to abandoning one’s wonder and humility at a cross-cultural nexus point? Kunzru, to his credit, avoids a schematic answer to this question. We see how secular faith turns disastrous and back again, with an Ashtar Galactic Command acolyte transformed into a victim. Jaz and Lisa Matharu, a couple recovering from the 2008 recession and trying to contend with their missing son, form a triangulation point of sorts. It’s the reader’s duty to discover more blanks. (Two part Bat Segundo interview with Kunzru, March 2012: Part One, Part Two)

laural2Laura Lippman, And When She Was Good: “If you have to stop to consider the lie,” says protagonist Heloise Lewis, “the opportunity has passed.” With eleven Tess Mongaghan novels and seven stand-alones, it’s become all too easy to take Laura Lippman’s work for granted. But Lippman’s latest novel, which is also something of a sly riff on Philip Roth’s 1967 novel, is one of her best: an astutely observed tale of a deeply complicated and endlessly fascinating woman. By day, Heloise Lewis is a single mother who reads classic literature. But she also runs a high-end escort service. The book’s alternating chapters headlined with dates reveal Heloise in the present day and Helen, the struggling young woman who transforms into Heloise, is captured in the past. But it becomes swiftly apparent that the present informs the past, rather than the other way around. Heloise believes she is in control. She’s thought out her business and her demeanor, but we come to wonder how she allows so many people, ranging from the imprisoned Val to a prostitute who works for her, to take advantage of her. This is a very thoughtful book about the follies of trying to know or outthink everything, which applies to all quarters. Lippman also gets bonus points for including one of the most creative paper shredding contraptions I’ve ever seen in fiction. (Bat Segundo interview with Lippman, August 2012)

lizmooreheftLiz Moore, Heft: Last year, a research team at the University of Buffalo conducted a study with 140 undergraduates which suggested that fiction causes readers to feel more empathy towards others. Empathy seems to be getting a bad rap in fiction these days, especially among some enfants terribles who seem to believe that novels are more about slick heartless style rather than human existence. On the flip side, you have the gushing New Sincerity movement, in which people are interested in mashing irony and sincerity into a roseate sandwich. These strange tonal prohibitions on what one should or should not do in a novel drive me up the wall. If you’re spending so much of your time second-guessing how you should write, then how can ever achieve any original viewpoint? So it was with great joy and relief to discover Liz Moore’s wonderfully endearing novel early in the year about Arthur Opp, a 550 pound man who has not left his Greenwood Heights home in more than a decade and a teenager from a troubled upbringing. Heft proves, first and foremost, that caring about people has little to do with falling along an irony/sincerity axis. Moore told Jennifer Weiner that writing about Arthur let her “write sentences I would have felt self-conscious about writing.” And it (Bat Segundo interview with Moore, February 2012)

jesswalter3Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins: “But aren’t all great quests folly? El Dorado and the Fountain of Youth and the search for intelligent life in the cosmos –- we know what’s out there. It’s what isn’t that truly compels us.” As America slogs its way out of a recession, it was a great relief to read a book hitting romance from so many angles. Walter understands that true quests aren’t necessarily measured in time and distance, but in hope. Beyond Walter’s funny descriptive details (“table-leg sideburns,” “the big lamb-shank hand of Pelle”) which mimic the larger-than-life hyphenated banter found in a Hollywood script, Walter is so good on the page that he allows a film producer to seduce us through a cliche-ridden memoir containing such dimebag philosophy as “We want what we want.” (Bat Segundo interview with Walter, July 2012)

Chris Ware, Building Stories: The box contains no instructions. The pieces range in size and can be read in any order. The characters have no names. The illustrations are beautiful. The form is paper, but that doesn’t stop Ware from reflecting on where digital technology is taking us, both in stark and in speculative terms. There is pain and pleasure and cycles and secret history. There is loneliness and togetherness. My partner and I spent an entire Saturday sifting through this box. We felt compelled to talk more about life. As the pieces were carefully unpacked, we began to treat the comics with an unanticipated reverence, even though there was no way we would never fully know the people that Ware had rendered. Building Stories is the rare prayer that grabs the lapels of the secular. It is your duty to give a damn. It is your duty to feel. (Bat Segundo interview with Ware, November 2012)

Honorable Mention:

Jami Attenberg, The Middlesteins
Brian Evenson, Immobility
Richard Ford, Canada
Nick Harkaway, Angelmaker
Katie Kitamura, Gone to the Forest
J. Robert Lennon, Familiar
Stewart O’Nan, The Odds
Nick Tosches, Me and the Devil
Karolina Waclawiak, How to Get Into the Twin Palms
Adam Wilson, Flatscreen

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

Imagine a pop-up book mating with a crisp high-def image. Throw in occasional jerky motion resembling undercranked Mack Sennett moments when actors move too much, overly defined planes along the Z axis suggesting a View-Master brightened by the heat of a thousand suns, noses and ears sometimes revealed to be pellucidly prosthetic, and overhead shots of landscapes looking more like a cut scene crunched through an overclocked Nvidia card five years from now. To my eyes, this was what 48 frames per second looked like on a fifty-foot screen. I had heard reports that one was “supposed to get used to this” after a period lasting somewhere between five and twenty minutes. Unlike other 3D films, I did not get a headache. On the flip side, I couldn’t believe in the aesthetic.

But then The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is “fantasy” — not the thoughtful form from the adept hands of Michael Moorcock or Mervyn Peake or Kelly Link, but the inoffensive offerings from J.R.R. Tolkien. I don’t necessarily have a problem with a fantasy which opts to swim in the shallow end of the pool. The covenant is that, if the fantasy short-changes on human scope and capitulates to escapism, then the fantasy must inspire new awe and fresh wonder.

We come into The Hobbit familiar with the Shire’s round doors and verdant pleasures from years before. We have seen Middle Earth’s eco-porn greens and Rivendell’s gables and gazebos. So why exactly should we return to the theater and hand over our hard-earned shekels if it’s more of the same? Are we here for nostalgic purposes? Do filmmaker and audience alike prefer stagnation? I didn’t mind being there and back again, but the too clean 48fps technology had the strange effect of cheapening my middling affinity for Middle Earth. Like George Lucas before him, Peter Jackson has returned to the beginning, motivated by technological tinkering and the considerable dollars he will collect from feverish and unquestioning fanboys rather than any real need to spin a good yarn. At least there is nothing here as terrible as Jar Jar Binks.

For long stretches, this first film in Peter Jackson’s new Tolkien trilogy failed to seduce. This is largely because its source material only has enough material for two films. By my calculation, it takes Jackson 168 minutes to dramatize about 82 pages of material, which seems needlessly profligate. The Hobbit is many things, but it is neither Ulysses nor Gravity’s Rainbow. There is no doubt in my mind that we will see an extended version and supplements on DVD ensuring that nobody leaves the house for the next ten years.

The film opens with a lengthy flashback distressingly close to the confusing monologue which opened David Lynch’s ill-received Dune adaptation. But why? “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” is a straightforward first sentence requiring no additional mythology. But Jackson and his writers (which include Guillermo del Toro, who was originally supposed to helm this movie) feel compelled to throw in any stray flashbacks that they can to pad out this movie. I don’t wish to diminish the need for dwarf kingdoms, but there’s nothing in the film’s first hour even as remotely alluring as the Nazgûl, which provided The Fellowship of the Ring with an immediate threat to jump-start the narrative and set our heroes on an adventurous path.

Without something as big as Mordor threatening to engulf Middle Earth driving the story, Jackson’s métier as a Wagnerian filmmaker is undone by a cinematic experience that feels more like a game on rails, especially during a climactic goblin chase scene with a constantly moving godlike camera, but a paucity of closeups or medium shots. It also doesn’t help that Martin Freeman, cast as the younger Bilbo Baggins, really should have been hired ten years earlier. Having grown from the young and neurotic comic archetype into a more subdued and interesting middle-aged actor (best exemplified by his portrayal of Watson in Steven Moffatt’s Sherlock), Freeman is curiously unpersuasive in this film when he complains about wanting to be back home among his books and fellow hobbits. Ian McKellen is okay as Gandalf, but one longs for the gravelly gravitas he displayed so eminently in the last trilogy. However, I very much enjoyed Ken Stott’s fresh and feisty portrayal of Balin. But I do have a weak spot for any character with a massive bushy beard.

This lack of focus causes the first half to feel like a tenuous string of loosely connected sequences: dwarves show up at Bilbo Baggins’s hobbit hole, on Dori, on Nori, on Gloin, on Oin, on Blitzen, orcs, wargs, is Bilbo up for the journey, knowing look from Gandalf, walking, walking, orcs, hidden swords, is Bilbo up for the journey, complaints from Thorin, elves, orcs, knowing look from Gandalf, mention of arcane Middle Earth reference to appease fanboys, orcs, orcs, is Bilbo up for the journey.

You get the idea. But when the mountain trolls show up halfway into the movie, An Unexpected Journey starts to become fun for those, like me, who were fatigued by the bloodless and cutesy bullshit calculated to make this Fun for the Whole Family™. These trolls are lumbering, mumbling, ass-scratching giants who hock loogies into pots loaded with the carcasses of dwarves and elves. In other words, they’re a nice throwback to the visceral films Jackson made early in his career before going Hollywood, serving as a reminder that Jackson is at his best when he lets his inner six-year-old come out. Casting Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown is also a brilliant move, for McCoy taps both his Roadshow days and the dark command he brought to his brown-coated Doctor Who incarnation to enliven the eccentric wizard who plows through terrain with a rabbit sleigh. It is also hard to go wrong with good ol’ Gollum, arguably the most enthralling CGI villain of the past fifteen years, during the highly compelling game of riddles sequence. Why hasn’t anybody created a Ball-Arnaz inspired sitcom called I Love Precious?

But An Unexpected Journey is felled by its zestless commitment to the well-trodden path. Make no mistake: this is not Pan’s Labyrinth, Labyrinth, Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, The Wizard of Oz, Princess Mononoke or The Princess Bride. Did we really need subtitles when the orcs don’t say anything especially interesting? Do we really need narrative digressions when the meat on the bones is so sparse? There are a few inspired ideas, such as the aforementioned trolls and a goblin stenographer traversing along a pulley cable on a chair. But if you spend years of your life working on a fantasy trilogy, shouldn’t it contain more imagination? Shouldn’t you wait as long as it takes to read the secret moon runes embedded in the map?

librarybooks

The Bedbug Bunk: How the New York Times Used Fear and Misinformation to Spread Public Library Hysteria

On Wednesday afternoon, the New York Times published a story written by Catherine Saint Louis claiming that public libraries were now devoting precious resources to a new threat: bedbugs nesting inside the spines of hardcover books and making their way into public libraries like Norway rats stowing away on dusty ships.

The piece, which drew understandable horror on Twitter on Thursday morning, was the seventh most emailed New York Times story by Thursday afternoon.

But Reluctant Habits has talked with many of Saint Louis’s sources and has learned that the Times article is misleading. Bedbugs are not the major threat that Saint Louis suggests they are. In fact, some of the library directors who Saint Louis spoke with have never had a bedbug epidemic at all. They were merely taking preventive measures in the wake of recent media stories.

“We actually never had an infestation,” said Mary Schubart by telephone on Wednesday evening. Schubart, the library director of the Islip Public Library, was described in the article as taking action against bedbugs “after reading about their alarming resurgence.” But the “resurgence” that Schubart was referring to was the national panic. Schubart told me that the only books believed to have bedbugs under her watch didn’t come from her library, but through interlibrary loan. If bedbugs weren’t a severe problem for Islip’s libraries, why then did Schubart react with such an over-the-top measure?

“I saw the media going crazy a year or two ago,” said Schubart, who also cited a “personal abhorrence to little legs” as one of the reasons she started buying pestilence-resistant furniture for her branches. Schubart wanted to appease an antsy staff and keep her regulars appreciative. The “quarterly” visits made by the bedbug-sniffing dogs cited in the Times article were initially “monthly.”

While Schubart doesn’t regret her vigilance, she does have small worries about how Saint Louis’s reportorial approach could result in a needless panic. “I think that the article could create some hype that isn’t necessarily called for.”

Cynthia Berner Harris, the Director of Libraries for the Wichita Public Library system, also confirmed with me on Thursday that she had bagged books “as a purely precautionary measure” after confirming bugs in a seating area. The bugs were not in the books. She said that she has had only two previous instances “where library consumers forewarned us that materials on loan to them had become infested with bedbugs.” But because of Wichita’s better-safe-than-sorry safeguards, which includes staff training and close attention to the types of chairs purchased, the bedbug situation is under control.

“Let’s not get crazed,” said Sue Feir on Thursday morning. “We were proactive.” Feir, library director at Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, was also singled out in the Times piece as someone taking a bedbug problem into her own hands and for “sending an email blast.” But she told me that none of the library materials had been affected. Only the corner of one bookshelf had a problem.

“The area most cited for furniture/bedbugs,” said Feir, “is an area of the library where people often sit, but do not handle books. Multiple chairs may have become problematic because they are moved around.”

Feir said she had never had a problem with bedbugs before, but she did suspect that institutions don’t talk about bedbugs due to embarrassment. “It is hardly a subject people bring up over coffee.”

* * *

“She called me at least three times,” said Michael Potter by telephone on Thursday morning. Potter, a professor of entomology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, told me that he had spent three hours on the phone with Saint Louis patiently discussing the issue. “I really tried to emphasize that, while libraries should be vigilant, we must also have a dose of caution about all this.”

Yet despite the considerable minutes that Potter racked up in explicative overtime with the Times, Saint Louis opted to use only one sentence: “There’s no question in past few years there are more and more reports of bedbugs showing up in libraries.” This served in sharp contrast to a 2010 appearance Potter made on Fresh Air, where interviewer Terry Gross allowed Potter to explain late in the segment that while bedbugs remained a problem, the risk was quite low.

“I guess I get troubled when you spend an inordinate amount of time and hope that it will be an educational tool for the public. Instead, it turns out that you whip people in a frenzy.”

When I asked Potter if he had any hard stats about how likely it was to contract bedbugs from the library, he informed me, with a twinge of exasperation in his voice, that the chances were extremely slim. Worrying about bedbugs in a public library was akin to being afraid to leave the house because you might get struck by lightning.

“The odds of you picking up a bedbug from a book in a library are so low that it’s not even worth talking about,” said Potter.

So what were the reports that Potter had been referring to? It turns out that in 2011, Potter had co-authored a survey with Kenneth F. Haynes, Bob Rosenberg, and Missy Henriksen called “2011 Bugs Without Borders.” (Professor Potter has graciously allowed Reluctant Habits to recirculate the survey. The full PDF can be downloaded here.)

The survey reveals that while, on the whole, bedbug incidents have increased, the threat within libraries is well behind hotels, motels, college dorms, nursing homes, office buildings, public transportation, and movie theaters.

“I mean, these kinds of articles need to provide some balance in terms of this problem because we’re developing a paranoia for some people who hear these sound bytes.”

“All of the hallmarks of an epidemic can be found when there’s no disease,” said Philip Alcabes, Director of the Public Health Program at Adelphi’s Center for Health Innovation. Alcabes suggested to me that the bedbug panic corroborates with some of the concerns he expressed in his book, Dread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics.

“Bedbugs cause itching, of course, but they don’t spread any systemic illness and nobody dies from them. The key is that the problem seems to be spreading and that it stands in for — and reflects back to us — our social anxieties, our worries that the culture has somehow gone too far.”

So why would the New York Times feed reader anxieties rather than serve up the facts?

I made efforts to contact both Saint Louis and New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan on Thursday afternoon, but neither returned my request for comment. I did, however, receive an email from Joseph Burgess, claiming that “the public editor can’t speak on behalf of The Times‘s policies.”

In the meantime, the Times article continues to make the rounds. Is there any hope for a rational consideration of the bedbug problem?

“People can’t be expected to be perfectly reasonable all the time,” said Alcabes. “In an era without witches or angels or signs in the sky, the epidemic offers a context in which some irrational behavior becomes acceptable. Which isn’t a bad deal, in some ways.”

12/7 UPDATE: Brooke Borel, author of the forthcoming book Suck: The Tale of the Bed Bug, has also responded to Saint Louis’s article. She points out that Saint Young is outright wrong in declaring that bedbugs have only just “discovered a new way to hitchhike” through books. “This is an ancient pest, and it has been doing its thing for at least thousands of years. Probably far, far longer.” She also reiterates what entomologists have been telling me over the past two days. The risk is low. “You aren’t very likely to pick up bed bugs in these types of public spaces. The bugs are far more highly concentrated in residences, where they can breed and multiply in close proximity to their food source.”

12/17 UPDATE: A commenter named Joe alerted me to this article, in which CBC News claims that bedbugs are infesting multiple branches of the Vancouver Public Library. The story is suspicious, because it relies upon the hearsay of library patron Gail Meredith conveying to the reporter that “the pest control people came to the conclusion that the only thing that was going on in my life that was likely to bring them in is my library books.” But the story doesn’t confirm this fact with the pest control people, nor does it attempt to corroborate this incident with the VPL. On Monday morning, I spoke with VPL spokesman Stephen Barrington by phone just before he was about to hit a Monday morning meeting. He said that he didn’t have his notes in front of him to spell out the details of the bedbug incidents alleged by CBC News, but that he would try to get back to me later in the afternoon to give me details. I will report any additional details I learn from Mr. Barrington.

12/21 UPDATE: There have been a number of stories circulating in Canadian news outlets about bedbugs in public libraries (including the above-referenced CBC News story). We’ve looked into these claims in a second investigative piece on Vancouver Public Library and Toronto Public Library.