Comedian Adam Conover ruins library misconceptions (Q&A)

By Adam Sockel, Staff Writer | October 2019

Adam Conover is the host of the wildly popular TV show “Adam Ruins Everything,” where he dispels commonly held misconceptions about everything from technology and sitcoms to nachos and nature. The show is loaded with interesting and factual information, provided in a comical format. He also adores libraries. Perspectives on Reading sat down with Conover to discuss how he uses both physical and digital content available from his local library to help his never-ending quest for knowledge.

PoR: How do you use the library today, as an adult?

Adam Conover: I was an avid library user as a child and in high school, and grew up going to the library regularly, checking out tons of books. I loved my college library, and then I moved to New York City and kind of forgot to go to the library. It’s funny, in retrospect, I now realize that for three years I lived within walking distance of the gorgeous main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library and their wonderful collection and never went in. I was ordering used books online, instead. It was only in the last two years or so as an adult that I rediscovered my love of the library where I now live, in Los Angeles, by going to the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL).

I think what rekindled it was that the “Adam Ruins Everything” office was right by the central library, and our research team would make frequent trips to get materials, and I thought I should pop in as well. I’m new to the city, I should get a library card. As I walked in, I think I rediscovered the wonderful fact that I can take any of these books home!

PoR: Is this around the time when you discovered digital reading?

Adam Conover: For my pleasure reading, (the Libby app) and libraries make it easy to read things I wouldn’t discover otherwise. The barrier of buying a book is that I have to really know I’m going to like it before I plunk down my $25. With the library, I can browse the fiction section and say, “Oh, I was debating reading that! Okay great!” Or I’ll use Libby’s “Available Now” filter and give something a shot. If in 20 pages I’m not feeling it, I just return it and read something else.

As far as my work goes, I have to do a lot of research for my show. On “Adam Ruins Everything,” our research staff does the initial research and points me to specific articles and books. But personally, I’ve developed a live show I do around the country called Mind Parasites that is a mix of stand-up comedy and a live lecture. I talk about the biological parasites that control hosts’ minds and then I talk about cultural parasites that control our minds like advertising, social media and alcohol. So, when I started putting the show together, I started doing basic research to see what was out there, and, thankfully, at the library and through OverDrive and Libby, something you can do is grab a bunch of materials on a specific topic incredibly quickly.

I would literally search Libby for books on advertising and borrow as many as possible or go to LAPL, grab a stack of books and sit down and see what I could find out. The ability of having all of this varied content on either a physical or a digital shelf that you can just grab and leaf through is essential for the research process. That is something that can’t be replaced by purchasing one book.

PoR: If you were going to do an “Adam Ruins Everything” about libraries, where would you start?

Adam Conover: That’s really, really interesting! I don’t know if it’s possible. For the show to work, you need to find the bad side of something or the secret, evil side. I would say that if we were going to do a show on libraries, it would be to combat the narrative that, “We don’t need libraries anymore. We don’t need these physical structures when there’s so much information on the internet.” I think that this notion ignores that incredible power that libraries have. Having access to information that you couldn’t otherwise afford allows you to interact with that information in a completely different way. Buying books is wonderful, I have a massive shelf of books that I own, and, in fact, I just bought a book about vaccinations that I was reading as a library copy because I knew I wanted to have it in my house longer than those three weeks.

Here’s another example: I grew up watching anime and reading manga. I didn’t keep up with it over the years, but when I went to my neighborhood library branch, they had a whole shelf of manga! Countless series and copies, and it’s a wonderful example of a local library understanding what their patrons want. Manga isn’t something I’m ever going to buy. I don’t have a comic collection, and these volumes are like $12 each, and spending that much on each one is a huge risk if I don’t like it. But I can bring them home, and it’s an incredible way to sample comics, especially if you’re trying to dive into that fandom.

There’s also the incredible array of services that libraries provide that aren’t just around books, and I know those who know about libraries won’t be surprised by this stuff. But, every time I go to my local library, they are having a different event, and so many of them are services the community desperately needs. They help people learn how to apply for citizenship, they help connect the homeless with services in the area and especially what blows me away is who is at the library. You assume a certain stereotype of people who go to libraries, but every hour they’re open, you’ll find people of all ages and cultures interacting with vital services that no one else is providing.

As far as bad things about the library…it’s hard. To me, (libraries are) the most essential institutions in the country. It’s almost baffling it exists at all!

PoR: To build off your point about dispelling the common misconception that people don’t visit libraries anymore because of digital content, research shows that the more ereading people do, the more they actually visit physical libraries.

Adam Conover: I had the same experience! I misspoke earlier about how I rediscovered the library. Before seeing all the amazing things going on every day at my local branch, I had gone to get a new library card just to use OverDrive. It reminded me that the library was open to me and so I said, “Let me drop by there once in a while,” only to realize, “Oh my gosh, it’s so great here!”

I think something else that creates interest in the physical library is that the demand for ebooks and physical books is very different. There are tons of books where I wanted to get the ebook but there was a long wait list, and then when I looked at the library website, I saw that they had a hard copy on the shelf. So, if I need one quickly, I’ll pop over and pick it up. Really, the digital and physical collections end up being complimentary. There have been plenty of times where I’ve had the physical and digital copy of a book at the same time! I love switching back and forth between them, honestly.

PoR: We can’t let you leave without giving us some book recommendations…

Adam Conover: Oh my gosh, absolutely! I’m currently reading On Immunity by Eula Biss, which is both a history of vaccination in America and the science behind it as well as a personal history by Eula about her own experiences giving birth to a son and the pressures that first time mothers feel today. It’s incredibly thoughtful.

Another book that blew me away was Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, which is all about eviction in Milwaukee. It paints the picture of this unacknowledged crisis of eviction in America. It’s one of those works of nonfiction that is fully reported with all real people, but it reads like a novel. It’s one of the most gripping books I’ve read in a long time and it really shows you what the true housing crisis in America looks like today.

For pleasure reading, I mostly enjoy science fiction, fantasy and speculative fiction, and I just finished an amazing book called The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson, which is a little Game of Thrones-y where there is magic and a story about sociopolitical forces. It’s basically a fantasy novel about colonialism, intrigue and self-identity. Just a stunning novel. I currently have the sequel on hold on Libby and it tells me I will have it available in about three weeks!

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