Fun things I’ve been reading about libraries and librarians
No, I haven’t spent the first weeks of summer poring over Library Journal. But I have been reading some fun fiction and creative nonfiction featuring libraries and librarians. I probably should be reading Library Journal, but I’m trying to give myself a little break and remember how I used to find reading fun. I still have a bit of an “academic hangover” after the English master’s I finished last year, and one of the fun side-effects is that every time I pick up a book, I feel a rush of panic and a need to locate a loaded Bic 0.7 mm pencil to make tiny-but-profound comments in the margins. Reading for library school has helped cool this panic a little bit–whether what we read is practical or theoretical, it has the goal of helping people at its core (my apologies for the cheesiness). So without further ranting, here are some fun books:
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
This is a new fiction book that starts out in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, where historian Diana Bishop is on sabbatical from Yale to do research on alchemy manuscripts. Diana is a witch and a direct descendent of Bridget Bishop, one of the first witches tried and executed in Salem. She has renounced her magic and become a famous historian, but she can’t avoid it when she requests a manuscript at the Bodleian, discovers it is under a spell, and later learns that she is the only one who can break it. When she refuses, a bunch of angry witches, daemons, and vampires start following her around the Bodleian, making it difficult to continue research and annoying the archivists to no end. She ends up enamored with Matthew, a vampire who tries to protect her from the other creatures. I haven’t finished the book yet, but things just keep going wrong for poor Diana, especially when she learns that it is against the rules for vampires and witches to be involved. One of the best parts of this book is the way it brings together so much history–from the Christianization of Europe, to early scientific discoveries, to the Salem witch trials. And if nothing else, it makes me feel like my problems are pretty small. I mean, at the end of the day, at least I’m not romantically entangled with a 1500-year-old vampire and getting bum rushed out of the Bodleian by a bunch of angry daemons. It could be worse.
The Female Man by Joanna Russ
I can’t believe I’d never heard of Joanna Russ before! I loved this book, and I’m going to read more of her work. The characters are four women from four parallel universes: Janet is from Whileaway, a future version of Earth populated entirely by women, Joanna is a 1970s feminist from our current version of reality, Jeannine is a librarian in the 1970s in a parallel universe where the Great Depression never ended, and Jael is something like a warrior queen from yet another universe where men and women live in separate, warring societies. Phew! It reads kind of like a weird dream. These four women time travel into the other universes, and they find the social positions of their counterparts strange, surprising, and often troubling. It is such an interesting way to discuss how arbitrary our social norms about gender roles are–and yet how they dictate the terms of women’s lives nonetheless. Of course, the librarian character is the most repressed and disempowered, which makes me a little sad. I’m not sure what to do with that–except to be happy that she gets to be a badass time-traveler and hang out with a warrior queen. There’s also a great line from the end when Russ is speaking to her book as she sends it out into the world: “Wash your face and take your place without a fuss in the Library of Congress, for all books end up there eventually, both little and big” (213). This is a contentious book for sure, one that is meant to rile people up and create discussion. Russ pictures it having to get cleaned up and resign itself to a fuss-free life in the LOC, which sounds kind of like a book purgatory. Weird, huh? Maybe she’s saying that librarians need to start the revolution by putting books like this one where people can see? That’s how I’m interpreting it. 🙂
Speaking of the revolution! I found this book at the beginning of spring semester and it helped me imagine the library as a place for activism and social change. Celeste West was a radical feminist librarian who started her own press to print alternative library literature, attended countless protests, and liked to hide seed packets in the card catalog. She is my librarian heroine. This book is a collection of memoirs by friends, photos, and excerpts from Celeste’s books and articles. It led me to Revolting Librarians and Revolting Librarians Redux, which draw on Celeste’s work and legacy to discuss problems with the mainstream library system and ways to better serve patrons who don’t fit the norm. Read them all. Celeste is awesome.