As yet another National Library Week (April 13–19) settles upon us, it’s high time we recognize just how underserved the stoic librarian is in popular culture, a place where, for every heroic Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl), there are a dozen of characters like It’s a Wonderful Life’s Mary Hatch foisted upon the masses: spinsters by the age of 30, conservatively dressed, shy, and liable to faint at the sight of anything abnormal.
Though the librarian stereotype continues to thrive in television and film, it is thankfully shattered in the world of literature. Rather than offering up dry, buttoned-up types (or their opposite: the sex-crazed nymphomaniac hiding behind a pair of horn-rimmed glasses), many contemporary writers attach the occupation to immensely complicated characters forced to confront their own morals. Whether it’s Mike Hanlon from Stephen King’s It, or Henry DeTamble from Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, these library employees, all flawed individuals, breathe in a three-dimensional environment.
Below, I recommend 11 pieces of contemporary literature that help put the tired image of the introverted, prudish library worker to rest.
1. Sylvia’s Sister from “The Isle of Youth” by Laura van den Berg
The title story to van den Berg’s superb 2013 collection revolves around a nameless research librarian visiting her twin sister, the wild Sylvia, in Miami. Needing a cover, Sylvia convinces her banal kin to swap identities for a brief period so that she can disappear with her married lover for one final fling (she needs a cover, you see, because her lover’s wife has caught on to the affair). Living in her sister’s skin, van den Berg’s protagonist, herself strung up in a failing marriage, begins to appreciate the alternatives to her humdrum life, one so mundane that she never needs to mention her name. But as strange men arrive at Sylvia’s apartment, the simple game of dress up quickly spirals into a web of deception.
2. The Librarian from “Quiet Please” by Aimee Bender
In playing off of the “fantasy librarian” stereotype — docile in public, crazy in the bedroom — Bender introduces us to another nameless librarian, who, after learning of her father’s death, resolves to have sex with a string of men in her workplace’s back room. The encounters are brisk and intense, meant to “split her open and murder her because she can’t deal with a dead father.” Yet Bender refuses to let her story (from The Girl in the Flammable Skirt) dawdle in the smutty throes of eroticism, painting in its place a picture of a deeply pained woman who meets her match when she attempts to bed a circus strongman. He rebuffs her offer, choosing to carry her around the library on the back room’s couch instead. A surreal, sexy, sad story.
3. Lucio from The Last Reader by David Toscana
Toscana’s novel wanders between the real and the imagined, using a technique the author calls realismo desquiciado (unrestrained realism) to tell the story of Lucio, the librarian of a small Mexican village: a desolate, drought-filled land where reading is frowned upon. Having lost all government funding for his library, Lucio nevertheless continues to work while he slowly grows thin (no funding means no paycheck). He’s so caught up in literature that — seeing the opportunity to flex his literary muscles — he uses fictional texts to advise his son’s actions after a dead girl is found in bottom of the young man’s well. The Last Reader satisfies by challenging the very ideas of traditional plot and narrative rhythm expected in a novel.
4. Lucy Hull from The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai
After stumbling into a career as a librarian (without earning an MLS!), Makkai’s Lucy finds herself as the head of the children’s department in Hannibal, Mo., wondering, at 26, what she is doing with her life (“I hated that I’d started to look like a librarian,” she laments). Her one saving grace is a smart and outgoing fifth-grader named Ian who frequents her story-time program. However, Ian’s mother, a religious fundamentalist, doesn’t care for her son’s budding interests. She limits him to books filled “with the breath of God” and sends him to a religious sexuality class to quell his suspected homosexuality. Mutually miserable, Lucy decides to abscond with the boy after he asks her to drive him to his grandmother’s home. The pair runs away from their misfortunes, embarking on a rambling journey through the Midwest, with the destination of Vermont off in the distance.
5. Madeleine Wallace-Williams from “The Sunday Following Mother’s Day” by Edward P. Jones
In this spectacular story, Jones telescopes decades to tell the tale of Madeleine, a cataloguer at the Library of Congress, and her brother, Sam, a baker, as they struggle to understand why their father murdered their mother when they were children. Madeleine spends her life trying to solve the riddle of the crime — “researching the Why,” as the author puts it — while Sam spurns all connection to his father and suppresses his frustrations. Jones devises an honest portrayal of two angry, confused souls as they stumble through the years, climaxing with Madeleine finally meeting her father face-to-face. The encounter is awkward, cruel, and heartbreaking, exactly as you’d expect when confronting the man who set a traumatic life into motion. You can find this story in the collection Lost in the City.
6. January from “Long Delayed, Always Expected” by Dan Chaon
Chaon’s story, from his collection Stay Awake, details a relationship between a library worker, January, and her brain-damaged ex-husband, Jeffrey. Described as a cruel, critical man before a car accident injured him severely, Jeffrey now is happy, kind, and gladly devours whatever meals January serves during his visits. This shift in personality, coupled with his fresh boyhood wonder, kindles a longing within the woman, and soon thereafter they sleep together. But is this reunion joyous, or is January taking advantage of a disabled individual? “Long Delayed, Always Expected” is a darkly funny narrative dripping with tenderness.
7. The Narrator from The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman
The narrator of Hoffman’s novel is a reserved librarian “devoted to death” with a knack for making wishes come true. Unfortunately, these wishes kill two — her mother and grandmother — and send her to the hospital after a lightning bolt levels her in her Florida home. As she recovers, she realizes she can no longer see the color red (a pale white has taken its place) and that her heart feels “frozen.” She becomes obsessed with her condition, and this obsession leads her on a search for Lazarus Jones, another lightning-strike survivor, transitioning the novel into a vivid narrative of rebirth.
8. Mariaelena from “And in the Morning, Work” by Jennine Capó Crucet
Crucet’s story, from How to Leave Hialeah, beautifully tackles the notions of class and intelligence while shaping an entire Cuban world in under 20 pages. Mariaelena, trained as a librarian at La Universidad de La Habana, settles for a lecturing job at a rural cigar factory when, after graduation, no university positions become available. Tasked with reading to the factory’s workers, she wrestles to bridge the gulf between her literary preferences — José Martí, Gabriel García Márquez — and the desires of her audience, who’d rather listen to newspaper gossip. Ultimately a tale of mistaken superiority, Crucet delivers a strong moral message with a gentle hand.
9. Oshima from Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
Oshima, the young, transgender, hemophiliac library assistant in Murakami’s knotty tragedy, toils at the Komura Memorial Library and takes a shine to one of the novel’s two main characters, 15-year-old runaway “Kafka Tamura” (this is an alias, and his real name is never revealed). Oshima guides Kafka through most of the novel’s narrative, providing him with food, shelter, wisdom, and employment, hiding him even when Kafka is suspected of a violent act. Like most of Murakami’s work, this novel is impossible to summarize. Still, in a tale full of UFOs, romancing ghosts, talking cats, and alternate personalities, Oshima remains a steady force, a clear head sifting through the murk.
10. Adam Walker from Invisible by Paul Auster
Auster’s 15th novel is one of his best, chronicling the life and times of Adam Walker, an aspiring poet who, as an undergraduate at Columbia, works as a page at the Butler Library. Walker befriends Rudolf Born, a visiting professor, and the pair agrees to launch a literary journal, but internal conflicts threaten to obliterate the project, and a brutal assault on a would-be mugger compels Born to flee the country. Convinced he must bring his former mentor to justice, yet also baffled by his desires, Walker drifts to Europe, leaving behind, among other things, a sister he may have fallen in love with. A finely mapped labyrinth, Auster tells his story using three different narrators, bouncing through time and point-of-view, and as the novel builds, several questions arise: How reliable is memory? Can a recollection be both false and true simultaneously? A dense, but rewarding, read.
11. Oleana from “Community Life” by Lorrie Moore
Birds of America‘s “Community Life” pivots around Oleana, a librarian at a university in the Midwest who lives a relatively solitary life after losing her Romanian parents in a car crash. One day, as she staffs the reference desk, Oleana meets Nick, a leftover ’60s radical and former convict now working on a political campaign. Their speedy courtship turns to companionship, but as Nick continues to grind his political angles, his fidelity wavers. The break of trust sends Oleana into a spiral: She questions her place in America, begins wearing Nick’s clothes, and decides she doesn’t belong with outgoing people. Employing patterned language, especially the repeated line “She missed her mother the most,” Moore establishes an oddball rhythm that helps introduce the confusion that fills Oleana’s head. Traveling to the doctor’s, the heroine ponders, “if there’s anything wrong with me,” and the reader can’t help but sympathize with Oleana’s plight.
Benjamin Woodard is a writer who moonlights (during the day) as a library specialist at the West Hartford Libraries in Connecticut. His recent writing has been featured in Publishers Weekly, decomP, and The Bygone Bureau. A staff writer at Numéro Cinq Magazine, he also helps edit the literary magazine Atlas and Alice. Find him on Twitter @woodardwriter.
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