In honor of National Library Week 2019, I offer this brief novella. “Conjectures of a Guilty Librarian” is a work of pure fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental and unintentional.
“Take up and read.”
I remember my older sister reading me to sleep. My mother is AWOL, already tucked into her boozy bed. P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother? is one of my not so ironic favorites. But what really rocks me to sleep are the cadences of Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat.
I never make it to kindergarten. I am no wunderkind reading at three. But I remember coming home from my first day of first grade screaming: RED! I can spell RED!
And from that day forward, I could read. Yertle the Turtle. Horton Hears a Who. Nancy Drew.
My dad’s library beckons. The smell of pipe tobacco. Kingston Trio on the tape deck. So many books looking down at me. Books of the Month Club. Heritage Press. Penguin Classics.
A playground for my gray cells. In my dad’s library, I find my literary friends. Imaginary and necessary. They get me through school: elementary and high and launch me early into university.
Where I fall in love – head over heels in love – with books.
For the Love of a Good Book
“A library is a place where you lose your innocence but not your virginity.”
My lover is an open book.
Currently I am intimate with White Noise by Don DeLillo “Hilarious, beautiful, and strange.”
It’s easy on the eyes, lovely to hold and stimulating to my gray cells.
The perfect companion to take to my bed.
Pillow talk with DeLillo is delightful.
Babette and I have turned our lives for each other’s thoughtful regard, turned them in the moonlight in our pale hands, spoken deep into the night about our fathers and mothers, childhoods, friendships, awakenings, old loves, fears. No detail must be left out, not even a dog with ticks or a neighbor’s boy who ate an insect on a dare. The smell of pantries, the sense of empty afternoons, the feel of things as they rained across our skin.
Such language, it makes me jealous.
Books are sensuous things. Smooth pages, ragged edges, the whiff of oak trees and earth.
Printed words slither from left to right clarifying things in black and white.
Yes, books are quite the tease. Breathless, I dream of what’s on the page’s other side.
And the best of books not only get into my bed; they get into my head.
I’ll never be an astronaut, but I have explored the cosmos. I’ll never be a philosopher, but I have pondered by Walden Pond
All for the love of a good book.
Tumbled between the sheets, my lovers lie spent. Their covers lost. Their spines broken. Their pages torn. Their corners bent.
No man can possibly compete.
Next semester, I begin a two-year tour at Library School. There I will see and taste all this temple has to offer: its collections and its history; its legends and its lore.
A bibliophile’s dream.
“People can lose their lives in libraries. They should be warned.”
The campus and quad are verdant and fresh. Fall leaves crackle under my feet. Muddy gray buildings loom overhead. At the registrar’s office, I drool over the curriculum as I wait in line.
The first day of class arrives. I sit up front. Eager to please. The Dewey Decimal System is a bit of a bore. The History of the Book more tedious than I care to admit. But Libraries: Ancient and Modern is nothing less than a revelation.
I could listen forever to the professor’s Irish lilt. His cable knit sweater could use a wash. His bristly chin could use a shave. Stereotypically rumpled, he is a virtual card catalog of information.
He dazzles the class with tales from ancient Alexandria to the Papal Library at the Vat. I imagine him unrolling a parchment scroll or pulling down a tome from antique shelves.
I check the syllabus and read ahead. I cannot get enough of this stuff. And to be honest, I cannot get enough of this Scholar-Librarian.
Occasionally, he graces my nerdy lunch table. No better banter than book banter. Banned book lists. Fights over first editions. Salty stories from the stacks at Cambridge.
Cracking jokes with my classmates, along with a professor is just plain fun. Deftly deploying my tongue, I hold my own.
We agree on much. We argue even more.
The best arguments of my life. Intellectual and spirited. Brutally honest and exceptionally kind.
I am listened to and understood in a way that I have never known before. Like a rare book, I find my value.
I find my home.
In the Library.
“Libraries should be open to all except the censor.”
Second semester, lucky me lands a job at the front desk. The most menial job a library has to offer. But the hottest spot in town. Through the front doors stream a bunch of biblio-types: faculty, students, researchers. I love getting to know them. Their peculiarities. Their preferences.
I love to watch the preening professor holding court. I love hearing researchers excited about their books. I even love the occasional overly-long conversations at the desk.
And though I am the most verbose of library assistants, the hierarchy believes me deaf. Like a mic hidden in a house plant, I overhear faculty squabbles and gossip of student affairs.
Libraries appear tidy but really, they are quite messy places to work. Alive with an eclectic cast of characters. Haunted by the ghosts of their past.
Meander through the stacks, open a carrel door, run your fingers along dusty spines, mystery permeates the place.
Thousands of books, telling tales, stand silent on the shelves.
They never speak.
Shhhh, the Head Librarian whispers.
At the front desk, I sit in silence. Quietly in the know.
Like a pastor, I hand out bibliographic advice. But I keep my own counsel.
Public Services are private. Circulation is secret.
And there is no censorship in the library.
“To build a library is to create a life.”
I want to be James H. Billington when I grow up. A recently retired Librarian of Congress, Billington is also an acclaimed historian.
A voracious reader, I dream of being a prolific writer. About what yet, I am not sure.
But I know that a Scholar-Librarianis everything I want to be.
Master of collections. Mistress of catalogs. Scribbling away in my private carrel, some passionate brilliance.
But I am held back by library anxiety. Yes, that is a real thing:
Confusion, fear and frustration especially when lacking experience while facing pressure to master a subject.
It leads to procrastination. Timidity. Feelings of inadequacy.
So, how do I score? Much too high. Though I might ace a project, I fall all over myself presenting it. I fumble with my notes. I look down and not up.
Practicing in my living room, I’m polished and funny. In front of the professor, I am an intellectual klutz.
Middle child, in a crazy household, it was best to disappear. Teacher’s pet in parochial school, I gave only the right answers. Rebel without a cause in high school, finally my questions started to fly.
But I am swatted down. Hard.
Which drives me underground. Secret and subversive.
And so, in college, I become an amateur philosopher – arguing with the sages of the ages.
Term paper wise, but never really in person wise.
Bookworm, I am drawn to the Scholar-Librarian like a moth to a flame.
Basking in his light, terrified of getting burned.
“Anyone who’s worth anything reads just what she wants.”
I love spending other people’s money on books. Well, I don’t actually spend the money myself, the Head Librarian does but I do get paid – minimum wage – to find them.
There is a lot of down time at the desk. I flip through the Times Literary Supplement. I skim the Chronicle of Higher Education.I scour professional journals for the latest and greatest of books.
An academic pursuit. But not entirely.
When the first little Library of Congress burned, Thomas Jefferson offered to sell Congress his books. Jefferson had one of the finest libraries in the young United States. His shelves were packed with history, philosophy and the arts. He had volumes on every topic: bee keeping, Italian cooking, magic tricks.
Congress balked. They just wanted the law books.
But Jefferson argued: “There might not be subject to which a member of congress might not need to refer.”
In other words, he was passionate about everything.
“I cannot live without books,”Jefferson famously said.
6,487 of them.
Reading cultivates desire.
I have long played it safe in my life. I am the girl next door hesitant to leave the house. I am a good girl with a crush on a bad, bad boy. My love life does not amount to much. Study groups. poetry readings, book store crawls.
And now I want more.
Epic poetry, mystery, astrophysics.
I fill out bunches of book-recommend slips for the Scholar-Librarian.
I write little notes.
Does he read them?
I don’t think so.
I really don’t’ think so.
“One must be an inventor to read well.”
I am undercover. Circulation is not a simple as it appears. Like a secret agent, I take a read of everyone who comes in the door.
I am expert, of course, because on my break I read an article in Psychology Today. Look “past the masks into the real person. Logic alone won’t tell the whole story about anybody. You must surrender to other vital forms of information.”
Surrender. I love that.
Pay attention to appearance, posture, movement, expressions of the face.
Trust your gut. Honor your feelings
Monitor the mood.
Tune into the tone of voice.
And eyes, of course, are windows to the soul.
Tweed suits. Oxford cloth shirts. Master of tasks.
Polyester mix & match. Counter of fines.
Sweater sets. Tome duster. History buff.
Dockers. Button downs. Glad hander. Ghost story teller.
Here, I pay very close attention.
Not just to the sound of his voice but to sentence structure, punctuation. He laughs louder than he should, his sense of humor raw. His clothes are sloppy, on the preppy side. Solid as an oak tree, an inquisitive sage. Tenured and comfortable in his Ivory tower.
Sometimes he climbs down. His disciples as his feet.
Monday. Wednesday. Friday. First period. 8:30 AM.
Surveys, seminars, group discussions.
All four semesters, I turn my life upside down, so I can take his every class.
Every single one.
On the Shelf
“Speed now book and make yourself known. A thousand hands will grasp you with warm desire.”
Flipping through National Geographic, I happen upon an article about mating rituals in the wild. I read it, of course. The subtle art of seduction is what book displays are all about.
Maybe I can learn something from a preening peacock.
Apparently in the animal kingdom, Birds of Paradise find tickling a turn on. Hooded Seals blow up like pink balloons. And Bowerbirds collect tiny trinkets to lure females to their bachelor pads.
Thank you, Nat-Geo.
Displays are front and center. To entice you. To tempt you.
Current affairs. Famous authors. Or maybe something more unorthodox.
Having closely read the Scholar-Librarian, I design a few.
October. History of Halloween. Haunting, delightful.
March. Mental Health. A public service, of course.
And in May, the sexiest of all – Books about Books.
These are the books literally in the Z section— where only librarians go.
Books that make me weak in the knees:
A Gentle Madness
The Library at Midnight
Touch me. Crack open my cover. Check me out.
I take note of the readers who stop by my display.
The Dewey-Decimal professor.
The periodicals specialist.
The Librarian’s Apprentice
“From this slender beginning, I have gradually formed a select library, the foundation of my works and the best comfort of my life.”
Unpacking a cardboard carton of moldy books, I find a hand typed term paper from 1976: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: A Case Study in the Role of the Mentor. A heaven- sent self-help title. Wearing library gloves, I unpeel it from the bottom of the box and begin to read.
The Scholar-Librarian, approaches the desk.
“Books on Books. Are you the curator of this little display? “Well done,” he continues without waiting for an answer.
“Your work is really fine. Your projects. Your papers.”
“Would you consider applying for the Heritage Apprenticeship? Applications are due end of the month. Interviews start next week.”
Cheshire grin on my lips, I reply: “‘Thanks. I’ll give it some thought.”
I Google the program: Preservation. Oral Histories. Archiving, Digital Curation. Special Collection. Rare Books. Museum Libraries.
Of course, I’ll do this. I download the application. But before filling it out, I do a little homework.
What sort of sorcerer is he?
Look first to Homer’s Odyssey the moldy term paper says.
Mentor is the caretaker of Odysseus’ household while he is away fighting in Troy. Mentor takes young Telemachus, the warrior’s son, under his wing. Like a spirit-guide Mentor opens doors for his charge to an unknown world. Mentor walks alongside his apprentice until he is ignorant no more.
Socrates and Plato. Freud and Jung. Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller.
Spring water gushes from the pump. Cold and wet. Like a slap to a baby’s bottom, the apprentice is woken up. The sorcerer spells out words, his hand in hers.
Yes, I am Helen Keller. And he, my Annie Sullivan.
Application done, interview behind me.
I am appointed the Librarian’s Apprentice.
It starts off slow.
Typing up his research. Culling books from the shelves. Xeroxing notes.
Busy work turns scholarly. More time in the classroom. More time in the stacks.
I arrive early each day. I linger late.
Road trip to a conference. Study tour at the LOC.
The sexiest organ?
The one between the ears, of course.
“The Library is a candy store, and everything is free.”
Libraries are for lending.
You will be carded, of course but there is no cover charge.
Miles of books free for the taking.
At least, for a little while.
It’s an illusion, of course, the book is not really yours to keep. You have to give it back.
Borrowing privileges are ranked. Night school: 2 books for just 5 days. Undergrads: 25 volumes for 5 weeks. Grad students: 50 volumes for 100 days. Faculty: Infinity books, forever.
That’s a whole lot of trust.
Libraries did not start out this way. Medieval libraries chained the books to the desk. A kind of book-bondage.
Before then, monks squirreled the books away in their carrels – for only them to see.
Chaining a book to a lectern, tethers the book to a place. A more public place where any novice who passes by can read.
Basically, a biblo-tease.
I chain myself to my sorcerer’s schedule. I let him read me whenever he pleases. His borrowing privileges far outweigh mine.
Trucking books up the elevator. Shelving in the stacks. Cleaning up a reading room.
A professor and his student, a literary liaison.
Forbidden, like a banned book.
Does he love me? Does he love me not? My yellow rose petals fall to the ground.
Truth be told, I have learned, that out there, somewhere is a mousy little spouse, cozy in a faculty house, of whom he never speaks.
Matter and anti-matter should never collide.
Office hours fly out the window.
One more sentence, one more paragraph, just one more book.
Working away in the professor’s carrell, it’s publish or perish.
The Scholar-Librarian, working on tenure.
The sorcerer’s apprentice, hoping for more.
With a borrowed man and on borrowed time.
Running the risk of overdue fines.
“Literature is my utopia.”
A very smart person just died. How do I know? I know because a van just pulled up out front. The driver gets out and starts unloading boxes. Liquor boxes, produce boxes, Ivory Soap boxes.
Intoxicating, bubbly and luscious fruit.
It is the library of a lifetime.
It is an intimate process – holy even — to unpack them.
Classics and comics. Plato and pulp fiction. History and mystery. Anais Nin.
Which were beloved? Here’s how you tell.
Cracked covers? Multiple reads.
Folded corners? Returned again and again.
Ephemera flutters to the floor.
Postcards and birthday cards, letters and electric bills, business cards and theater tickets.
Once, even a 19thcentury blank check from a Chicago bank.
Vacations, celebrations, obligations, and complications.
This is how the Scholar-Librarian and I become beloved of one another.
Our lopsided couplings, exciting and brief.
And for now, I believe this is all that I need.
It seems presumptuous to ask for anything more.
So now — back to the boxes.
Up go paperbacks and hard covers to the used book shelves.
Fifty cents for the former, a dollar for the latter.
Imperfect, vulnerable, and beautifully flawed.
Don’t worry, beloveds, I will find you new homes.
You will be cared for.
Not cast aside.
“When I have a little money, I buy books. If I have any leftover, I buy food and clothes.”
My Facebook photo is a tower of book boxes.
Emptied, depleted, and totally spent.
I have caught the book lover’s contagion. I covet classics as well as the trash. So, I steal a few books now and then. (Actually, free for the taking.) They pile up in the backseat of my car. Three grocery bags full in just a month’s time.
Inside my apartment, I can barely cram anymore. But somehow, I do.
Bibliomaniac. A hoarder of sorts. Intervention is needed. But there is none to be had. I am surrounded by addicts of a similar kind.
Book junkies. Library rats. Closeted collectors.
Just can’t get enough, we get it wherever we can find it.
Libraries, book stalls, drugstore paperback racks.
Now Bibliomania is an actual diagnosis. You can read all about it in A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books.
Among the gently mad, I find my truest self.
Reading reveals the inner life.
Deflated, I barely focus on a dust cover. Caffeinated, I buzz through a book in a day. Inflated, I consume half a dozen tomes at a time.
Surely the New York Times will ask me to write a few reviews.
I will dazzle the book world with brilliant commentary.
Utterly delighted. Hopelessly distracted.
This must be what passion feels like.
Touched with fire,
I have fallen madly in love with the Scholar-Librarian.
“What wild desires torment the hapless soul who feels the book disease.”
CHANLER ESCAPES. Search Fails to Find Wealthy Demented Man. Former Wife, Also Insane.
This is the dark and delicious tale of Archie and Amelie: Love and Madness in the Gilded Age.
Archie is John Armstrong Chanler, heir to the estate of John Jacob Astor.
Amelie Rives is the goddaughter of Robert E. Lee.
Archie’s family fortune was built on ‘the fur trade, clear-eyed capitalism, and Presbyterian rectitude. Orphaned, Archie and his siblings were “a wild and willful bunch.”
Intellectually curious, a romantic and eccentric soul, Archie“was an inventive young man full of ideas and boundless generosity.”
Amelie Rives was a gifted young writer — gifted — with a dark sensuality. Her first novel The Quick or the Dead? both shocked and impressed reviewers of her day.
Amelie’s Virginia home had “an air of civilized taste and ancient leisure.” Her ancestors included revolutionary war heroes and ambassadors to France.
A siren, Amelie cast aside her corset for flowing robes. “A sizzling vessel of molten lava, she made her reviewers blush and her suitors swoon.”
Archie madly pursued her, proposing three times.
Like fire and ice, their eight-year love affair was doomed from the start. The first two years the couple was more unsettled than not.
Amelie seemed to love Archie most when he was absent. And when together, Archie never quite knew how to rekindle her heart.
Eight years later, Amelie runs off with a penniless prince.
Divorced and disgraced, Archie, still hopelessly in love, supports Amelie until the day he dies.
The truth be told, they drove each other mad.
Their marriage was heaven and hell. Episodes of bliss. Bursts of passion. Disrupted by storms. Overwhelmed by sadness.
It could not possibly last. Indeed, it did not.
“Many people feel better at the mere sight of a book.”
Books are the answer to everything.
When lost at sea, I grab a book. To navigate my way.
Having never written a book, I bought a bunch about how to write one.
The Art of Memoir.
How to Write a Novel.
I confess that I have not read them. Really, I have just skimmed the tables of contents. The Art of Memoir,I managed to read a third. Mary Karr is very good.
This seemed enough to get started. But I keep them close just in case.
As Jane Smiley says, “Many people feel better at the mere sight of a book.”
It’s reading for healing’s sake.
Also, a field of psychology, “Biblio-therapy can help people with the emotional challenges of existence.”
Dealing with acute physical pain, Ceridwin Dovey took the cure. He was doubtful at first.
The insights are still nebulous but therein lies its power. I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence. Reading fiction makes me lose all sense of myself, but at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself.
Lose yourself in a book to find yourself. So, what to read?
Flipping through The Novel Cure, I diagnose my maladies– alphabetically.
Without editorial comment, here are a few:
Anger: Old Man and the Sea.
Breaking Up: The End of the Affair.
Cry, in need of a good: The Fault in Our Stars.
And we are only up to letter C. From A to Z, there is enough therapy between these covers to last a lifetime.
“One sheds one’s sickness in books” D.H. Lawrence wrote.
Read. Return. Repeat.
Two years of biblio-therapy, I break through, leaving the Scholar-Librarian behind.
At least, so I think.
Dominatrix of Library Science
“This is a library. Crossroads of civilization. Refuge of the arts. Armory of truth. You stand on sacred ground.”
Decreed my MLS, I am at last a Mistress of Library Science.
Not quite a Scholar-Librarian but on my way.
And I have arrived here alone and on my own.
I take the Librarian’s Oath:
I solemnly swear to execute professional practices to create, select, organize, manage, preserve, disseminate and utilize collections in all formats. I promise to pursue scholarly endeavors that may benefit the Temple of Learning in which I serve. In the name of Demetrius of Phalaeron, the ancient Librarian of Alexandria, this is my solemn vow.
I sign my name with a feather quill.
A name I have not told you and never will.
Out go resumes to libraries great and small.
Then I shoot for the stars.
The Library of Congress.
Leaving Library School is just about the best thing that has ever happened to me.
My car’s overloaded with boxes of books. A suitcase of clothes. A carton of kitchen stuff.
I turn the key in the ignition.
I leave no forwarding address.
Not even for the Scholar-Librarian.
“Betsy returned to her chair, took off her coat, opened her book and forgot the world again.”