The Library Card (Jerry Spinelli, 1997), The Uncommon Reader (Alan Bennett, 2007) and In the House of the Seven Librarians (Ellen Klages, 2012)
These three novellas underscore not just the power of books to change lives, but the role that libraries (and bookmobiles, in the case of Bennett’s work) play in this process. Each contains elements of magical realism, either as alternative history or as unseen forces delivering library cards, food, and even a baby.
I’ll start with Spinelli’s The Library Card, a set of short stories about troubled adolescents finding solace and safety, perhaps even redemption, in libraries. The four characters — whose names are the story titles: Mongoose, Brenda, Sonseray, and April Mendez — find themselves in possession of a blue card that won’t let them go. Throw it away, tear it up, give it to someone else: no matter what they do, the card keeps coming back to them for as long as they need it. Even though it’s blank, they somehow know it’s a library card, and eventually enter a library to use it. Mongoose, who’s friend Weasel is dragging him into a life of petty crime (shoplifting, truancy, vandalism), goes into a library to find out what kind of insect he had just spray-painted while graffiti-ing a tree. He finds himself
… facing a counter with a lady behind it. When the lady looked up and saw him coming, she smiled as if she knew him. Was he supposed to know her? He walked up to the counter and showed her the card. He felt silly showing a blank card. “You collecting tickets?” he said.
She took the card. She looked at it, then into his eyes. The silly feeling vanished. “No,” she said, “this is not to let you in. It’s to let a book out.”
I love that last line, as if books were living things needing to be uncaged. That first book breaks open Mongoose’s curiosity about the natural world, and as he learns more, he grows away from Weasel’s bad influence. Not all Spinelli’s stories end so happily, but for each of the protagonists, a mysterious library card appears in time to get them to needed respite.
The Uncommon Reader, an alternative history exploring how a new reading habit might affect a royal dynasty, starts out with a bookmobile arriving at Buckingham Palace. Queen Elizabeth’s corgis drag her there, and, to be polite, she borrows a book. Before long, she’s reading in the royal carriage on the way to the opening of Parliament, with Prince Philip fuming next to her and Sir Kevin, her private secretary, planning subversive acts to break her of this inconvenient practice. Even her attitude to her “job” is changing. When she expresses regret about not knowing more about the writers she’s met in the past, Sir Kevin replies, “But ma’am must have been briefed, surely?”
‘Of course,’ said the Queen, ‘but briefing is not reading. In fact it is the antithesis of reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up.’
Eventually (and making things worse for those around her), the Queen begins keeping a journal. At one point, she find herself
putting more and more of her thoughts on paper, so that her notebooks multiplied and widened in scope. ‘One recipe for happiness is to have no sense of entitlement.’ To this she added a star and noted at the bottom of the page: ‘This is not a lesson I have ever been in a position to learn.’
‘I was giving the CH once, I think it was to Anthony Powell, and we were discussing bad behaviour. Notably well-behaved himself and even conventional, he remarked that being a writer didn’t excuse one from being a human being. Whereas (one didn’t say this) being Queen does. I have to seem like a human being all the time, but I seldom have to be one. I have people to do that for me.’
Imagine — a world leader gaining insight about herself, just by reading. Of course it’s quite obvious what Bennett is doing here. This is not a spoof of the British Royal Family, but instead an argument for the importance of reading in the life of the mind. Everyone has a mind, but not everyone uses theirs as they should. For some, it may be too late for this treatment to have any effect, but in QEII’s case, her royal training (noblesse oblige, in spades) forces her to commit, in good faith, to finishing that first book, which in turn leads to the next one, and so on and so on, until Ta Da! we have a mindful wearer of the Crown.
And finally, I give you Klages’ lovely paean to libraries, especially those built with funds provided by Andrew Carnegie: the Carnegie Libraries (2500 of them, in the US, UK and other countries across the world, between 1883 and 1929). In the House of the Seven Librarians begins with the library board (“men in suits, serious men, men of money”) voting to close the old Carnegie Library and move all services to the new and very modern (microfiche! floppy disks!) one. The librarians at the old building watched the modernizing and boxing and discarding and eventual move and then, when it was all over:
Quietly, without a fuss (they were librarians, after all), while the town looked toward the future, they bought supplies: loose tea and English biscuits, packets of Bird’s pudding and cans of beef-barley soup. They rearranged some of the shelves, brought in a few comfortable armchairs, nice china and teapots, a couch, towels for the shower, and some small braided rugs.
Then they locked the door behind them.
All is well and the ladies complete their daily chores, cataloguing and shelving new books as they arrive, like manna from the gods of reading — and then one day an infant is left at the library’s front door. What follows is a charming tale of how these seven women introduce the child, Dinsy, to the joys of life in a library. Information, knowledge, entertainment — all at one’s fingertips. After reading Klages’ novella, I was happy to find this profile of a family that had lived at my local library, one of the many Carnegie Libraries still operating.
So, the lesson here: take yourself to your local library, browse through the shelves and stacks, and find a few books that, to quote Mame Dennis, “will open doors for you, doors you never dreamed existed.”
Photo source: Carnegie Library, San Antonio, Texas – Front. [1900-1924]. Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries. University of Houston Digital Library. Web. June 18, 2018. https://digital.lib.uh.edu/collection/p15195coll16/item/555/show/553.