William

I'm only here to help

 
In the spirit of that well-known line from William Faulkner’s Nobel acceptance speech about “the human heart in conflict with itself,” (1) I have a little guest here to introduce a segment on the internal struggles of well-intentioned librarians when confronted with readers’ advisory and other delicate matters.
 
Let’s call him William.
 
Readers’ advisory (or, reader’s advisory, if you only have one of them) is the process we undergo when someone asks us for a really good book just like that other really good book they just read. For example:
 
Patron: I just finished The Sound and the Fury, and I really enjoyed it.
Librarian: You did?! I mean, oh, right, then you will probably also enjoy Absalom, Absalom!
 
Sounds easy, right? Where’s the conflict? Well, suppose someone wants to read a book of the sort that you don’t like.
 
Patron: I just finished The People’s Guide to Desecrating the Public Library and I really enjoyed it. What can you recommend for me next?
Librarian: The guillotine.
 
This sort of physical threat is frowned upon, at least at my library. A better answer would be, “Why don’t you try The Sound and the Fury?”
 
 I was thinking about this the other day when I looked at the cart of recent returns in Teen. It’s no surprise that the same books get checked out all the time (bestsellers, books with shiny covers) while others ferment on the shelf. If someone returns nine volumes of the latest post-dystopic Victorian flapper were-kitten saga (2) and wants more of the same, a good session of readers’ advisory would come up with something similar, if not in every detail of its plot (because that would be the same book), then similar in its tone, pacing, subject matter, and so on. You might go out on a limb and suggest a romance if what the reader really liked about it was the love between the were-kitten and the cat next door, but you probably wouldn’t suggest a quietly beautiful story of a fourteen-year-old Appalachian girl struggling to keep her family together after the death of her father, a story of tenderness, Appalachian lore, and heartbreaking determination. Even though you really want to.
 
That would be Where the Lilies Bloom by Vera and Bill Cleaver (1969), and I can’t tell you how perfect this book is. So perfect that its early 1990s library-bound spine is as straight as the day it was born. That is my conflict: I want kids to read, I want everyone to read, but I would also like to see every book in our collection find its reader. I can’t pass judgment on people’s reading choices, because I know that strong readers are created by lots of reading and lots of thinking, and there is no single path. But if I can get one kid to take that book, possibly a kid who just finished Hattie Big Sky or Out of the Dust, I’ll consider putting away the guillotine.
 
1. “There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” (Stockholm, December 10, 1950)
 
2. It’s too easy to pick on these books. I know. In their defense, they get people excited about reading, and, darn it, some of them are very smart books. Maybe their devoted readers know something I don’t; it’s not like everyone is flocking to read a biography of Liberace or history of typography like I read when I was 15. I’m crying all the way to the library.
 
 
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