the borrower

Lost in the world of books

The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai is the story of Lucy, a young children’s librarian from the fictional town of Hannibal, Missouri, who mostly inadvertently kidnaps a ten-year-old boy to rescue him from an evengelical Christian upbringing that threatens to pray the gay right out of him. It’s also an eye-opening trip for Lucy herself, who sees truths about her own Russian immigrant family’s story that she could never see before. At the beginning, Lucy places herself between Huck Finn and Humbert Humbert, both literally (her last name is Hull) and figuratively, as a fellow runaway and kidnapper.
This is a book full of allusions to other books, many of them children’s classics like The Wizard of Oz, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and The Borrowers, as well as classic librarians like our friend Marian. In fact, Lucy’s world is almost completely informed by books and stories. Makkai’s use of these classics is clever and quite funny, and goes very well with Lucy’s concept of herself (1). I didn’t read this hoping to find some aspect of its representation of children’s librarianship to disagree with, but I did find myself thinking that Lucy has, at least in her own mind, reinforced the stereotype of a librarian as a socially inept, book-obssessed dreamer. Her life is, in a word, derivative, despite the interesting tension created by the contrast of her actions and her general view of herself. Lucy is part revolutionary, an impulse she pulls from her father’s stories about life in Communist Russia, and part reader’s advisor gone bad, as she tries to find book after book for her young patron that will enable him to see beyond his constricting circumstances, until she decides to remove him from Hannibal herself.
Most librarians probably hear this comment when they tell someone what they do for a living: “Oh, you get to sit around and read books all day!” Uttered with a sort of glee that is both wistful and somewhat skeptical. You really just sit around and read books all day? So why should I vote for that library bond? Don’t you have enough to read already? But, you see, we don’t just sit around and read all day. We do read, but most of that happens on our own time, because we want to be able to recommend books, not just point the way to them. Lucy’s work at the library, as it is represented in The Borrower, is limited to chapter book read-aloud hour, recommending fiction to readers, making a few displays, a little talk about Summer Reading, and checking books out. One of the primary tasks of a librarian is collection development, the process by which we determine how well the collection is being used, what to order, what to weed, how to allocate budgets, and so on. This is all the behind-the-scenes work that allows librarians to offer a really well-balanced collection, with everything from fiction to graphic novels, picture books, nonfiction, audiovisual materials, periodicals, databases, and more. But there is none of this in Lucy’s life (and maybe that’s because it would be unbearably dull, like reading endless screen shots of circulation statistics).
Are you snoozing yet? I hope not, because here’s what I really want to get at: I think that the mind of the public associates librarians with reading fiction. And fiction is, as everyone knows, totally frivolous. Sheer pleasure. And not necessarily worth supporting. It’s also easily downloaded to an e-reader through Amazon or some other mega-service with poor search functionality, thousands of results, and one-click purchasing. If you accidentally spend $2.99 on a novel you don’t particularly care for? Oh, well. It was just for fun anyway. You didn’t need a librarian to help you with that.
This is the part of the librarian stereotype presented in The Borrower that bothers me the most, that a librarian, especially a children’s librarian, is someone who has no real ideas of her own and lives through and for books, and all of those books are fiction. What about the rest of the library? Forget about some vaporous idea of bibliotherapy through discovery-of-self-quests; what about handing a child a book that might show him not just what  brave children can do when they fall down rabbit holes and get lifted out of windows, but what the world will look like when they grow up? What about career books, books on museums and art and travel? That open their eyes to science, history, inventions? Books that show children that the world is not contained within the four square walls of their home? (2)
When I was a young teenager, I went to my library almost every week to find

crusader castles

Written before he grew a foot and a half and became Peter O'Toole

one book, and I’d sit and read it, or stare at the sketches, and dream about what life would be like when I left my hometown for the wider world. It showed me a version of life that was at once historical and fantastical, because it was a book written decades ago about a subject that was hundreds of years old, and it brought with it all the peculiarities of the circumstances in which it was written. I found myself dreaming about not just the subject, but what it might have been like to be the book’s creator, and that book led the way to years of nonfiction reading. That book was Crusader Castles by T.E. Lawrence (3). I wouldn’t have found it if I’d been confined to the fiction shelves.

1. I listened to the audiobook, so I don’t have it sitting around to lift quotes from. But it really is worth checking out. I can see why Makkai limited herself to classics, because if she talked about the books that librarians most often deal with (i.e., currently popular titles) the book would date very quickly.
2. I feel a little bit like an evangelist myself here. But here’s a better nonfiction evangelist: Marc Aronson at his Nonfiction Matters blog at School Library Journal. And I have to confess that I read a lot of fiction, too. Just not exclusively.
3. You never know what will interest a kid. But for you librarians out there whose young patrons have already read all nine million pages of Seven Pillars of Wisdom and for some reason want to read more, try finding a copy of Crusader Castles, or Oxford’s Essential T.E. Lawrence (1992). Or E.M. Forster’s lovely essay on Clouds Hill, Lawrence’s Dorset home, in (I think) Two Cheers for Democracy. My copy got lost in a move, but it’s either in that one or Abinger Harvest. Good luck finding any of those in your ruthlessly efficiently-weeded library stacks, you collection development dynasts, you.