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My article “Hitting the Ground of Joy” (Horn Book May/June 2012) (1) takes a look at what Robert Louis Stevenson in his essay “The Lantern Bearers” (2)called “recondite joys,” which are singularly beloved by a few but obscure and even ridiculous to others. Because the Horn Bookeditors know their jobs, they trimmed a little bit off the end of the essay to give it a little more strength, but I thought it might be fun (instructive? not sure) to post the last two paragraphs here:

Not just a recondite joy

“The trouble with trying to find lanterns in these books is that writers have the bad habit of trying to make things fit together in a consistent and meaningful narrative. Blame Chekhov. Just because you have a gun hanging above the mantle, do you really have to use it? Things that we might at first be tempted to consider lanterns reveal themselves, by the end of the story, as symbolic of something, or foreshadowing something else. Even Harriet’s notebook is useful for something, which a smoldering and pungent fire hazard certainly is not. I wouldn’t argue for complete narrative chaos, but to say that one might do his homework by the glow of his bulls-eye lantern seems to be beside the point.

So perhaps we have to look for our lanterns in picture books, where joy is accepted at its face value and there just aren’t enough pages to tempt the writer to assign secret or transcendent meanings to things. Why does Jan Thomas’s Fat Cat absolutely have to sit on something (or someone)? Why does the narrator of I Must Have Bobo! want Bobo, anyway, and why is the cat so determined to have Bobo, too? Because sitting on your friends is fun, and Bobo equals joy, simple as that, as any self-respecting lantern bearer will tell you.” (3)

This essay is also where I reveal my very favorite book from childhood, although I don’t say it explicitly: Two P’s in a Pod, by Susan Terris (Greenwillow, 1977). Long and sadly out of print, even at the time I first read it, it’s one of the first books I remember that allowed me to get right inside the main character’s mind. It also introduced me to Anna Karenina (although I didn’t read that one at age ten). I’m working up a longer post on Two P’s because I think it deserves not to be forgotten.

1. See what’s in the May/June issue here. The full essay isn’t available to read online, but you can read Uma Krishnaswami’s essay on humor and multicultural literature. (My interview with Uma is here.)

2.  Stevenson’s essay “The Lantern Bearers.” I first read about it in William’s James’s essay “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” from his Talks to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals.

3. My own interview with Jan Thomas. Look for a post soon about her visit to my library for El dia de los ninos/El dia de los libros, along with Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw.

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.
Reading the Map of Knowledge

An art or a science?

(An occasional series in which I go all library school on you and try to explain the arcana of the library.)
In his book Reading the Map of Knowledge: The Art of Being a Librarian, Peter Briscoe writes that “Readers who can remember…myriad references, noting repetitions and relationships, are natural bibliographers.” That is, if we  read consciously, trying to absorb, connect, and analyze, we learn not only our subject matter but we become experts in the literature of our subject.
In the spirit of becoming a walking bibliography, here I present a brief look at subject headings. Why on earth would I do that? Because if you are “all about books,” as I have been accused of being, you probably find yourself in a library from time to time looking for something on a specific subject, and you look upon the density of a good library catalog with a certain yen for the ease of me-type-you-give-answer Googlery. Fear not.
Subject headings are those phrases developed and listed by the Library of Congress and used in library catalogs in the item record. For example, the abovementioned book has the subject headings “Librarians–books and reading,” “Collection development (libraries),” and “Books and reading.” A search under any of those headings will return results including Reading the Map of Knowledge. (If the library owns a copy, that is.)
But who outside the cabals of librarianship understands subject headings? Why not just use keyword searching? Funny you should ask. Keyword searching is in fact a pretty good way to search, if you have other limits like “picture books” or “adult nonfiction.” But poorly limited keyword searching can be frustrating. Witness the patron who came in the other day looking for books on nursing (the kind of nursing where you’re a nurse, not a breastfeeding mother).
Here’s a simple exercise (I didn’t say fun) to help you get to know your library catalog a little better. Do a keyword search for something, anything, and choose one result. Then click on one of the subject headings on that item record and see what comes up. If it’s a well-covered subject, you should get a nice page of books on your subject. Whereas keyword searching may return dozens of tangentially-related results, subject searching returns more specific results. Beware, however: any searching is only as good as the record it has to draw from.
In conclusion, one more quote from Reading the Map of Knowledge: “A book is the distillation of the best thinking its author ever did, an intimate sharing, one human being to another.” Okay, one more: “A library is set up as a gigantic referential system. One things always points to another. It is possible that no search ever comes sompletely to an end.”
And why should it?