Five Best Books on Libraries

From a Wall Street Journal story by Julie Schumacher headlined “Five Best: Books on Libraries”:

Cloud Cuckoo Land
By Anthony Doerr (2021)

1. Novels are written by people who value books above most things, so it’s no surprise that libraries should be the sites of heroic deeds. Anthony Doerr’s exquisite homage to the written word traces the travails and survival of an ancient text, from one set of characters to another, over time. What does biblio-heroism look like? In “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” it’s the recognition of the sacredness of stories and texts, and the willingness, even at substantial cost, to keep them alive.

In 15th-century Constantinople, 8-year-old Anna scales the wall of a priory to steal ancient codices and scrolls; on a 22nd-century spaceship, 10-year-old Konstance gains access to an AI archive of near-infinite knowledge. Mr. Doerr’s characters experience libraries as places of solace as well as education, where history and culture—and the imagination—are prized. Knowing that “books, like people, die too,” they fight to preserve them. Toward the end of his life, one character travels on foot for days to deliver a codex to an Italian palazzo where it will be cared for. “I have heard,” he says, “that this is a place that protects books.”

The Giant’s House
By Elizabeth McCracken (1996)

2. In a small Cape Cod library in the 1950s, a 25-year-old librarian meets—and, over the next decade, falls in love with—a very tall 11-year-old boy. This isn’t a “Lolita” scenario: The librarian, Peggy Cort, is a misanthrope whose affection for the young James Sweatt is based on the premise that “knowledge is love.” Peggy’s fantasies aren’t about sex; they’re about information. In a daydream, she embraces a visitor who asks her a question: “You reach across the desk and pull him toward you, bear hug him a second and then take him into your lap, stroke his forehead, whisper facts in his ear.”

But back to James Sweatt. James is not simply tall: He suffers from gigantism and will eventually become the tallest person in the world, reaching 8-foot-7 by the age of 18. He relies on Peggy to supply him with useful and consoling volumes from the stacks, as well as with shoes that fit his enormous feet and, eventually, with furniture and a house appropriate to his size. Elizabeth McCracken, a former librarian, notes that the profession “(like Stewardess, Certified Public Accountant, Used Car Salesman) is one of those occupations that people assume attract a certain deformed personality.” But where would literary fiction be without those personalities?

Our Missing Hearts

By Celeste Ng (2022)

3. Books that feature libraries seem naturally to fall into the category of quests. In “Our Missing Hearts,” 12-year-old Bird Gardner searches through libraries for clues of his mother, who has disappeared. His father urges the boy to forget her: She is a poet who has been deemed seditious, and a new law intended to safeguard “American culture” has removed “dangerous” books, such as hers, from the shelves. The law also allows for the removal of children from dissident (and particularly Asian-American) parents.

In this context, libraries become safe houses of sorts, with librarians managing underground railroads of people and information. One librarian explains this hidden network to Bird: “All over the country. We share notes. . . . It’s part of our job, you know: information. Gather it. Keep it. Help people find what they need.” The librarians are the heroic figures here—guardians and guides who aid the young protagonist on his quest.

The Library Book
By Susan Orlean (2018)

4. Susan Orlean has the enviable ability to make mundane topics gripping. A staff writer for the New Yorker, she has published essays and books on impressively improbable subjects such as orchids and Rin Tin Tin. “The Library Book” begins when Ms. Orlean’s young son, to fulfill an elementary-school assignment, interviews a librarian. Most parents would have left it at that, but Ms. Orlean’s voracious sense of inquiry leads her to spend three years immersed in the Los Angeles Central Library, investigating the 1986 fire there that destroyed nearly half a million books.

When not tracking down a potential arsonist or interviewing firefighters about the 2,000-degree blaze, she studies the wonder and function of this temple of books, including the “churn of activity” on the sidewalk before the building opens in the morning, akin to what a person might experience “at a theater in the instant before the curtain rises.” In her sentences and paragraphs, the Los Angeles library becomes more than a building. It is a breathing, living thing, its central branch a heart, its shipping department moving “thirty-two thousand books—the equivalent of an entire branch library—around the city of Los Angeles five days a week. It is as if the city has a bloodstream flowing through it, oxygenated by books.”

Reading Lolita in Tehran
By Azar Nafisi (2003)

5. For nearly two years beginning in 1995, Azar Nafisi hosted a covert reading group in her home in Tehran. Every Thursday morning seven veiled women would arrive to discuss works of literature forbidden by the Islamic regime. The room where they met was “a place of transgression”: Universities had been sanctioned or closed, and the women traded photocopies of Western novels because “first the censors banned most of them, then the government stopped them from being sold.”

Keeping the banned books alive and in circulation, Ms. Nafisi and her students functioned as libraries. They engaged so deeply with these “harmless works of fiction” because the books were their only intellectual and creative outlet. The author, who lacked ready access to a library when she was a child, describes free access to art and literature as “not a luxury but a necessity” and public libraries as “the most democratic spaces you can go into.”

Selected by Julie Schumacher, the author of the novel ‘The English Experience.’

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