This summer, I’ve read two books with librarians as central characters, so it’s time for a librarian-themed post! The books are: The Night Bookmobile (by Audrey Niffenegger) and The Invisible Library (by Genevieve Cogman). The books are quite different from each other in genre, style, and my own take-away from them. I’ve added spoiler warnings for those of you who don’t want to know what happens in the books just yet.
The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger is a graphic novel / picture book for grown-ups. On a night-time jog, the narrator comes across an old man in a van. The man invites her to come inside and browse the collection. Dismissing common sense / worries about safety (after all, she is a young woman out by herself in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere) she goes in and sees the van is full of (mostly well-read) books, taken from all sorts of libraries.
— Spoilers ahead! —
The one thing that connects all of these books is that she has read them at some point of her life. They’re all there, from first picture book to her favorites to books she lost interest in and never finished. Those have blank pages for all the parts she’s not read. She learns that the old man is her personal librarian: it’s his job to collect all the books that she’s read. She has a standing invitation to come and read in the van, but it’s not that simple – for some time, she comes looking for the bookmobile and it’s not there.
The narrator realizes she wants to fill the shelves, give the librarian something to do – maybe even make him proud of her – and she also realizes she wants to be come a librarian just like him. When she meets him again, he tells her that she cannot become this special kind of librarian in this life.
This is where the book becomes problematic – she decides to take her own life and becomes a special librarian, and is assigned her own living person to build her collection around. That in itself is not really the problem for me, rather the very cavalier manner in which her suicide is part of her supposedly ‘natural’ growth into librarianship. You see, the book ends there. She has given up relationships, family, friends, work, and even her life, so she can be a stranger’s personal librarian. And for all we know, she’s happy with that, and so is the author. This book could be used as a conversation starter for a discussion of suicide and how to support people in a crisis, but on its own I feel it is problematic. Even a brief afterword addressing the issue would have made it better.
— End of spoilers —
Genevieve Cogman’s The Invisible Library is a fantasy novel that introduces us to Irene, an agent of the Library, which is a secret organization that collects books from various realities. The Library is a peculiar place where time doesn’t really pass – nobody ages inside the Library – so that some of the senior librarians are very senior indeed, and have spend in some cases hundreds of years researching books and their impact on alternate universes. The idea is that any book can be a seminal text in some alternate. It might be unique to that world, or it might have a unique role even if it is similar to / has variants in other worlds. Seminal texts have power to shape or change reality.
As an agent of the Library, Irene is sent on missions to various alternate realities to find, purchase, or otherwise retrieve such texts for the senior librarians. She’s a young librarian and not far up the hierarchical ladder, so when she is suddenly assigned a trainee to mentor and sent out on another mission, she hopes it will be an easy ‘in and out’ job. Little does she know what’s waiting for her!
— Spoilers ahead! —
In addition to having to find her way around an unfamiliar alternate version of London, teeming with zeppelins, Vampires, Liechtensteinians and Fae magic, Irene also realizes that her protégée, Kai, has been keeping secrets from her. Her former mentor Bradamant, a real backstabber, shows up and creates even more confusion and havoc trying to steal Irene’s mission. And then, there’s Alberich, a murderous rogue librarian (who Irene had hoped to be only a legend) who is also after the book Irene is supposed to bring back. Add a nosey, too-smart-for-his-own-good detective, Vampire and Fae hostilities, and a few cyborg reptiles, and you have a jolly good adventure on your hands.
— End of spoilers —
I love the idea of secret agent librarians, and the idea of Library magic which here takes the form of the Language – a special use of words that allow librarians to influence objects:
The Language always worked well when it was instructing things to be what they naturally were, or to do what they naturally wanted to do. Stone wanted to be inert and solid. Her command only reinforced the natural order of things. (10)
I also enjoyed the complexity of the inner workings of the Library, and its enormous size, the intrigues and internal politics between the librarians of different levels. The delicate balance Irene and her fellow junior librarians have to find between caution and trust / faith in their seniors.
The world-building Cogman does in this novel works beautifully – nothing is too far-fetched to be unbelievable, everything somehow fits. I’m not a fan of stories where much time is spent explaining how everything works or why.
Irene is a memorable character, not without flaw but with enough integrity to make up for her weaknesses. I look forward to seeing what she does in her next adventure – The Invisible Library is the first book in a series, but it works perfectly fine as a stand-alone if you don’t want to commit to several books in a row. I thoroughly enjoyed the story and its characters – good summer / train / airport reading!