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Librarians Unite! 12 Tales of Librarian Badassery [in The Booklist Reader]

In just over a week, Seattle’s population will temporarily expand with tens of thousands of librarians (and other literary obsessives). Talk about a convergence of brains, guts, dedication, faith – and unconditional love of knowledge! Because that’s what it takes to be a librarian in today’s rapidly changing, globally interlinked, evermore technological, brave new world.

Books, in all formats – print, audiobooks, e-books – are at the core of every literary database. And librarians are their superhero-esque gatekeepers, always ready with suggestions, recommendations, and answers. Today we celebrate all that librarians do with these 12 engrossing titles in which librarians get to be the major players in their own adventures.


The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua Hammer

And you thought librarians just sat behind desks all day! Being a “bad-ass” librarian can also mean outsmarting Al-Qaeda to save some of the world’s oldest manuscripts from destruction. Hammer’s love letter to the written word is also a heart-thumping thriller that exalts the courage of devoted strangers working together to save a piece – no, make that 350,000 pieces – of ancient human history.


The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai

Ten-year-old Ian is every librarian’s perfect borrower: he can’t wait to read the next great book(s). But his mother isn’t quite as enlightened as his local librarian. While Lucy sees a curious, delightful young soul in Ian, Ian’s fundamentalist mother, determined to prevent him from committing grave sins he doesn’t even know about, sees something else. In trying to meet Ian’s needs – a bit too literally – Lucy inadvertently becomes Ian’s borrower kidnapper, and also proves to be his (sort-of) savior.


The Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, translated by Lucia Graves

The well-worth-the-wait finale of Zafón’s Cemetery of Forgotten Books tetralogy introduces Alicia, who’s determined to abandon the business of hunting human beings. Not yet 30, she’s witnessed too much horror, but she agrees to a final assignment: investigating the disappearance of Spain’s Minister of Culture. The case soon intersects with heinous secrets of the Franco regime that lead Alicia to two venerable literary institutions: Sempere & Sons bookshop and, of course, the titular über-secret Cemetery of Forgotten Books.


The Library at the Edge of the World by Felicity Hayes-McCoy

The first installment in Hayes-McCoy’s Finfarran series introduces middle-aged Hanna Casey, the local librarian in her Irish hometown. Hanna lives with her acerbic mother, who’s never let Hanna forget the philandering husband who took everything but her precious daughter Jazz from her. But when the Lissberg library gets threatened with shutdown, Hanna finds herself leading the community charge to keep the doors open.


The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Wow, just wow. Orlean takes a three-decades-old unsolved mystery – the April 29, 1986, fire that devastated the Los Angeles Public Library – and transforms the stories, testimonies, and reports (about and from employees, investigators, patrons, and the (late) prime suspect) into one of the most fascinating books, probably ever. She also manages to weave in comprehensive histories of the library system in the U.S. and beyond. To tell you more than “just read it” feels like a disservice: this magical journey is one you need to experience on your own.


The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger

Niffenegger’s first-ever, full-length graphic novel began as a short story originally published in Zoetrope All-Story in 2004. In 2008, she adapted it into a graphic serial for London’s Guardian newspaper; and in 2010, this single stunning volume debuted. After a fight with her live-in boyfriend, protagonist Alexandra goes for a 4 a.m. walk through Chicago’s deserted streets. She happens upon the Night Bookmobile – “an enormous, battered Winnebago, all lit up and thumping out ‘I Shot the Sheriff’” – where old Mr. Openshaw welcomes her in. Her life, of course, is about to take some literary twists and turns … and land her in the ultimate library.


The Plotters by Un-Su Kim, translated by Sora Kim-Russell

Professional assassin Reseng was pulled from a garbage can as an infant, raised in a nunnery until age four, and then fostered by a killer in a “gloomy, labyrinthine library.” After learning to read at nine, Reseng avoids boredom and loneliness by devouring books, reading everything from Sophocles to Calvino in between his murderous assignments. Then Reseng discovers a bomb in his toilet. And his search for the bomb’s maker leads him to two orphaned sisters, a cross-eyed librarian from his past, and onward to a plot that may – or may not – save the world.


Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith

The dozen stories in Smith’s collection share one common characteristic: a contagious sense of wordplay. Smith covers obscure etymology (“buxom” originally meant “obedient, compliant, gracious”),  juxtaposes multiple meanings of fraud and her narrator’s fascination with D. H. Lawrence, and faults a long-dead author for a failing contemporary marriage. In between stories, Smith adds interludes from friends and writers who exalt the power of words, books, and especially public libraries, which, of course, provide access to these literary treasures.


The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami, translated by Ted Goossen

A young boy returning his library books must seek other titles in elusive Room 107. There he’s trapped by an old librarian, guarded by a Sheep Man, fed by a voiceless girl, and forced to memorize “three fat books” about the Ottoman tax system. How will the boy get home to his mother in time for dinner? While readers unfamiliar with Murakami’s writing can thoroughly enjoy this short work as a provocative tale, his fans will eagerly catalog the myriad references to previous titles, including the obvious Sheep Man (Trilogy of the Rat series), labyrinthine otherworlds (Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World), silent yet communicative women (After Dark), and yes, librarians (Kafka on the Shore).


This Book Is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All by Marilyn Johnson

From tampering with hold request wait-lists and clearing malodorous scents from paperbacks to informing voters outside the 2008 Republican National Convention, librarians seem to have all the answers. In this irreverent celebration of librarians in an era of “information science” – did you know about one third of U.S. graduate programs have even “ditched the word library” from their nomenclature? – Johnson proves that appreciation of librarians is indeed long overdue!


The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

When the Queen discovers the City of Westminster traveling library on her grounds, she becomes so absorbed in books, she starts eschewing her royal duties. The library’s only other regular borrower is Norman, a young kitchen worker, who is quickly elevated to royal library tender, ultimately becoming the queen’s de facto book supplier. With the queen lost to literary reveries, books become the scapegoat of the royal household – and the enemy of the British people. As the royal staff plots to recapture the queen’s attention, they fail; once a book is opened, it simply must be read.


The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family by Josh Hanagarne

Hanagarne calls his Tourette’s Misty, short for “Miss T.” Because of Misty, Hanagarne leaves his Mormon mission early, can’t seem to finish school, and has trouble keeping a job. And though he finds an ideal partner, becoming a parent is difficult, and Hanagarne worries about passing on Misty’s genes. Then, he sells his beloved Oxford Mark Twain collection to attend a Russian Kettlebell Challenge certification training – because sometimes, with exhaustive workouts, Hanagarne can control Misty. Eventually, he finds becoming a librarian at the Salt Lake City Library is exactly where he fits; with every challenge, every defeat, every triumph, books are his salvation … literally.

Published: “Librarians Unite! 12 Tales of Librarian Badassery,” The Booklist Reader, January 17, 2019


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