Librarians As Main Characters
Librarians pop up in books – a lot. No surprise there – they are, after all, the guardians of books and reading.
Sometimes the character is the conventional spinster-with-a-bun stereotype, shushing the patrons and frowning at any sort of disturbance.
But more often, librarians get some very interesting roles. Sometimes, as in The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, they are defending knowledge that’s in danger of being snuffed out by ignorance or brutality. And sometimes they are the only thing that keeps knowledge from being swept away or forgotten. Here are some of my favorite librarians in literature:
One of the first science fiction novels I ever read, A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter Miller., remains one of my favorites.
It has a very interesting backstory. It’s the only full-length novel Miller, a prolific writer of science fiction stories, ever wrote. An American, Miller participated in the World War II bombing of the 6th century monastery Monte Cassino in Italy, and this got him thinking about the role of monks in preserving knowledge.
The result was A Canticle for Liebowitz , about an order of monks trying to preserve knowledge in a post-apocalyptic world. This is an impressive book. You could read it several times and still find new things with each subsequent reading; it’s so very rich and complex.
Miller’s story starts out 600 years after the 20th century, when a nuclear war destroyed almost everything on earth. After the war, there was a terrible backlash against the technology many people felt had destroyed the earth. One order of monks, founded by a Jewish electrical engineer who converted to Catholicism, dedicated itself to preserving mankind’s essential repository of knowledge through some very dark times – hiding books, memorizing them, copying them.
The book is really three stories in one, but each story features a monk who is willing to do what it takes to preserve books and knowledge, including one very crochety monk who serves as a librarian. You won’t be surprised to learn that some pay the ultimate price for their role as defender. Religion, politics, human nature – this book represents science fiction at its most profound.
Another novel that features monks as preservers of knowledge is Umberto Eco’s great The Name of the Rose.
While A Canticle for Leibowitz is set many years in the future, The Name of the Rose is set in the past, in the year 1327.
Two monks, a Franciscan friar, William of Baskerville, and his novice Adso of Melk, arrive at a Benedictine monastery in northern Italy and run right into an uproar – one of the resident monks has committed suicide.
Or did he? As other monks begin dying, William is ordered by the monastery’s abbot to find the murderer. Need I say that some of the clues may reside in the monastery’s vast, mysterious library? Part of the pleasure of this novel is just READING about this library, which is built and organized in a very complicated fashion. Not to mention its very interesting librarian.
Another book that features a librarian as a preserver of knowledge is Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind.
This novel opens in Barcelona in 1945, a city in tatters after the Spanish Civil War.
Daniel is a 10-year-old boy who is still grieving for his mother, years after her death. His bookseller father takes him to a mysterious labyrinth underneath the city called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Each book in this vast catacomb awaits someone to choose it, care for it and bring it back to life. Daniel picks out a title called The Shadow of the Wind, by an obscure Spanish writer, Julián Carax.
This choice makes life even more dangerous and complicated for Daniel than it was already – among other things, it sets him up for a number of meetings with The Devil Himself. This book is both a mystery, a love story and a tragedy – the biggest tragedy, the one that darkens everything, being the horrible civil war that tore Spain apart.
Moving into more contemporary times, let’s talk about The Grand Complication by Alex Kurzweil.
This is one of those puzzles-within-puzzles books. Alexander Short is a brilliant young librarian living in New York. As things deteriorate in his personal life (an unhappy marriage) he becomes more and more neurotic. His obsessions include a fascination with hidden compartments in furniture, and a desire to record everything that happens to him in a small book attached by a rope to his waist.
Then a wealthy collector approaches him and enlists him to help find a mysterious missing object – he’s seen a picture of it in a rare book in the library Alexander works for. The collector’s object of desire is a complicated watch, created during Marie Antoinette’s time. The story becomes a mystery, but it’s as much about the mysteries of the human heart as it is about the location of this exceptional object.
Finally, I want to mention a memoir by an actual librarian, Running the Books: Adventures of an Accidentical Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg.
As the story begins, Steinberg is a Harvard graduate and a would-be novelist who needs a job. He takes one, as a librarian at a Boston prison.
Initially he comes across as one of those too-smart-for-his-own-good young men whose chief weapon for dealing with the world is a kind of hip, ironic humor. But as his time in the prison progresses, he begins to realize what an essential institution a library is – even in a prison. True, he has to watch out for books and periodicals being turned into weapons (a rolled-up magazine, duct-taped, can make one heck of a billy club), but it can also be a place where men who have seen the worst can evaluate their lives and educate themselves about who they want to be next.
He also teaches writing classes, introducing inmates to the likes of Toni Morrison and Flannery O’Connor. Another librarian as a preserver of knowledge – even if it’s a very unlikely place.