Apologies for the extended break since the last post. Although I had intended to take a break over Christmas I hadn’t factored in getting a flu virus that took me out for about 5 weeks including a rather slow recovery period. So quickly to recap where we were we were exploring depictions of librarians in comic book and graphic fiction and there was just one more post to complete that section of the blog so here it is.
To those of us in the profession and indeed to many of our customers librarians are wonderfully knowledgeable, always helpful, constantly dedicated and sincerely considerate, quick to help and slow to anger and in short collectively excellent candidates for the Birthday Honours list if not the Nobel Peace Prize. Surprisingly though there are others with a rather different view otherwise how do we explain all those negative and cruel portrayals in popular fiction without which this blog would have been finished long ago and how indeed to explain the librarian who will close our look at librarians in graphic and fantasy fiction; a very odd and to my mind quite disturbing character who featured in a serialised graphic strip written by author and artist Audrey Niffenegger. Audrey Niffenegger has previous when it comes to portraying librarians in fiction as we shall see when shortly we meet her naked librarian but first, as I said something to my mind at least, a lot more disturbing.
After cutting her teeth with a librarian as a character in her best-selling novel The Time Traveller’s Wife which we will return to later Audrey Niffenegger followed it up with a graphic short story serialised in the Guardian newspaper entitled The Night Bookmobile. The story features a young woman, Alexandra, who after a row with her boyfriend is out walking the streets at 4am when she comes across a mobile library as you do and without really stopping to consider what a mobile library is doing out at four in the morning outside Wrigley’s Field in Chicago, especially one with I Shot the Sherriff by Bob Marley playing loudly through the open door. Still, she hops on board and of course her life changes completely from then onwards. She is welcomed by an older man, who has a superficially avuncular appearance that seems to hide something more sinister and you expect him to say “come in my dear” and quietly close the door behind her and reach for the rubber gloves and hypodermic, but no he’s a librarian so obviously he invites her to look at the collection because this is a mobile library and he is Mr Openshaw, the librarian who has clearly been drawn and conceived to be played by John Malkovich in the eventual film.
Alexandra whom you will recall was not phased in the slightest by finding a random mobile library in the early hours eventually has her suspicions raised when she notices that many of the books have stamps from other public libraries leading her to suspect that Mr Openshaw has been stealing them but when she discovers one of her own diaries on the shelf the librarian explains.
“They are all yours. The collection consists of all the books you’ve ever read. We also have all the periodicals and ephemera – cereal boxes and such…”
And she discovers he is right. The library also includes books she never finished that contain blank pages after the point where she abandoned the book and Mr Openshaw, it appears, is her personal librarian but before he can explain more it is closing time and you know how strict libraries and librarians are about that so now thoroughly rattled by meeting someone who seems to know more about her own life than she does and meticulously stores it all in his mobile library Alexandra is rudely turfed out into the deserted streets all alone without even the offer of a lift home.
Obviously poor Alexandra is a bit disturbed by this encounter and had it been you or I we would probably be straight down the nearest police station first thing in the morning reporting a serious case of stalking but not Alexandra. No she starts looking for the Night Bookmobile every night after that becoming just a little obsessed with it and at the same time becoming withdrawn, living on her own and only interested in her books and in reading seeming to want to bury herself in her past. “It was as though I had dreamt the perfect lover, who vanished as I woke, leaving me pining and surly”. She spends weeks going out looking for the Night Bookmobile again but it isn’t there of course and it doesn’t re-appear for another nine years. When the Night Bookmobile does eventually re-appear Mr Openshaw is still there obviously with the usual excuses “Oh dear I do usually get around a bit faster than that I’m afraid there have been a shortage of staff, budget cuts you know.” She is delighted to meet him again and asks to become his assistant but the offer is rejected forcing Alexandra to do the next best thing which is not to hit the prosecco, emigrate or get some therapy instead she becomes a real life librarian with a successful career rising to become a Library Director by the time she finds Mr Openshaw again 12 years later.
Again Alexandra is rebuffed when she asks to join him as librarian, the rules won’t allow it apparently and he adds sadly but ominously “You don’t know what you are asking.” But Alexandra does and that evening alone in her flat surrounded by books she takes the ultimate step to achieve her ambition. What follows is a particularly bizarre episode which I am not sure I followed exactly or perhaps I missed an instalment which explained it all but Alexandra wakes in a great celestial library that looks uncannily like the British Museum Reading Room where Mr Openshaw finally hires her as a librarian. As a story about obsession and loneliness as well as about the relationship we have with books and reading it is certainly a refreshing change from all the other cosy stuff about libraries and librarians but I found it an uncomfortably sad and disturbing story and I don’t do ghost or horror stories anyway, not since being scared witless by Quatermass on the television when I was very young and impressionable.
The other thing that disturbed me was the slightly angular full face drawings of Alexandra until I worked out that they bear an uncanny resemblance to the author herself and then read the notes at the back of book which reveal that the story was indeed based in part on her dreams. It is we are told the first instalment of a longer story so we shall see how the story unfolds. So far it hasn’t.
As I said at the outset Audrey Niffenegger has a record of portraying librarisn in her fiction. Henry Detamble is one of the protagonists in her very successful novel The Time Traveller’s Wife. Henry is a librarian who for no obvious reasons suddenly goes time travelling, a pastime that his long suffering wife is able to endure but not enjoy herself which is perhaps as well because he turns up in awkward places in his own past or future. This would be entirely implausible of course but regular followesr of the blog will know that Terry Pratchett and the Librarian of the Unseen University have introduced us to he bookworm holes in space where “all libraries everywhere are connected by the bookworm holes in space created by space time distortion found around any large collection of books (see previous post – October 20, 2016 ) and through which librarians can travel and of course given Henry’s profession it all makes sense. Well most of it anyway. I am not sure that the Head Librarian from the Unseen University has ever been found naked in a field owned by his wife’s parents especially having travelled back to the past when his wife was only six at the time and he’s in his 40’s. There’s never an easy explanation for a stark naked man at the house of a six year old girl and if you are spotted it won’t help to explain to a very angry and protective father’s that you have gone back in time and will one day marry his daughter and so bringing in the bookworm holes in space probably won’t help much either.
So a naked librarian and the bookworm holes in space seems as good a time as any to close this short section of the blog that looked at comic book and graphic book portrayals of librarians. If you thought some of this was odd well join me again soon because the next section bizarrely is all about libraries and librarians in songs with contributions from almost all genres, from The Beach Boys through Jimmy Buffet to musical theatre. I am still undecided about whether to include Frank Zappa and his sons library card; its wierd but not as wierd as Mr Openshaw and his Night Bookmobile