Tuesday, August 12, 2008

In the Stacks

In the Stacks: Short Stories about Libraries and Librarians (2003)
Edited by Michael Cart
Overlook Press, paperback, 288 pages

Saw this at Daedalus Books & Music marked down to $4 so, as a card-carrying librarian, I had to pick it up. Former librarian Michael Cart has assembled an anthology of some of the best short stories about the reader's nirvana - the library. Among the heavy hitters here are such major figures as John Cheever ("The Trouble With Marcie Flint"), Alice Munro ("Hard-Luck Stoires"), Saki, ("The Story of St. Vespalms"), Ray Bradbury ("Exchange"), Francine Prose ("Rubber Life"), and Italo Calvino ("A General in the Library"), with Jorge Luis Borges's "The Library of Babel" being probably the most famous, with its typically fantastic, Twilight Zone-esque speculation about the possibilities of an "infinite" library.

And there's even an espionage-tinged murder mystery solved by deconstructing the Library of Congress classification system, Anthony Boucher's "QL 696. C9." In this 1943 story, a head librarian trained as a cataloguer is murdered, but not before typing this clue to her assassin's identity. Working in a library, I can attest that cataloguers are indeed a curious lot, so I enjoyed the hilarious description of them by one character as, "...a few turn out to be born cataloguers. Those are a race apart. They know a little of everything, all the systems of classification, Dewey, Library of Congress, down to the last number, and just how many spaces you indent on an index card, and all about bibliographies, and they shudder in their souls if the least little thing is wrong. They have eyes like eagles and memories like elephants."

But I was disappointed to see one glaring omission: where's Aimee Bender's "Quiet Please"? This is my favorite short story about libraries and librarians, which was brought to my attention by a former girlfriend, a fellow librarian who worked at the same branch as me. It's about a young female librarian who, in mourning after the death of her father, decides one day to take every male patron she meets into the back office for sex. "This is the sex that she wishes would split her open and murder her because she can't deal with a dead father," Bender writes of the young librarian. Of course it's a metaphorical story in the fantastic style of a Kafka or Borges, but it was so "un-librarian-like" that I fell in love with it, and recall asking my then-sweetie if we could reeanact certain scenarios in the story. She blanched, saying this far exceeded her Reader's Advisory responsibilities - not to mention the librarian code of conduct. She was probably right; it would have been very un-professional. But hot!

Aimee Bender's stories are wonderfully strange and highly recommended; "Quiet Please" is included in her short story collection The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (Doubleday, 1998).


Anonymous Anonymous said...

My biography of Anthony Boucher (entitled Anthony Boucher) covers this story among others.

4:18 PM  

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