Fall 2004 - Volume 7 Number 4
In the Stacks: Short Stories about Libraries and Librarians
New York: The Overlook Press, 2002
Anthologies, especially when dedicated to a single theme, are inevitably made of uneven stuff. Or, more generously, they are composed of materials that cater to different tastes. This inescapable fact should not, however, daunt the reader who picks up Michael Cart's excellent collection of short fiction on the subject of books, the people who care for them, and the places in which they are housed.
Some of the authors whom Cart, a former librarian and full-time writer, has chosen to include are globally famous. Canada's Alice Munro is, for example, joined by the likes of a surprisingly down-to-earth Ray Bradbury, a humanely melancholy John Cheever, and a fanciful Jorge Luis Borges. Some of the other contributors enjoy (endure?) less celebrity.
The satisfaction to be gained from this collection is in large measure, a function of its diversity. Some is diversity of time and place. Some is of sensibility.
If there is a disappointment, it may be Anthony Boucher's "QL 696 C9." A detective fiction writer's tale of murder in a library, it contains its predictable solution in the message left by the victim, a library cataloguer. Not much mystery there, but I am happy to say that at least the clue was not to be found in the Dewey Decimal System.
Other stories are more gratifying on a number of levels and with regard to a variety of subjects. Books are written by people and libraries are built for people; it is therefore unsurprising that most of the stories concern human relationships and the complications and tensions they entail. Issues of loyalty and jealousy, escape and responsibility abound. But human relationships exist in social contexts. Accordingly, some localeslarge cities, suburbs, and frontier communitieswill be familiar enough. Others, such as Italy, Poland and Russia may be less so. It is, however, the peculiar situations on the fringe of war, revolution and stultifying authoritarianism, no matter at what geographical or temporal distance that are defining of the constraints and creativity of what I suppose should be called the human spirit. On such margins, the stories shine. Borges' "The Library of Babel" is most difficult of all to locate socially or psychologically for, in it, the library becomes a metaphor for the cosmos, a cosmos in which we do not seem able to get our bearings; yet, our quest for order and comprehension endures. Sisyphus with a library card, "My solitude," ends Borges, "rejoices in this elegant hope."
I read most of the tales twice or more, seeking a pattern, if not in their themes and construction, then at least in my response to them. No single one emerged. Their effect was as various as my circumstances and mood at the time. But, almost without exception, effects were there to be experienced. We are communicative creatures, after all, and the incessant need and capacity to communicate is never so clearly wrought as in the warehouses of wisdom and conceit, triumph and tragedy that we celebrate in the library.
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