The Fate of Library Books

If you’re a fan of both libraries and short stories, you should read Sherman Alexie’s “The Search Engine” (from Ten Little Indians, 2003). I read the first half-dozen stories in the book as I flew to Washington, D.C. for the ALA Annual Conference, and, because I hate the word serendipity, I have to say it was kismet:

In the Washington State University library, her version of Sherwood Forest, Corliss walked the poetry stacks. She endured a contentious and passionate relationship with this library. The huge number of books confirmed how much magic she’d been denied for most of her life, and now she hungrily wanted to read every book on every shelf. An impossible task, to be sure, Herculean in its exaggeration, but Corliss wanted to read herself to death. She wanted to be buried in a coffin filled with used paperbacks.

And more:

She carried the Atwater and the Auden books to the front desk to check them out. The librarian was a small woman wearing khaki pants and large glasses. Corliss wanted to shout at her: Honey, get yourself some contacts and a pair of leather chaps! Fight your stereotypes!

“Wow,” the librarian said as she scanned the books’ bar codes and entered them into her computer.

“Wow what?” Corliss asked.

“You’re the first person who’s ever checked out this book.” The librarian held up the Atwater.

“Is it new?”

“We’ve had it since 1972.”

Corliss wondered what happens to a book that sits unread on a library shelf for thirty years. Can a book rightfully be called a book if it never gets read? If a tree falls in a forest and gets pulped to make paper for a book that never gets read, but there’s nobody there to read it, does it make a sound?

“How many books never get checked out?” Corliss asked the librarian.

“Most of them,” she said.

Corliss had never once considered the fate of library books. She’d never wondered how many books go unread. She loved books. How could she not worry about the unread? She felt like a disorganized scholar, an inconsiderate lover, an abusive mother, and a cowardly soldier.

More pleasure reading! I’d say I’m getting spoiled, but now that I’m back at my desk I’ve got plenty of books to review.

On a related note, read the New York Times (“A Hipper Crowd of Shushers,” by Kara Jesella) for yet another stereotypically headlined story about how the librarian stereotype is changing from gray hair to pink mohawk:

How did such a nerdy profession become cool – aside from the fact that a certain amount of nerdiness is now cool?

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.

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