The Library of Unrequited Love

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Read 05/10/2016

Rating: 2 stars

I picked this up thanks to the great review on Brontë’s Page Turners. Brontë’s reflections on the book and the librarians she has known piqued my curiosity.

It’s a confusing book, in that it had me despising and then agreeing with the central character as though I were an indecisive fool easily swayed by specious argument.

I have form with libraries. I was pretty much raised in one. My mum wasn’t a librarian. She never took the professional qualification. She was a senior library assistant, though, which meant that she did pretty much everything in her branch library, along with the other library assistants, without the glory. She worked with some good librarians and with some awful, inept ones.

I didn’t recognise the Librarian in the book. None of the librarians mum worked with, or the ones I have worked alongside in my career as an archivist, have been as horrible as the Librarian in this book. For the most part, the librarians I have known have been outgoing. They certainly haven’t hidden in basements storing up vitriol against the people who come in and mess up their classification system. That’s more what archivists have traditionally been like (not me, of course – well, not much).

I didn’t like the Librarian on first meeting her, launching as she did straight into a screed. She came across as someone desperate for someone else to talk to, for all her protestations about being invisible and liking it. It felt as though the man who had fallen asleep in her reading room, and ended up being locked in, was being held prisoner by her, while she took the opportunity to unleash all the unspoken thoughts she’d been storing up over the years.

But then, being an angry person myself who likes to rail at the world (although the present world, not the historical one, because there’s not a lot we can do about past messes now), I caught hold of her anger. This might have had something to do with a bad decision being communicated to me in between my morning commute and my lunch break, which had fuelled my constantly simmering anger into rage. Put it this way, I was receptive to her dissing of Napoleon, about whom I hadn’t previously held any strong views.

…that show-off was too busy bringing total mayhem to the whole of Europe. That’s another reason I don’t go travelling. Napoleon’s always been there first. I can’t stand it. And when I say total mayhem, I’m being polite. In fact, he destroyed everything…

I have a strained relationship with the Dewey Decimal classification system. I’m not a librarian but I do look after a reference library that is hot on obscure engineering texts. I have to try to work out which of the subdivisions to add books to. It drives me mad. However, I did enjoy the way the Librarian punctuated the points she was making with classification numbers. Should her captive audience wish to consult any books as source material confirming her views.

The quote from Eugène Morel about architects being a worse enemy for librarians than archivists made me smile. I’ve noticed, as an archivist, that many (mostly male) librarians have a weird chip on their shoulder about us. Whereas, we accept that archivists and librarians do different jobs and both are valid, so what’s the point in getting het up about it?

Our fictional Librarian lost me again when she claimed to have no illusions about “the people” and socialists, coming on like the meanest kind of social bigot. I disliked her attitude that reading was culture, was a means of elevating ourselves above the other primates, was what separated the cultured from people who wanted to read comics or watch DVDs or listen to music.

And when she shared all her bitterness about love and her job, I wanted to throw the book across the room. I didn’t. It was on my Kindle. This level of carping does nothing for me. You’re the captain of your own ship. You can choose not to be bitter and frustrated. Reading about other people’s sense of entitlement and bitterness at not getting what they want, fictional or otherwise, isn’t my idea of entertainment. It isn’t my idea of culture.

I thought this was a load of bollocks, too:

…people don’t begin to foster thoughts of revolution when their ears are bombarded by noise, but in the murmuring silence of reading to oneself.

As a bookish child who spent a hell of a lot of time reading to myself, I was politicised as a teenager by listening to music.

I knew nothing about the author, so hoped this book was a joke, especially when this passage made me swear out loud:

You wouldn’t believe the number of unemployed, or pensioners, handicapped people or benefits claimants you get in the library in summer. They come here as a sort of exercise. It’s like jogging or walking the dog. They need something to do.

Too fucking right, they do. It’s miserable being marginalised by society. I looked Sophie Divry up after reading that. Apparently she used to be a journalist on a magazine called La Décroissance (which translates as degrowth – a political, economic, and social movement based on ecological economics, anti-consumerism and anti-capitalist ideas), so perhaps the novel is some kind of ironic posturing.

The obnoxious Librarian flipped again, excoriating the wealthy for their lack of interest in services offered by the public sector. Of course I agreed with her here, to a certain extent. I’m a public servant living under the most anti public benefit government in my living memory. And I did most of my growing up under Thatcher.

When she riffed on the futility of dedicating your life to reading books, because there are so many in the world, talking about having other interests, conversing with each other, having sex, I agreed with her again. There is more to life than reading. No, really.

So what was the book all about? I don’t know. Perhaps the author went temporarily insane or was experimenting with automatic writing. There are some good ideas in the book but they are oddly expressed and I didn’t know what the point was.

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