Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Borrower - by Rebecca Makkai

An unlikely "buddy" story, The Borrower tells of Lucy Hull, an "accidental" librarian, who "accidently" kidnaps ten-year old Ian Drake. Ian had run away from home and found refuge in the beloved stacks of the Hannibal, Missouri Public Library. Lucy and Ian wind up taking a road trip across the mid-west and then into New England in order to give him a break from his parents and their insistence that he attend classes with "Pastor Bob", who "helps" young boys who might be questioning their sexuality.

Lucy had previously been told by Ian's mother not to let him check out books about witchcraft, magic, the occult or anything by "Roald Dahl, Lois Lowry, Harry Potter, and similar authors". Lucy doesn't bother to point out that Harry Potter is not an author.

Although the main character is a librarian I am hard pressed to give it either a "Gold Star" or "A list" rating (see my "A Word about the Labels" note to the right). Lucy mentions several times that she doesn't really like her job except for Ian and her co-worker, Rocky. She never intended to be a librarian; it is simply what she fell in to after she graduated. Most people would not be able to get a job with the title "librarian" with those kind of non-credentials, but the library "needed a children's librarian fast after the old one was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer." And while Lucy does recognize this, she continues to make efforts not to identify herself with this boring profession, and disparage it when she can, even in her daydreams. After reading her alumnae magazine and finding out what exciting things her former classmates were doing, she imagines what it might say about her:
Lucy Hull, class of '02 courageously checked out The Pushcart War to a ten-year-old patron today, despite the preponderance therein of peashooters and the fact that the book does not in any way contain "the breath of God."
"It really wasn't a choice", said the 26-year old Hull, who has done very little with her adult life besides stamping books, re-shelving books, and reading books with funny voices. "It's basically illegal to deny a book to someone with a library card. I'm not quite sure why you're interviewing me."
Who does she think is responsible for lobbying for laws that allow anyone to check out whatever they want? I am happy to pay my American Library Association dues to help pay for such things.

Lucy berates herself on several occasions for her wardrobe. "I hated that I'd started looking like a librarian" she pouts after her co-worker Rocky points out that she is wearing a cardigan. And she has this to say about the library fundraiser she attends:
Once a year all the librarians in the county wedged themselves into high heels, tried to pull the cat hair off their sweaters with masking tapes, and smeared their lips with an awful tomato red that had gone stale in its tube, all to convince the benefit set of the greater Hannibal region that libraries do better with chairs and books and money.
I did laugh when she mentioned buying a dress at L.L. Bean that looked like something a librarian would wear. My co-workers and I will all admit to having a preponderance of clothing from that venerable retailer in Maine, along with good ol' Lands' End, of course.

When Tim her cool, gay actor landlord doesn't invite her to join in his reindeer games, she laments that he'd clearly "mistaken [her] for a librarian". He discovers he is wrong about this assessment many months later when he assists her with a scheme to communicate with young Ian without his parents knowing. "This is amazing...It's just like, amazing. I mean, we thought you were this mild-mannered librarian and everything. And there you are, all vigilante and shit..." says he.  Of course only a "fake" librarian would do these things. We real librarians would never stick our necks out for anything.

Lucy briefly dates a musician who tells her he "was a librarian once...as an undergrad, [whose] main job was to erase pencil marks from the last season's orchestra scores". Lucy, who is not a real librarian herself, doesn't bother to point out that there is a big difference between being a librarian, and working as a student employee in a library building. The irony of her dating a musician does not escape her, though. She points out that she'd "seen The Music Man enough times as a child to be wary of smiling musicians."

Additionally she mentions one of my favorite library movie scene from It's a Wonderful Life.
And there she runs in thick glasses, clutching books to her useless breasts. This nightmare Mary Bailey has ruined her eyesight from long hours reading alone in the dark.
 How strange, that this one profession should be so associated with loneliness, virginity, female desperation. The librarian with the turtleneck sweater. She's never left her hometown. She sits at the circulation desk and dreams of love.
 Not really so strange when we have Makkai still using the same stereotypes in the 21st century.

Even young Ian understands that librarians are really just a bunch of frustrated old maids. He suggests to Lucy that the library is haunted by the "ghosts of dead librarians. Not like [Lucy], but like old ladies who never got married."

The two visit a public library in small-town Vermont where they talk to a the reference librarian "blank-faced woman with dull hair" who answered her questions in a rather bored manner. They also lie to the young circulation clerk in order to check out some books without a library card.

Ultimately, Lucy gives up her life in Hannibal, Missouri for a job in Chicago at the college library where "the borrowers already know what they're looking for" and all she does in stamp out books. Really? As a college librarian I can assure readers of this blog that not all of our users know what they want already. We have enough trouble convincing people our jobs are still relevant without the Rebecca Makkai's of the world making up this kind of stuff. I mean, I've been known to make some profession-deprecating remarks myself, but sheesh!

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