Tuesday, June 06, 2006

"May I Suggest a Book You Just Have to Read?"

Every so often, I get nostalgic for my former profession. I really have no idea why, since I was a librarian in the public library world, which means working some nights, some Sundays, and lots of Saturdays (always the Saturdays you’re invited to big events, like relatives’ weddings, and have to swap days with someone else). Most of the time, instead of researching interesting reference questions, you’re fixing the jammed printer for the 100th time in two hours. Meanwhile you're mustering all your strength to ignore the patron whose comments in the business world would allow you to buy that ocean-view mansion in the Caribbean, since you’d be able to file a big fat sexual harassment law suit against him, but against whom you can do nothing here. Nonetheless, one of the libraries in a town near mine is looking for a teen services coordinator, and I found myself fantasizing about the position. This job would pay much less than I’m making now, would involve a forty-five minute commute, would definitely mean working nights (the only time teens are awake), and I certainly wouldn’t be able to do it from the comfort of my own home. So what could my fantasy possibly have entailed? Why becoming the only adult in these teens’ lives who understands them! We’d discuss books, movies, music, computers, T.V. shows… I’d rescue them from their teenage misery; I’d inspire them to become caring citizens of the world; I’d change their lives.

Yeah, right. That’s what I thought I was going to do when I made the decision to become a librarian for adults. It was such a noble profession. People were going to walk through the doors of that library, and we were going to do nothing but talk about books. I would stretch their imaginations, encourage them to read things they might never have read otherwise, provide them with just the right materials to help them make major decisions in their lives. I’d change the way they felt about The Librarian. (I’ve just realized I forgot to mention delusions of grandeur when I was discussing my psychological disorders in my June 2nd post.) I’m not quite sure how long it took me to realize that the most frequently asked question wasn’t, “Could you recommend a good book?” but rather “Where’s the bathroom?”

I've recently become wise enough to realize my fantasies are just that: fantasies. I don’t really want to go back to working in the library world, well, not unless it means being able to set myself up in a big, comfy chair, feet propped on an ottoman and read (when no one is engaged in an animated discussion about books with me) for eight hours under a sign that says, “Reader’s Advisory: let’s talk about what you should be reading,” while being paid my current salary. Better yet, let’s make that a sign over my front door, so I don’t have to leave my house. Wouldn’t that be a fun job? Basically, a never-ending book discussion group. Sounds terrific, but the realist in me who is constantly trying secretly to poison the dreamer, is already shouting about the downside, which she can’t believe I seem to have forgotten: reader’s advisory is a damn difficult proposition.

When I did work in the library world, I once attended a reader’s advisory workshop. We were encouraged to read books we normally wouldn’t, which was one of those many, many “uh-duh” moments I've encountered in my life. Why I’d never figured out, without being told, that I’d have an easier time helping the person who loved a particular fantasy writer find similar authors and titles if I’d actually read that writer and others of her ilk, is one of those unsolved mysteries best left unexplored. I love to read, and I don’t tend to think of myself as an extraordinarily picky reader (I mean, does a raving alcoholic really distinguish between Bombay Sapphire gin and cough syrup?), so I didn’t think it would be such a hardship to read even the books that got the worst reviews in all my favorite journals. After all, some of my favorite movies have received rotten reviews. I’d broaden my horizons and check out some of the most-often-requested authors at our library, so I could be The Best Reader’s Advisor Ever. I went back to the library and happily pulled off the shelves books by the #1-bestselling authors of the day.

I tried. I really did. However, not only did I find I was reevaluating my previous thoughts about hardship as they pertained to reading the books, but I also discovered a new unbearable hardship: keeping my arm from tossing them into the nearest trashcan. And this is when I began to discover that being a librarian maybe wasn’t the best job for me. I mean, how can you smile and treat kindly the person who comes in and requests such books, when, you discover (much to your “open-minded-and-tolerant” persona’s horror) all you can think is, “The townspeople’s tax dollars really shouldn’t be wasted on you and your pathetic reading habits?”

But, let’s be fair and put aside this horrible, judgmental, snobbish side of me. Reading books is just such a personal endeavor, how successful is anyone, really, at advising others on what they should read? I have a few reliable sources in my life. Bob is a fantastic advisor, but every once in a while, he hits something (like one extremely brutal spy adventure whose gratuitous torture scenes were just a little too graphic for my imagination) that just doesn’t cut it. My oldest sister is great when it comes to recommending fun “chick lit” written by authors who actually know a little something about stringing words together to form sentences, but she’s not a big fan of the supernatural, and I am. My other sister inspires me to read classics I’ve never read, but she can’t tell me much about anything written after 1940. My brother and I, since we were teenagers, have shared a love of such contemporary writers as Tom Robbins and John Irving, but he also loves to read the sort of huge history tomes that convince me I have the world's worst case of ADD by the time I hit page 2. And I have plenty of friends who’ve been pretty consistent in inspiring me over the years to pick up great books I've loved. Oddly enough, two of the best recommenders of books I’ve known have been former bosses. I’m still waiting for the day one of them shares a book with me I can honestly say I don’t like, but it has yet to happen.

I think I've been pretty good at recommending books in return to all these people, from time to time at least. Still, getting it right, all the time, for everyone who walks into the library looking for a good read, is a tall order and one best left to those who don’t begin to doubt their very existence when someone walks in and says, “That was the worst book I’ve ever read. How could you possibly have recommended it?” So, I’ll stick with editing books and leave the tough/life-altering decisions up to others. I mean, could you imagine my having to deal with a teenager who walks up and tells me she idolizes Jessica Simpson while informing me she found it impossible not to throw my latest book recommendation into the nearest trashcan?


mandarine said...

Still crawling my way up your fabulous archive. I love this post.

Emily Barton said...

I'm enjoying re-reading them as you crawl your way around. It's helping me realize how I have/haven't grown and what I've learned since I started this blog.

mandarine said...

Maybe you might want to promote some of your past good stuff to your front page one day you feel too tired to write something new. I certainly would not mind reading it again.