Tom Shippey argues that Beowulf is more than a fantasy. The poem can also give us insight into real historical facts. Drawing on history, archaeology, and legends, he explains how the world the Beowulf-poet knew strikingly aligns with what we know about the fifth and sixth centuries.
Admittedly, I know very little about fifth and sixth century history. Yet, I love Beowulf and I love Tom Shippey’s work on J. R. R. Tolkien, so I knew I wanted to read Shippey’s scholarly exploration into the history of Beowulf. He sets it up as sort of a respectful opposition to Tolkien’s stance that Beowulf should be read as literature and not as history (though frankly I think Shippey overstates Tolkien’s stance a bit). That alone will likely attract a wider audience than an academic work on Beowulf might otherwise. But Beowulf and the North Before the Vikings is not really about Tolkien, but about what Beowulf can tell us about history that has otherwise been lost to us. And it is vastly interesting–even to a lay person like me who was learning about most of this for this first time. It is certainly worth a read for fans of the poem or those interested in the history it discusses.
Beowulf and the North Before the Vikings is a short book, but one packed with information. Shippey examines historical, archaeological, and even legendary sources to uncover what we know about history and what we are missing. Interestingly, often what is missing from the record can be explained or deduced from Beowulf! Shippey’s suggestion is that the poet casually mentions names and rules and places that are lost to us now because it was common knowledge then. I don’t know enough about the topic to comment specifically on all of Shippey’s conclusions (though he acknowledges some will offer differing interpretations), but I do know I enjoyed the scholarly inquiry. This is the sort of stuff that makes academia fun!
Though a scholarly work, I found Beowulfand the North Before the Vikings lively and accessible, as is Shippey’s usual style. Some of the names and places were admittedly a bit confusing to me since this was my first foray into the topic, but, on the whole, I think even a general audience can get something out of the book. And Beowulf enthusiasts will certainly want to pick it up.
Freshman senator Burton Wheeler has vowed to root out corruption in government. His first target? Attorney General Harry Daughtery, widely believed to use the power of his office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to call in political favors, receive kickbacks, and blackmail anyone who dares to oppose him. But as Wheeler begins his investigation, he finds himself ensnared in a political intrigue so vast he might not be able to escape unscathed.
Crooked is one of those breathtaking tales, so weird that it reads more like fiction than fact. And Nathan Masters writes it with the skill of a storyteller, making it an easily accessible read even for those who might not regularly dip into non-fiction. Even though I am not particularly familiar with this time period, I found myself engrossed by this story of treachery and intrigue. And I suspect many more readers will find themselves engrossed, as well.
At its heart, Crooked is a tale of the underdog up against the establishment–and I imagine that has much to do with its appeal. Though it seems an open secret that Attorney General Daughtery is corrupt, and that he uses the Bureau of Investigation to dig up dirt on his political enemies–thus keeping his own position safe–no one has managed to topple him. Few have dared, save one man whose investigation of the Attorney General abruptly turned into an investigation of himself once Daughtery set his men to work. Thus, readers will wait with bated breath to see if freshman Senator Wheeler can outmaneuver his skilled opponent and finally bring justice on behalf of the American public.
Masters tells his tale with ease, introducing characters and setting the stage almost as if writing a script. Thus, it is easy to follow along, even if a reader has no familiarity with the time period and its player. Historical context is woven gracefully throughout, as well, so readers can understand the significance of the moment, both at the time and now–when political scandals still routinely rock the nation. Those who avoid reading non-fiction because they fear it will be difficult or dull might very well find this account riveting.
Crooked is not typically the type of history I dive into, but the title and the summary drew me in, and the action never let up. I read far into the night, eager to learn what would happen next, fearful that Wheeler would fail in his quest or find his own career ruined by the attempt. Highly recommended to fans of history!
Jim Wight tells the real story behind the life of his father Alf Wight, known to the world as the heartwarming vet and author James Herriot.
Readers of James Herriot’s books about veterinary practice in the Yorkshire Dales will rejoice to learn that Herriot (real name Alf Wight) had a son who, after his father’s death, gifted the world with a book not only illuminating parts of Wight’s early, pre-vet days, but also revealing some of the individuals who became characters in the All Creatures Great and Small series. While Jim Wight’s storytelling skill arguably never reaches that of his father, The Real James Herriot still provides a fascinating glimpse into the life of a beloved author.
Readers no doubt will gravitate towards different areas of the book. For instance, though I am sure that many will love to learn more about Herriot’s early days (not well covered in his own books), I personally preferred learning about the real-life inspirations for Herriot’s characters. In particular, I wanted to know more about Sigfried, Tristan, Helen, and Calum Buchanan. And Wight delivers–mostly.
Though Wight does discuss differences between the books and real life (ex. Herriot’s wife was not the daughter of a farmer), he is, I believe, very conscious of the need to be kind and fair to the people his father (and he) knew. This makes sense, certainly. He inherited his father’s practice and needs to live with these people, not write a tell-all! And this consideration is in the spirit of Herriot’s own books, which even when amusing are never cruel. It does mean, though, that readers are not going to find a plethora of wild stories about the real Siegfried, even though I know more must certainly exist. And I really wanted to read them!
On the whole, The Real James Herriot is a welcome read if only because fans are likely to never have enough of Herriot and his world. I was sad when I finished the All Creatures Great and Small series, but delighted to realize I could return to that world one more time. And fans will be glad to know that Herriot’s real life seems as charming and as wholesome as his books make it seem.
Nancy Drew, teenage sleuth, is a literary icon. But how did she get her start and how has she transformed through the ages? Learn all about it in this installment of the What Is the Story Of? series.
The popular What Is the Story oF? (a spin-off of Who Was?) series dives into the history of Nancy Drew with this short overview of the teen detective and her creators. The appeal of this series is, I believe, that each book is only about 100 pages, and full of illustrations and sidebars, making the topics accessible and the books easy to read. Since the series is geared towards children (probably third to fifth graders), sometimes nuance can get lost, but I have generally found the books to be comprehensive for the intended age group. What Is the Story of Nancy Drew? is, then, an effective introduction to the Nancy Drew Mysteries for the same target audience as the Nancy Drew Mysteries themselves.
Since I know a great about Nancy Drew already, I cannot say that What Is the Story of Nancy Drew? provided me with any new information. It read to me, actually, like a condensed version of Melanie Rehak’s Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her, which is listed as one of the main sources in the back of the book. The main difference is that Rau provides a shorter account that leaves out much of the more uncomfortable aspects of Nancy’s history. For instance, a key part of Rehak’s research revolves around Harriet Stratemeyer’s efforts to claim sole authorship of Nancy, and deny ghostwriter Mildred Wirt Benson’s significant involvement (as well as the contributions of others to Nancy’s stories). Rau simply notes that a court case over the authorship happily resulted in everyone getting due credit for their work.
Aside from the loss of nuance, the only other aspect of the book that really bothered me is the complete rehash of the plot of Nancy’s first mystery. Briefer summaries of other stories are also included. I do not see how retelling the entire plot of The Secret of the Old Clock really adds to the history of Nancy Drew. It reads a bit like Rau desperately was trying to reach a specified word count and was not sure what else to include. I think a two-sentence summary that invites readers to pick up the book themselves, instead of spoiling the whole affair, would have been more pertinent, though.
I also would have liked actual photographs, rather than illustrations. It is weird to see illustrator Deda Putra drawing interpretations of the Nancy Drew covers, for instance, rather than having actual photos of the Nancy Drew books. And having illustrations of the people involved rather than photos. Still, I know this is how the series in general works, so I wasn’t surprised. Just a bit disappointed.
Altogether, I enjoy this series for its accessible introductions to various historical, scientific, and pop culture topics. I know many young readers who love the books and find them entertaining. Adult readers who want a longer, more complex version of Nancy’s history, however, should pick up Rehak’s Girl Sleuth.
Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme selected by the Tolkien Society is Travel and Adventure. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring some guest posts!
Are you a J.R.R. Tolkien fan looking to branch out from reading his fiction to reading books about his books? Or perhaps a casual reader of Tolkien scholarship looking for some more reading suggestions? Here are 10 books to get you started.
This is an obvious one for many avid Tolkien fans, but if you are just getting started about Tolkien and his works, you definitely want to read his letters! Topics range from answers to questions his fans sent about Middle-earth to his Catholic faith, and his personal life. It’s hard to find another book about Tolkien that doesn’t cite his letters!
As noted, it’s a reference guide. Very complete. Often recommended by people who take studying Tolkien seriously. You won’t be reading it cover to cover, but you will probably discover lots of information you didn’t know!
You get hundreds of maps of Middle-earth, focused on various events in Tolkien’s writing, and covering geography mentioned in the First, Second, and Third Ages! While it’s probably not a book you’ll just read through, it’s fun to glance through it, and it’s a great guide to have on hand while reading Tolkien’s work.
As Krysta notes in her review, this is a great book for anyone who really wants to dig into the minutia of Middle-earth and find the answers to pressing (or not so pressing) questions: “The Nature of Middle-Earth is not for the casual Tolkien fan, but rather for the reader who wants to know literally everything about Tolkien’s work, his process, and his musings. This collection is indeed more scholarly than otherwise, presenting multiple drafts of Tolkien working out his thoughts along with copious end notes, as well as a description of what each manuscript looks like–what kind of paper it was written on, with what kind of pen, in what kind of handwriting.”
5. The Road to Middle-earth by Tom Shippey
A classic book in the world of Tolkien studies, The Road to Middle-earth is definitely one you will want to check out! It has had a couple updates and continues to be praised by Tolkien scholars. If you read a lot about Tolkien, you will certainly see numerous references to it and Shippey’s work in general.
John Garth is a must-read author when it comes to Tolkien! Krysta has already recommended his book Tolkien and the Great War, so here I recommend his latest, The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien, which talks about Tolkien’s own travel, reading, and experiences to get at what places might have been the real-life inspiration for things in his fiction.
Another book on, uh, obviously Tolkien and alterity. Fimi’s work is more widely praised, but this is a collection of essays from various contributors, so you can pick and choose what sounds interesting to you. The book description says: “. Each essay takes as its central position the idea that how Tolkien responds to that which is different, to that which is ‘Other,’ serves as a register of his ethics and moral philosophy. In the aggregate, they provide evidence of Tolkien’s acceptance of alterity.”
This essay collection is essential reading for anyone who loves Tolkien, and it will provide some eye-opening arguments for anyone who thinks Tolkien’s women are flat or his portrayals are sexist. The authors consistently offer evidence that while, of course, Tolkien would not have held the views of a 21st-century feminist, the women in his books are nuanced and powerful and generally subvert gender expectations rather than fulfill them. Tolkien was also a champion of women academics in his personal life, and we have no evidence to suggest he didn’t like or respect women.
Goodreads: Behind the Scenes Series: None Age Category: Adult Source: Library Published: 1868
Elizabeth Keckley recounts her years as an enslaved person, how she bought freedom for herself and her son, and how she became a dressmaker in Washington, D.C. and modiste for Mary Todd Lincoln.
I picked up Elizabeth Keckley’s memoir Behind the Scenes because I wanted to learn more about a woman who was born in slavery, bought her freedom and that of her son, and then worked her way into the inner circles of society in Washington, D.C. during the years of the American Civil War. The strength, resilience, and cleverness she must have had would have to be phenomenal. I was, then, a bit surprised to discover that only the first three chapters of her book describe her years being enslaved and the rest is dedicated to providing an intimate look at the Lincoln household. The longest, most detailed chapter recounts Keckley’s service to Mrs. Lincoln after the war, when Mary wanted to sell her clothes for monetary relief, and Keckley traveled to New York to aid her. Behind the Scenes is certainly a valuable look at the private lives of public figures–one written with a keen eye for detail as well as much sympathy for Mrs. Lincoln. I really wanted to know more about Keckley, however, and had to satisfy myself with some more research after finishing her book.
Behind the Scenes is really a striking book in many ways. It does not fit the general mold of the slave narrative–accounts written largely to enlist public sympathy for the cause of abolition. Keckley almost seems to gloss over the account of her own life, particularly the years when she was enslaved, instead choosing to draw a veil of silence over the more uncomfortable and horrific aspects. For instance, she notes that she stayed with her husband for eight years, but left him as he was a delinquent; no more is to be said of him. She also veils the identity of the white man who raped her when she was young, and passes over the abuse she endured at his hands, instead giving readers the poignantly simple statement that she became a mother. Who can blame her? It is not something a person would want to relive, even in memory. She passes over this quickly so she can get to the meat of her story–her observations of the Lincoln’s household and her defense of her friend Mrs. Lincoln.
The book also feels a bit scandalous for a memoir of the 1860s, as it reveals private details of the lives of public figures. I was truly startled to find an appendix full of personal, private letters that Mrs. Lincoln sent to Keckley, all of them about her efforts to sell her clothing for money after the war. Keckley preempts the reader’s criticism by saying she does this in defense of her friend, who was being torn apart by the newspapers for the clothing sale. I felt for Keckley. I even believed her. But one suspects that the public was not quite ready to have a Black, female dressmaker reveal conversations that the late president had with his wife, or letters from the former First Lady. Scandalous indeed! My research later revealed that the book did cause a sensation upon its release, but then quickly disappeared. Some believe Robert Lincoln suppressed it, and that seems like a distinct possibility to me.
What I really wanted from this book was some historical context and literary criticism. I read the 1988 OUP copy from the library, and most of the introductory material covers the reasoning for the series of which the title was a part. It does not dwell with great insight on the content of Behind the Scenes. I really wanted to know things like why Keckley would choose to write about Willie Lincoln’s death in detail, down to reprinting articles written about the boy, but gloss over the death of her own son (a Union soldier in his first battle) in one paragraph. Or why she was so particular about expressing love for her former enslavers, even narrating her visit to the family after the war and how kind they were to receive her. One suspects that some sort of politics were at play here. Maybe the editor thought the Lincoln material would sell better than Keckley’s own personal grief? Was there some sort of push to placate the South and not raise uncomfortable memories about the practice of slavery? That kind of critique from scholars would be really helpful to put Keckley’s memoirs in context.
Keckley’s account does showcase her incredible talent, kindness, and force of will, even when she tries to direct the spotlight at someone else. She singlehandedly financially supported the entire family of her enslavers with her needle (when they could not earn money themselves), earned the respect of enough prominent women to get a loan to buy her freedom and that her of son, made her way to D.C. where she was successful enough to become the dressmaker for the First Lady, spearheaded efforts to support new freedmen after emancipation, and sacrificed a lot of her own time and even money to support Mary Todd Lincoln after the war, when Mrs. Lincoln was destitute. Elizabeth Keckley is fascinating! And though she focuses much of her efforts on apparently trying to rehabilitate the reputation of Mrs. Lincoln, barbs of insight come through, showing her ferocious intellect. For instance, she witnesses young Tad Lincoln fail at his lessons, and remarks how he has this luxury as a white child, while a Black child who showed such obstinacy and lack of knowledge would be taken by society as a sign that his race was not worthy.
One wishes for more such moments of clarity and truth, and a bit less of apologizing for Mrs. Lincoln’s finances. The record on Mary Todd Lincoln is harsh, yes, and perhaps unduly so in some respects. But it’s also true that Mary was in the habit of spending more than she could afford, no matter how sorry Keckley wants us to feel for the widow of the man she calls the “great friend” of her people. So my sympathy for Mary Todd Lincoln is mixed, especially since she seems quite content to have Keckley, a working woman, make personal and financial sacrifices on her behalf, while she sits around writing letters about how sad she is no one will donate money to her. But it is certainly a testament to Keckley’s own generosity and nobleness of spirit that she was willing to do so much.
Behind the Scenes is worth reading for the intimate glimpses into the Lincoln household, which is, I believe, how many historians have traditionally used it. It is, however, also worth reading for Keckley’s own story. Though she tries to obscure much of it and chooses to fade into the background, glimpses of her remarkable personality and life still come through. I really wish she had written more about herself. She leaves so much unsaid, but she is worth reading about!
A collection of various essays on the Civil War, ranging from an examination of Lincoln as Commander in Chief to the naval strategies of the Union to Reconstruction.
James McPherson is a highly regarded historian of the American Civil War, perhaps most widely known for his work The Battle Cry of Freedom–-considered one of the best single-volume treatments of the war. So when I saw that he had published a volume of essays dedicated to exploring the connections between the Civil War and the present, I immediately put in a request at my library. The topic seemed especially important today, when Americans appear more politically divided than ever, even as the country grapples with its continued legacy of racism. However, while The War That Forged a Nation is a highly readable and well-researched look at various aspects of the Civil War, the book never really delivers on its promise to explain why the war still matters. Read this one if you enjoy Civil War history, but do not expect any wise observations on the current state of affairs or how they are linked to the past.
Many of the essays included were apparently published previously, which may explain why none of them appear to be thematically linked, either to each other or to the ostensible purpose of the book. Topics range from the Mexican-American War, the U.S. naval strategy, and death in the Civil War, to a treatment of Lincoln as Commander in Chief and critiques of Union general like McClellan. Several of the essays appear to be written in response to the works of other historians, variously building on their work or openly challenging their conclusions. It is all very interesting. It just has little to do with Why the Civil War Still Matters.
Personally, I am interested in the American Civil War, and I like McPherson’s writing, which always seems as engaging as it is well-informed. I particularly like the nuance and insight he brings to controversial topics such as Lincoln’s stance on slavery. I think even readers new to the history of this time period would find his work accessible and even enjoyable. So, I do recommend The War That Forged a Nation to readers who like non-fiction. I would only point out that the title seems a bit misleading, or at least is an unfulfilled promise.
Dante, whose Divine Comedy gave the world its most vividly imagined story of the afterlife, endured an extraordinary afterlife of his own. Exiled in death as in life, the Florentine poet has hardly rested in peace over the centuries. Like a saint’s relics, his bones have been stolen, recovered, reburied, exhumed, examined, and, above all, worshiped. Actors in this graveyard history range from Lorenzo de’ Medici, Michelangelo, and Pope Leo X to the Franciscan friar who hid the bones, the stone mason who accidentally discovered them, and the opportunistic sculptor who accomplished what princes, popes, and politicians could not: delivering to Florence a precious relic of the native son it had banished.
In Dante’s Bones, Guy Raffa narrates for the first time the complete course of the poet’s hereafter, from his death and burial in Ravenna in 1321 to a computer-generated reconstruction of his face in 2006. Dante’s posthumous adventures are inextricably tied to major historical events in Italy and its relationship to the wider world. Dante grew in stature as the contested portion of his body diminished in size from skeleton to bones, fragments, and finally dust: During the Renaissance, a political and literary hero in Florence; in the nineteenth century, the ancestral father and prophet of Italy; a nationalist symbol under fascism and amid two world wars; and finally the global icon we know today.
If I am being honest, I was expecting a bit more of a thriller from the account of Dante’s remains. The book opens with a startling discovery in 1865–Dante’s tomb is empty! The book then goes back in time, recounting the politics surrounding the Florentine exile’s burial in Ravenna, the many attempts by Florence to reclaim the body, and the many poets and political figures who paid homage at Dante’s (empty!) tomb. Once the mystery is revealed, however, the account becomes pretty straightforward. I recommend Dante’s Bones to ardent enthusiasts of the poet’s work, but admit the scholarly tone might not resonate with more casual readers of history.
Though I have read several biographies of Dante, I was not familiar with the story of his remains, nor in the ways those remains have been claimed by various political movements throughout Italy’s history. So I was hoping to gain from this book not only a riveting account of the attempts to steal his body back to Florence, but also a greater understanding of the ways in which Dante has been (re)interpreted to give legitimacy to conflicting ideals. I give Guy P. Raffa credit. This book is well-researched and really goes into detail. But, at times, I found myself hoping for more of a big-picture interpretation, and not a list of every poet who ever paid tribute at Dante’s tomb.
Indeed, Dante’s Bones seems determined to leave no stone unturned, delving even into the nuances of questions such as whether a bit of dust from Dante’s tomb could even be said to be the poet’s remains or just…dust from his coffin. For many people, the question is possibly unimportant. What becomes really clear for Raffa’s narration is that Dante is is basically venerated as a saint, and that dust from his coffin is a relic, with or without scientific confirmation. I like Dante and I regularly read his works. But I still found that I don’t care enough to want to know the intricate history of every piece of his alleged dust.
Still, readers who love Dante and want to know everything about him will find a well-researched and thorough account of the history of his remains–and how people respond to them–in Dante’s Bones. The volume takes care to trace Dante’s remains from his burial to the present day, along with the fascinating stories of how people have fought over those remains, in an attempt to claim a little of Dante’s glory for themselves. Certainly fascinating for a certain audience.
From the period to the question mark, the semicolon to the em dash, symbols and marks are an integral part of language. In graphically engaging spreads that utilize typography in an innovative way, Snails & Monkey Tails examines the evolution of these mighty linguistic tools—from the punctum, or point, created by an ancient scribe to the guillemet, used most commonly in lieu of quote marks by the French (and named in honor of a typographer Guillaume Le Bé). With verve and insight, Michael Arndt explains their proper usage and how they came to be universally accepted today.
In Snails & Monkey Tails, Michale Arndt takes readers on a joyful adventure through the history of punctuation. From the period to pilcrow, the book is replete not only with information, but also with stunning graphic design that moves from the bold to the fanciful. Any lover of grammar will delight in this book. But its short length, accessible style, and arresting visuals will also attract the attention of more casual readers interested in the English language.
When I first read the description of the book, I admit I was not sure what to expect. Was the book supposed to be a guide to grammar? Was it simply illustrations and not much text? Was it a history? The volume, in fact, combines all three of these things. It begins with a brief history of each punctuation mark, stating where the mark is believed to have originated and how it may have received its name. The book then provides examples of how the marks should be used in context. But, most importantly, the book does this all with bold red, white, and black graphics that show how punctuation can be transformed–to inspire, to captivate, to create meaning. The volume would not be nearly as memorable without the graphics.
The short length means that the book does not feel particularly meaty. It is, however, interesting, and I felt like I picked up a few trivia bits, and even learned about some less-familiar punctuation marks. I have already tried to use some of the facts I learned to impress friends and family. I do not know if this is a volume I will return to again and again. But it worth a look, especially for those who really enjoy grammar.
Fun Facts from the Book
Three asterisks in a horizontal row, showing a page break, are called a dinkus.
Before the 1970s, typewriters did not have a key for the exclamation mark. Typists would type a period, backspace, and then type an apostrophe.
The Swedish name for the at symbol (@), kanelbulle, translates to “cinnamon bun!”
Who are libraries for, how have they evolved, and why do they fill so many roles in our society today?
Based on firsthand experiences from six years of professional work as a librarian in high-poverty neighborhoods of Washington, DC, as well as interviews and research, Overdue begins with Oliver’s first day at an “unusual” branch: Northwest One.
Using her experience at this branch allows Oliver to highlight the national problems that have existed in libraries since they were founded: racism, segregation, and class inequalities. These age-old problems have evolved into police violence, the opioid epidemic, rampant houselessness, and lack of mental health care nationwide—all of which come to a head in public library spaces.
Can public librarians continue to play the many roles they are tasked with? Can American society sustain one of its most noble institutions?
Pushing against hundreds of years of stereotypes, romanticization, and discomfort with a call to reckoning, Overdue will change the way you think about libraries forever.
Overdue: A Reckoning with the Public Library sounded, from the official marketing, like it would an incisive critique/expose of the ways in which public libraries are losing sight of their mission as employees are overburdened with taking on the roles of social workers. That is kind of true, but not really. In actuality, Overdue is part memoir, part library history, part random musings on topics such as social media and cancel culture, and part critique of public libraries based on the author’s nine months working at a public library in Washington, D.C. The book raises some interesting questions, but in a way that seems to be without any particular method. In the end, it is not really clear who Overdue was written for, or what it seeks to accomplish.
Overdue starts out with what clearly seems to be shock factor, chronicling the time author Amanda Oliver witnessed a violent act in the library, and was subsequently threatened and stalked by the perpetrator. The message is clear: public libraries are not the safe havens the public imagines, nor should they be romanticized as the upholders of democracy or envisioned as ivory towers where those seeking to be educated and enlightened gather. No, the public library welcomes everyone–and this often results in chaos and danger, especially as library staff are not equipped to work as social workers, and often feel unsupported by library administrators, government officials, and the public.
So far, so good. It may seem over the top to those who do not often frequent libraries, but I have heard and read enough stories that I understand public libraries have their problems. I welcomed Oliver’s opening statement since Oliver at least seems willing to admit to some of these problems–I think sometimes current employees feel pressure not to admit that they often feel unsafe and unsupported. However, while I thought this opening would lead to a critique of the state of public libraries, it actually launched instead into: a chapter on the history of libraries to expose their racist roots, a look at Oliver’s childhood upbringing, an account of Oliver’s six years as a school librarian, a look at the homelesseness crisis in the U.S. and its causes, some anecdotes about Oliver’s nine months as a public librarian, her subsequent guilt for leaving the profession, and then some final chapters focusing on other issues facing libraries today–before ending with a seemingly unrelated chapter on cancel culture and a final call to reimagine the future of libraries. It is very disjointed. Half the time, I did not even know what I was supposed to be reading. Is this book about public libraries, or is it Oliver’s memoir, or is it just a random assortment of tangentially-related essays?
When Oliver does discuss public libraries, it is very interesting. Although she admits halfway through that she only served nine months in a public library, the scenarios she describes are harrowing–as is her administration’s reluctance to address the issues front-line staff tried to raise. What Oliver experienced seems enough for a lifetime. She even states that she and another coworker were separately diagnosed with PTSD as a result of her time working in a place where staff were consistently subjected to harassment and the threat of violence. Though some may feel her time in public libraries was not enough for her to speak to the profession, I think Oliver’s ability to speak about what she saw actually stems from the fact that she left, is no longer so emotionally involved in trying to rationalize what was happening to her so she could keep helping people, and has the freedom to speak up without worrying that she will be fired.
The fact that Oliver still feels guilt about leaving, and still tries to walk a fine line in her book between noting a problem and trying to pretend maybe everyone could have lived with the problem for the sake of the less fortunate is extremely telling. For example, Oliver notes that library rules like not allowing people to use the bathroom sinks for baths or only allowing one bag instead of ten were rules the public also wanted enforced–I assume because slippery floors are dangerous and also because no one wants to walk in on a person in the nude, or because having ten bags in the aisle is a safety hazard–but then Oliver seems reluctant to commit to some of these reasonable rules because she feels bad for people who need to bathe or store their ten bags.
Librarianship seems to be a job that attracts empathetic people, so it makes sense that Oliver would struggle with enforcing rules that most buildings have as a matter of course. The problem is that is this precise guilt that allows libraries and their staff to keep being pressured to do more, more, more. The really reasonable thing to do would be to build more shelters, so people could wash with dignity in an actual shower where no one will walk in on them, or a place that has lockers so people know their belongings are safe and do not have to lug them all around town all day. Librarians’ empathy that makes them want to allow bathing in the restroom is just one factor of many that allows public officials to not spend money on actual solutions, because they figure the library will do it free.
Interestingly, one of Oliver’s proposed solutions for libraries being forced to act as homeless shelters because of the closure of such shelters is…to turn libraries into homeless shelters. She envisions new libraries, not having fancy fountains and impressive architecture to impress the tourists, but instead having showers, lockers, and needle containers. Left unsaid is whether the library will still provide any books or databases, or if all the “information professionals” will turn into social workers instead. While I have long supported the idea of libraries partnering with social workers precisely because libraries serve so many individuals in need of such services, I am perplexed at the idea that we should wholesale turn libraries into homeless shelters. Why not both? Why can’t the library still exist to provide equal access to information, while more shelters are built to fulfill other needs? On the other hand, I am not perplexed at all. Libraries have spent so long trying to fill in the gaps in social services, that many librarians see themselves as social workers anyway.
Overdue raises plenty of interesting questions, some of which I will likely explore in upcoming posts. As a book, however, Overdue is admittedly disjointed, jumping around from topic to topic without any clear thread connecting them. And, it is unclear to me who the intended audience is. Is it the public, who may be shocked to learn that library staff see their job as unsafe? Is it library administrators and government officials, who have the ability to make change? Is it library staff, who want to be heard? Is it just people interested in Oliver’s memoirs? I have no idea! I do know that many of the topics raised likely already exist somewhere on the internet as an article, so I would recommend people do some research to find those quicker, more focused reads, or maybe check out what current librarians are talking about on Twitter to get an idea of the state of libraries, rather than reading this book.
You must be logged in to post a comment.