Hardcover and paperback, on Kindles or listening to audiobooks, the average American reads a dozen books a year. The good ones are enlightening or inspiring or just plain fun, a worthwhile investment of time. The shallower, cheesier or flat-out bad ones … well, they can send Annie Spence into a rant.
Like her take on “Grey: Fifty Shades of Grey as Told by Christian,” one of the more recent entries in the insistently sultry series by E.L. James:
It makes me want to shake readers and scream: YOU’RE SURROUNDED BY GREAT LITERATURE AND THIS (DRIVEL) ISN’T EVEN THAT DIRTY! … I’m putting you out on the curb where you belong, and I hope someone drops you in the bubble bath they are sitting in when they read you.
(The caps are Spence’s. And no, she didn’t say “drivel.”)
Spence is a Michigan librarian with a predictable passion for books and an endearing, if less conventional, habit of talking to them. More accurately, she writes to them with sweetness and candor, with fondness and scorn, something she started doing for kicks 10 or 11 years ago and eventually turned into her first book, “Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks.”
At first, Spence typed out breakup letters to the tables full of used, donated or discarded books her library offered for sale. Later, in a blog for another library, she spotlighted her recommended reads for road trips, holidays and other occasions.
She includes 75 of those odes in her book, addressing specific titles, series and collections ranging from, yes, “Fahrenheit 451” and other classics to the more obscure “Cornzapoppin’ ” (more uses for popcorn than you ever imagined) and “Street Biking: How to Ride to Save Your Hide.” Spence tacks on several more chapters of literary lists, and the book in sum serves as a pretty extensive — and often uproarious — readers’ guide.
If you’re unfamiliar with a book, Spence gives you just enough detail, with a frequent side of snark, to pique your interest.
She adores “The Virgin Suicides”: “I love that after I read you, every time, my own everyday movements and the quotidian moments of my life feel more beautiful. That’s the mark of a lovely book.”
She’s so-so on “The Hobbit”: “I get that a lot of people love you and you ‘changed fantasy forever,’ or whatever. But if it were up to me? Maybe have Bilbo hang out with the other hobbits for a little longer. Smoke some pipe-weed. Get into trouble. Find a lady friend. Make merriment. That’s The Hobbit I was looking for.”
She gives Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing” series (Lincoln, Kennedy, Reagan and so on) a wry backhand: “This note is just to say you’re strong-arming the biography section and taking up a lot of space, so we have to remove a few of you. The Kennedy section, especially, resents you a bit.”
“I’d always email the writers of the books I recommended to let them know I did,” Spence says. “For one book in particular — the name is escaping me — I couldn’t find the author’s contact information so I emailed her agent, and the agent said, ‘I really like your writing style. Do you have any book ideas?’
“I pitched a few to her and, just to make it look like I had a lot of ideas, I added some of those letters. She thought letters to books was a great book idea, and so we ran with that.”
Her original intent, Spence says, was to target the book to people who already loved reading. “Book nerds have a lot of feelings about books in general, even if we don’t match up on what we love and hate,” she says.
“But as I got more into it and had a few friends read it, I would say about halfway through I started thinking that maybe this could be a way to get more people reading and get more people into the library, especially people in their 20s and 30s.”
Spence, 34, the outreach librarian for emerging adults (late teens through 20s) at the Grosse Pointe (Michigan) Public Library, recently discussed “Dear Fahrenheit 451,” its impact and her emergence as a writer. Excerpts are edited for length.
Q: You pretty well blow up the stereotype of the staid librarian. Are you as funny as you write?
A: I’m the youngest of five kids, and my family is pretty funny. If you couldn’t take a joke, you really weren’t going to get by.
Q: You also don’t mind throwing down a few profanities. OK, more than a few. It’s not exactly language that your mother’s librarian would use.
A: There are so many funny, or quirky, things that happen in the library, and I think you’d go a little mad if you didn’t have a sense of humor. It’s funny that you say “not your mother’s librarian.” My mother has been telling people, “She just writes that way. She doesn’t talk like that.”
Q: What kind of funny, quirky things.
A: People come in with odd questions. One woman said she wanted books on pregnancy because, when she opened her mouth, she could hear a baby crying through her throat.
I have a co-worker who found a dead bat in a book. When I worked at the Detroit Public Library, we had to lock the drop box because somebody kept pooping in it.
Q: How many librarians become authors?
A: Nancy Pearl wrote books as a librarian (including “Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment and Reason”), and just recently came out with fiction. Anne Tyler (“The Accidental Tourist”) did work at a library as a bibliographer.
I think a lot of librarians are probably closet writers who like to try their hand on it. But I think the number who become authors is low.
Q: How did it feel to finish your book?
A: It was pretty unbelievable. I had written a young adult book at the end of college and never was able to get it published. I was writing fiction and short stories for myself, not sending them out anywhere … and I just sort of made peace with myself about never being a published writer. I thought, “I don’t have to do that to be happy with my life.”
And then this agent just kind of dropped into my lap. Not only did she like one of the first ideas I gave her, but the first publisher to look at the book accepted it — and it was Amy Einhorn, who has a ton of great books under her belt. A lot of my friends did spit takes when they heard she was my editor.
I just feel overwhelmed with luck, really. I don’t know if it was me giving it up that made me write more freely. I wasn’t writing to be published anymore; I was just writing for myself. I’m grateful I got to realize a dream I thought I had given up.
Q: Have you heard from any authors of the books you’ve included?
A: That’s something that made me a little nervous. When you’re a reader and you don’t like a book, you can have all sorts of opinions about it. But after you’ve gone through the process of writing a book and you know how hard it is, whether it’s a crappy book or a good one, it makes you feel bad to poo-poo someone’s work.
I’ve had a chance to give Jeffrey Eugenides a copy of my book — I met him at a reading — but I haven’t heard back from him. I hope he read it. And I met Claire Vaye Watkins. I recommended her book (“Gold Fame Citrus”), and she seemed pleased. But that’s it.
Q: How many books do you read a year?
A: Not as many as the children’s librarians I know because I read longer books. Probably 50-100 a year, depending on the year. I’m usually reading a fiction and a nonfiction and listening to an audiobook simultaneously.
Q: Is there a book you want to be buried with?
A: Even though I wax poetic about Jeffrey Eugenides (and “The Virgin Suicides”) in my book, it would have to be “Dandelion Wine” by Ray Bradbury. It’s so much about living, about the beauty of living and how magnificent the world is and how scary it is when you realize that.
Q: Your worst book, or one you wish had never been written?
A: As a librarian, I always want people to be able to express themselves and write what they want. And so I don’t wish that books like “Fifty Shades of Grey” or (those by) James Patterson, who seems to have one coming out every two months, had never been written.
But I wish people would move on from them instead of just waiting for the next blockbuster book to be made into a movie to come out. I wish they’d use it as a steppingstone and explore the shelves a little more.
Q: You were a creative writing major in college at Central Michigan, correct?
A: Yes. My mom asked when I was about halfway through, “What do you think you’re going to do after college?” That was the first time I’d thought about it.
I said, “I’ll be a writer, I’ll write books,” but I started thinking I needed something to pay the bills. My adviser recommended being a librarian, and it just kind of sparked something in me. It made perfect sense.
My family is full of teachers and nurses and people who work in social services. Public service runs in the family. I wanted to do something to help my community, and I wanted to be around literature. I thought, “That’s a great idea.”
Q: But your writing, your book, didn’t come out of nowhere.
A: No. Since I was a kid, I’ve been writing little books. My mom gave me a box of old school papers, and I had a make-a-wish paper I’d written in the second or third grade that said, when I grew up, I wanted to write books. It was about ice skaters, but I think I got there.
Q: Will you keep writing?
A: I’d be open to doing some sort of a sequel. A couple of readers have asked about that. I really went through the catalog of books that I’ve read, and I would need a couple of years to catch up on my reading if I was going to do another one about books. Right now I’m working on a novel.
Q: What’s it about?
A: I’ve read a lot of books in which a woman has some sort of crisis and, to deal with it, she goes to live in a foreign country for a year or gives up her job and lives in a cabin for some months. I don’t feel as much empathy for those characters because they have wealth and the ability to fly to a beautiful country to get over whatever they’re dealing with.
I’d always wondered how that same crisis would be dealt with by someone who had to keep their job and watch their kids at the same time they’re trying to grow as a person. So that’s what it’s about. It’s also about female friendships and a little bit of romance. Oh, and there’s a librarian character.
Steve Wieberg, a former reporter for USA Today, is a writer and editor for the Kansas City Public Library.
From “Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks” by Annie Spence, published by Thorndike Press. Here, Spence writes to Anaïs Nin’s sultry short story collection “Delta of Venus.”
I don’t think they ever explained the difference between romance and erotica in library school. But now I know! Romance is: read thirty chapters of bickering and almost-kisses, and then watch the main characters do it. The end. Erotica is: pick any page — filthiest thing you’ve ever read.
You, Venus, somehow manage to be the dirtiest and the classiest of them all, and that’s why, this summer, you’re my shoreside secret. …
Here at the beach, I look like the unassuming reader in the one-piece, cloaked in multiple layers of SPF 70 and a big brimmed hat. A volleyball guy who jogged over to retrieve his ball just told me to smile and look like I’m enjoying myself. What a fool. I said nothing, just glared and violently snapped you back open in front of my face. But in my head, I’m was telling him, ‘Yah, have fun hoping someone’s top falls of during a serve. I’m reading about an orgy in an opium den. And I’ll never wrinkle. Hate me cause you ain’t me.
Join the discussion
The Kansas City Star partners with the Kansas City Public Library to present a book-of-the-moment selection every six to eight weeks. We invite the community to read along. Kaite Mediatore Stover, the library’s director of readers’ services, will lead a discussion of “Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks” by Annie Spence at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, May 21, in the Missouri Valley Room at the Kansas City Central Library, 14 W. 10th St.
Spence may join the discussion via Skype or Facetime. If you would like to attend, email Stover at firstname.lastname@example.org.