Librarians judge books by more than covers
For longtime library lovers, it was a surprise to hear librarians reveal their personal thoughts about many popular and classic works.
The latest FYI Book Club selection, “Dear Fahrenheit 451” by Annie Spence, fueled the biblio-confessions by librarians from the Kansas City Public Library, UMKC’s Miller Nichols Library, the St. Joseph Public Library and the Spencer Art Reference Library of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. They gathered with other readers for a discussion in the Missouri Valley Room of the Kansas City Public Library.
Peggy Martinez of Kansas City and Lisa Timmons of Overland Park were shocked, shocked, to learn there are books on library shelves that librarians dislike. Both thoroughly enjoyed the opinions of the librarians in the room almost as much as they appreciated Spence’s thoughts in “Dear Fahrenheit 451,” her collection of love notes and breakup letters to books recently removed from the shelves of libraries where she has worked.
For the most part, readers agreed with Spence’s opinions on the books she spotlights, although several couldn’t understand her love for “The Virgin Suicides” by Jeffrey Eugenides or “Time Traveler’s Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger.
“I was intrigued by Spence’s appreciation of those two books because I don’t care for them,” Naphtali Faris of Kansas City said. “Yet I appreciated her passion for them and her ability to articulate that passion and share it. It made me understand why a reader would like them.”
Jenny Ellis of St. Joseph wanted to reread “Time Traveler’s Wife” after reading Spence’s entry. “I loved that book, and Spence captured why I loved it.”
Emily Cox of Kansas City understood Spence’s “almost obsessive appreciation for Jeffrey Eugenides. I felt the same way about David Foster Wallace.”
Other readers were quick to jump in with their own worship of certain authors, as Faris did about children’s book author Roald Dahl. Ellis said, “I consider myself a Jasper Fforde stalker. I can’t wait for his books to be published in the United States. I order them straight from the U.K. on the day of publication.”
Other readers liked the way Spence paid homage to certain books. Marilyn Carbonell and Bernard Norcott-Mahany, both of Kansas City, noted her thoughts on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
“Spence captured the feeling of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ in her entry. This one stood out for me since the story is so suffocating,” Carbonell said.
Norcott-Mahany agreed. “I looked up the book,” he said, “and the way Spence wrote the entry was like the book, a series of journal entries.”
Scott Curtis of Overland Park was a little wary of “Dear Fahrenheit 451.” “I thought, ‘This book will be 90 percent (about) books I’ve never read,” he said. “And then, look. There’s Easy Rawlins. Yes, crime noir! This book does resonate with me. I’ve stayed up all night reading these books, too.”
Martinez found a connection with “Color Me Beautiful,” the beauty book that peaked in the 1980s. “This is the book that got me the most,” she said. “I can still hear women saying, ‘I can’t wear that color, I’m a Summer,’ just like Spence.”
Other chapters about book-related subjects were equally fascinating for the readers. Dawn Mackey of Kansas City liked the lists of recommendations in the back. “These were terrific,” she said. “I especially liked the list pairing books in (the section about) Book Hookups. They were so different and titles I’d never think to read.”
Carbonell gravitated to Spence’s list of books in the appendix: “I’m always interested in what my fellow librarians are reading. There were so many books here I didn’t know about! I’m using it as checklist for my own reading.”
Norcott-Mahany and Cox wanted to talk about the entries that seemed to resonate with all the readers in the room: book covers and bookshelves.
Norcott-Mahany remarked, “Some artists totally missed the point of the book they designed covers for. I looked up all the covers for ‘The Last Picture Show.’ Spence is right. None of them are good.”
Cox said she especially enjoyed Spence’s fictionalized account of getting drunk at a party and judging her host’s bookshelves. “We all do that, wander over to a bookshelf and get to know a person better by judging what’s on their shelves,” Cox said to a room nodding in agreement.
Conversation turned to how librarians feel about books and reading. John Keogh of Shawnee said, “One of the things that comforted me about this book is that librarians spend so much time setting aside our personal feelings about a particular title. It was a joy to read Annie’s sheer celebration of books and reading as an individual with opinions about books.”
Faris agreed. “There’s a certain amount of glee we feel when we weed books we know aren’t good or books that are a little creepy. Like ‘Fifty Shades’ or ‘The Giving Tree,’ ” she said. “Annie gets that. And then she gets that there are books that break our hearts because they are so bedraggled from being read and loved and we know it’s out of print and will be impossible to replace.”
Keogh noted that this is a strength of the book. “One thing Spence does so well is she addresses the book’s faults and still adores it,” he said.
Martinez and Timmons had questions for the librarians. Martinez said “Dear Fahrenheit” reminded her of being in grade school and asking librarians to give her something good to read or them “listening to me tell them what I’ve been reading.”
“I haven’t done that for years,” Martinez said, “but maybe if I talk to librarians, they’ll help me find something different.”
Said Timmons, “In the school where I taught, the librarian was always finding the right book to give a student who was a reluctant reader. I’ll be asking more librarians what to read for my own reading list. Do you do that?”
An entire room of librarians answered, “Yes!”
Keogh responded, “Come to us, and we’ll get to know you. Amazon can’t do that.”