Genre Kryptonite: Books About Libraries



Always books. Never boring.

This is a guest post from Jonathan Streeter. Jonathan is a husband, the father of three young children, and an English teacher and tennis coach at his local Tampa high school. He blames his premature grey hair on all of the above and enjoys skiing, comic books and coffee. He has a B.A. in English from the University of South Florida, is pursuing a master’s degree in English Education and his work, a contemporary look at the fairy tale rendered in Crayola, adorns the walls of his daughter’s room. He spends his spare time split between lamenting his lack of free time and reading under the guise of grading papers.

A trait I share in common with many an amateur bibliophile, literature aficionado and yes, I’ll say it, nerds, is my appreciation of books about books. I guess that after coming to terms with the crushing fact that I’ll never get a chance to read everything, I’ve subconsciously settled for the next best thing, and instead of reading all of the classics, I’ve settled for reading about them. So, after happily devouring the usual culprits from Nicholas Basbanes, Harold Bloom, and Thomas C. Foster, I realized that even this Cliffs Notes-inspired attempt was doomed to fail. Each great novel seemed to beget a dozen books of analysis, commentary, and criticism. My shortcut through the library had become a meandering and often circuitous quest as I often found myself reading the original classics anyway.

It was Anne Fadiman who provided the stimulus for my escape, and after reading her essay in Ex Libris on the heartbreak she experienced at having to combine her library with that of her equally literate husband, I stumbled upon an answer.  Why read about the classics individually when instead I can read about them collectively? Why read books about books when I could read books about entire libraries?

To set the record straight and hopefully prevent indictment from librarians and scholars of library science, I wasn’t after historically accurate, non-fictional fare. Instead, I looked for books that embodied the emotional resonance of the library, work that conjured the same aesthetic of literary appreciation and devotional reverence to the classics that I had always hoped to garnish by reading about them in the first place. With this in mind here are some of the standouts:

library at nightThe Library at Night by Alberto Manguel  

From Alexandria to the internet, Alberto Manguel discusses libraries throughout the ages in a quest to distill the essence of the word down to its truest form.  The depth of investigation presented by Manguel is unbelievable and often transcends the physical confines of the library to explore the lives of the people who created, tended and died for the cause, to contemplate imaginary libraries or to comment on oral libraries now lost forever.






shadow of the windThe Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco and Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

These two historical murder mysteries are similar in their use of hidden, labyrinthine libraries at the center of their equally intricate plotlines. Both describe books worth killing for in imagery-rich prose, and the former boasts a movie starring Sean Connery.







snow crash stephensonSnow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Although this feels like cheating, the virtual librarian that aids Hiro Protagonist in this science fiction epic deserves a nod on a list of this nature. Having millions of books in his “its” memory banks, he is more than capable of helping our hiro in his quest to understand and combat a “linguistic virus” that stems from the creation of civilazation and reaches forward all the way to a dystopian future that eerily resembles our own.