In Praise of an Unknown Library Patron

by Bill Peak

One of the nice things about being the only male employee most people ever see at the library (certainly the only one with a big, gray moustache) is that folks tend to remember me. They come up to me at the grocery and in the bank, on the street and in the post office, and they ask about a DVD they want or a book they need to check out. If I can't help them on the spot, I give them one of my cards and ask them to shoot me their question in an e-mail so I can give them a response as quickly as I can. In this way I like to think of myself as sort of a mobile “concierge librarian.” But such informal, service-based encounters are also a two-way street. Just as being a recognized source of library information helps me help patrons, so, from time to time, the fact that people know me and know how much I love books gives them a way to return the favor.

Not too long ago a lady on her way out of the library glanced over at the Front Desk, did a double-take, and, reversing course, walked up to me as if she had a bone to pick. “Have you read 'The Garden of Evening Mists' yet?” she demanded. I told her I hadn't. I hadn't even heard of it. You'd have thought I'd said I'd never heard of Shakespeare. “It's an excellent book,” she insisted, “you must read it.” Well I have to admit, I was a little doubtful at first. People always thinks I will love the books they love, and while I often do, there are some genres that just don't work for me. “The Garden of Evening Mists” sounded like it might be a Romance novel, and while I have nothing against Romance novels per se, they're really not my cup of tea.

Still I checked a copy of the book out, took it home, and quickly discovered the patron was right. Excellent novel—terrific characters and a plot that lives and breathes and won't let you go. But for me it was also something more. The story involves a Malaysian named Yun Ling Teoh who, as a young woman, has spent a good part of World War II being tortured and abused in a Japanese prison camp. For understandable reasons, Yun's feelings about the Land of the Rising Sun are pretty harsh. My father spent a good part of World War II fighting the Japanese across the draws and ridges of Okinawa. For understandable reasons, his feelings about the Land of the Rising Sun were pretty harsh too. And he was my father. I grew up listening to tales of the Rape of Nanking and the beheading of American POWs. But if she is to move on in her life, Yun learns over the course of the novel that she must let go of prejudices that are keeping her from seeing others (the Japanese) as fully human and, at the same time, keeping her from being fully human as well. It is, of course, a lesson we all must learn. It is a lesson—my father's stories notwithstanding—I must learn.

And so there is a patron out there to whom I owe a debt of gratitude. Though she clearly felt she knew me, I'm afraid I don't know her name and have only the vaguest memory of what she looked like. Which makes this column the only way I have of thanking her, and, indeed, my only way of thanking all the good people who have shared their love of books with me at the Talbot County Free Library. Blessings upon you all. May your tribe increase!