One Good Turn Deserves Another at the Library

by Bill Peak

If someone asked me what's the best thing about working at the library ... and told me my life depended upon getting the answer right . I think there's about a 50-50 chance that would be my last day on earth. Once, of course, I could have answered easily. It's the books, I would have said. But now, well, it's pretty much a toss-up between the books and the patrons. The books may have first drawn me to the library, but it's the patrons that make the place come alive.

Besides friendship and all that friendship implies—a joke shared, a personal story told, a pat on the back when someone's having a rough day—one of the best things about patrons is that, pretty much by definition, they're readers. They love books as much as I. So they're always introducing me to something new, something I might never have come across on my own. Not too long ago, a brilliant friend and patron (he's an attorney, a professor at Georgetown University, and a general run-of-the-mill Renaissance man), suggested I read a book of essays called The View from the Cheap Seats. Perhaps surprisingly for one who writes this monthly essay for The Star Democrat, I'm not really a fan of the form. The word itself harkens back to school days for me, the dreaded twenty-page paper; and then, of course, there are the meanings associated with the word essay: “to try,” “to test”—perhaps to fail!

But this patron's no fool. Instead of dumping a copy of Neil Gaiman's 500-page book in my lap, he e-mailed me a copy of the first essay in the collection, a piece entitled “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming” ... and, needless to say, I was hooked. I'm about halfway through the book now and enjoying every page of it. Gaiman is a writing machine, but more than that, his view from the cheap seats is fresh, funny, startlingly perceptive and endlessly entertaining. For the first time in my life, I find it hard to put a book of essays down.

And one good book inevitably leads to another. Gaiman made his name as a writer of children's fiction (he's a recipient of the Newberry Award). Now I do, from time to time, enjoy reading a good children's book. Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, for instance, worked for me, as did Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series. And thanks to C. S. Lewis, all wardrobes will forevermore possess a hint of mystery, the suggestion that they are, in fact, a portal to another world. So it was easy for me to pick up what is probably Gaiman's most famous children's story, Coraline, and give it a try.

What can I say about the book? That it haunted me. That it haunts me still. That every day I could hardly wait to return to it. Don't get me wrong, it is a children's book, but it is a children's book in the classic mold. Children understand fear, night terrors, better I think than most grown-ups. And so it is that the truly great children's books, the ones that last, inevitably spice their “and everyone lived happily ever after” endings with a healthy pinch of “but, of course, it could have turned out very differently indeed.” Doubtless Coraline strikes children of today as being as disturbingly true to their world and its attendant fears as Lewis Carroll's Alice must have seemed to children of the Victorian era.

Maybe the best thing I can say about it, the one that does a better job of summing up my experience of Coraline than any other, is that I don't want to host a discussion of it. Often, of course, that is the point of this column, to introduce a book and set dates for discussions I will lead on it at the library. But not this time. This book is strange and powerful in ways I'm not sure I fully understand. So far as I know, there may be only one underlying theme to the thing, one real point, in which case I'm not sure it would supply enough material for a full hour's discussion. Or, on the other hand, it may so crawl with themes and points and little ideas (some, perhaps, not so very pleasant) that it would not only fill an hour but spill over into areas of discussion requiring not a "library guy" to facilitate but a psychiatrist. I just plain don't know. All I can tell you for sure is that it is a strange little tale and I think you should read it ... if you dare.