Outlaws of the Library

by Laura Raphael


I spend my days surrounded by books. A glorious, beautiful, maddening riot of books–hundreds of thousands of them at the downtown library alone, in all shapes, sizes, and subjects, spilling from carts and shelves, stacked on desks and waiting in bins. While some books are crackling new, most have been around the circulation desk a few or 300 times. Old or new, all are begging to be organized, shelved, and, above all, picked up and taken home by interested readers.

To make this happen, each person in my department is in charge of a particular part of the collection – Melissa is the queen of cookbooks and graphic novels, Peter the master of biographies and plays, Rosemary the goddess of teen paperbacks, and so on.

Me, I am the caretaker of about 40,000 volumes of fiction for adults.

As such, I act as both creator and destroyer, bringer of literary death as well as life. In other words, while I often have the happy task of recommending new purchases or getting readers to try out new novels, sometimes I must remove books from the collection–an odious yet important task.

Tackling a shelf or two every few months, I euthanize books not checked out since the early Reagan administration, for example, or so worn, torn, and streaked with crusty mustard blotches and coffee stains that nobody wants to touch them, including me. The official library term for doing this is “weeding” and sometimes “de-selection,” and, as important as it is (It is! It is! I have research to prove it!), sometimes it breaks my heart.

There is usually much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, arguing with the heavens, et cetera, before I find the courage to carry on. Goodbye, shelves crammed with moldy, missing-paged books; hello, freedom AND Freedom (by Jonathan Franzen), room AND Room (by Emma Donaghue).

But then, a year or so ago, while stamping “DISCARD” on the inside front and back covers of the book-sale-bound books, I started looking more closely at the author photos. The more I looked at them, the more I noticed how many authors hold onto an array of objects in their photos. I saw a fair number of typewriters and pens, of course, and, later, desktop computers and laptops, but these authors also clutched kittens and fishing poles, teacups and world globes, roses tucked behind ears and Yankee ball caps perched on heads. Some were my literary heroes, some were writers I’d never heard of before. Some looked unbelievably cool, cool enough to make me rethink my no-smoking, no-shooting ways, while some looked awkward and out of place, amateur actors stumbling on the stage of their own private nightmares.

There is a 1970 Joan Didion, as lean and elegant as a parenthesis, beautifully scowling, cigarette in one hand as she stares defiantly at the reader. Next, a dweeby moustached guy in a tuxedo “casually” clutching a pistol as he leans forward on a chair, arms crossed–an American James Bond, in his own mind, at least. Then a young, homely-sexy Salman Rushdie, looking away from the camera and with hand on forehead, a tiny stub of a nearly-gone cigarette between two fingers.

Cigarette. Shotgun. Cigar. Pistol. Pipe. These were authors. Intelleck-shuals. And yet if they were anywhere but in photographs at the library – if they were actually in the flesh in front of me, accoutrements in hand–I would have to call Security to escort them out. (“I’m sorry, Ms. Didion, but our policy clearly states that smoking is not allowed. No exceptions, even for authors with Pulitzer Prizes.”)

Yet I loved every photo, and I wanted to rescue them all. It was visceral, and strange, and I knew I was in trouble when I discovered a double-whammy Ian Fleming. I saw the first one, which featured Fleming holding an ivory cigarette-holder, and my reptilian brain cried out, Want want want. Then I saw the second photo – this time, Fleming’s lips were hovering over a smoking pistol, as if he’d just shot it – and all I could think was Gimme gimme gimme.

Without much of a plan, I started photocopying and then stuffing the copies in a recycled envelope. Soon, I upgraded to a sturdy manila file folder and gave it a place on my desk with my other files. I don’t know about your place of employment, but in the library, a file folder, when accompanied by a label on its tab, lends authority to any random pile of unrelated items. That’s how I knew it was official: my file folder, with a label that read “Outlaws of the Library,” meant I now had a Collection. More than that, it fast became an obsession, with me sidling up to trusted co-workers a few times a week, thrusting the folder at them, and whispering, “Hey, do you want to see something really cool?”

But why? I don’t smoke. And even though I was born in NRA-friendly Oklahoma, the only reason I know which end of a gun is the shooting one is from watching “Law and Order” reruns.

Initially, I thought it came from my longtime fascination with how people use objects – STUFF – to communicate who they are, or who they want to be, or who they want others to think they are. Her worn running shorts say (or she thinks they say), I Am a Serious Athlete. He wants his leather-elbow-patch corduroy jacket to declare, I Am a Card-Carrying Member of the Academic Elite. What we wear, what we own, what we stuff in our closets and carry with us in our pockets every day scream information about us: class identity, gender role, age, education, political beliefs, both future aspirations and past personal history.

That wasn’t quite it. I am self-aware (and self-other things) enough to know that most of my obsessions come not from the inherent fascination of whatever I’m obsessing over, but with… me. So what deeper reason was I, me, identifying with these gun- and cigarette-toting authors?

Before I go on, let me add that I am exactly the kind of person you expect to work in a library. Quiet. Introverted. A rule-follower, a regular voter, someone who pays her taxes and drives the speed limit (within reason). It absolutely infuriates me when people shirk their responsibilities or flout common courtesy–talk loudly on cellphones in movie theaters or ignore the “Merge Now – State Law” signs, that kind of thing.

So the more my “Outlaws of the Library” collection grew, the more I started to wonder: did this have something to do with the lure of the forbidden, the dark pull of danger that smoking and guns represent? Lighting up and packing heat aren’t illegal, of course, but it’s on the edge of what I consider polite, and I am nothing if not the proverbial good girl, polite to a fault.

When I realized this, I had to laugh. Was this just a bit of late-flowering, passive-aggressive, adolescent rebellion? But instead of carrying out the acts myself–dying my hair neon pink, getting an inappropriately-placed tattoo (mine would say “Faulkner 4Ever”)–I was letting my authors do it for me by proxy? Such a librarian thing to do. (Real life is for suckers… I’d rather be reading.)

Meh. No matter. My obsession stands, and I flip through my file every now and then when I need a jolt of feeling like an outlaw… without doing anything, you know, outside the law.