A reader and her library

A reader and her library

Richly evocative ‘The Night Bookmobile’ by Audrey Niffenegger is a cautionary fantasia for anyone who has loved books.

In a long and wide book size of 8 x 11.5 inches, are illustrations of colourful bookshelves, a row of books showing titles on spines, a library-room of books, a reader hugging a book close to her, and a universal library right out of a Borges tale.

     In an afterword to the book, its author and illustrator, Niffenegger, says, “When I began writing The Night Bookmobile, it was a story about a woman's secret life as a reader. As I worked, it also became a story about the claims that books place on their readers, the imbalance between our inner and outer selves, a cautionary tale of the seductions of the written word. It became a vision of the afterlife as a library."

This, she says, is the first installment of a trilogy to be called The Library. The Night Bookmobile (Abrams ComicArts, 2010) was originally a short story, which then became a graphic serial in The Guardian. After a late night quarrel with her boyfriend, a young woman named Alexandra wanders the city streets. She spots a mobile library that oddly still seems open at such a late hour.  

When she draws near it, an elegant looking librarian introduces himself as Openshaw, and invites her in to explore the library. Stepping in, she’s surprised to find that the library looks larger inside: several rows of bookshelves on two sides stretching deep inside the mobile.

“It seemed larger from the inside-much larger. There was a long, red-carpeted aisle down the middle, and on either side of it, from ceiling to floor, were the books. The lighting was subdued and pleasant. The whole place smelled of old dry paper, with a little whiff of wet dog, which I like.”

Browsing, she makes another startling discovery: “I moved farther along the aisle. Then I noticed something strange, which was that every book on the shelves was familiar. That is, I had read all the books. I mean, I’m a pretty avid reader, but I had never been anywhere, even my own apartment, where I’d read everything. Everything. From Jane Austen to Paul Auster…”Also on the bookshelf is her diary! I walked back to Mr Openshaw.  "This is mine", I said, showing the diary to him.

 He smiled gently. “They’re all yours,” he said. I get inarticulate when I’m amazed. “Huh?” “This collection consists of all the books you’ve ever read. We also have all the periodicals, which are in the next aisle, and ephemera-cereal boxes and such-which are in Section C, to your right.”

Openshaw took off his glasses and polished them with his handkerchief. “It’s a very complete collection.”

Later, her boyfriend doesn’t believe her when she tells him about the night bookmobile. She searches every night for the phantom bookmobile wandering the city streets, but never finds it. “Have you ever found your heart's desire and then lost it?” Lexi asks the reader.  “I had seen myself, a portrait of myself as a reader. My childhood: hours spent in airless classrooms, days home sick from school reading Nancy Drew, forbidden books read secretively late at night. Teenage years reading-trying to read-books I’d heard were important, Naked Lunch and The Fountainhead, Ulysses and Women in Love . . . It was as though I had dreamt the perfect lover, who vanished as I woke, leaving me pining and surly.”

 Then, many years later, turning a corner one night, there it is. Behind the wheel is Openshaw, his elegant, bookish self. He greets her warmly and invites her in. She tells him straight away that she wants to be a librarian, and not any librarian, but a librarian here, inside the night bookmobile. Openshaw says that would be impossible. There were rules. Alexandra now begins her journey that will bring her here again, but this time as its night librarian. The price turns out to be high and dark but strangely satisfying. Audrey Niffenegger is best known for her novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, but thanks to her new work, I was able to go back and find out about her other award-winning picture books, The Three Incestuous Sisters and The Adventuress.

Apart from being a novelist and visual artist, she teaches Book Arts and an Intermediate and Advanced Printmaking Seminar: training students how to write, print type on letterpresses, and create limited edition books by hand.

As a young artist, she says she was inspired by the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, and later Windsor McKay. Her two other novel-in-pictures pay tribute to the gothic vision and style of Edward Gorey.

Neil Gaiman writing about her new work said: “The Night Bookmobile is a love letter, both elegiac and heartbreaking, to the things we have read, and to the readers that we are.
It says that what we read makes us who we are. It’s a graphic short story, beautifully drawn and perfectly told, a cautionary fantasia for anyone who has ever loved books, and I hope the story of the library, of Alexandra, finds its place on the night bookmobiles of all of who’d care. It’s a treasure.”

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