In the Stacks: Short Stories about Libraries and Librarians
Ed. Michael Cart
Overlook Press, 2002

I learned from The Heroine’s Bookshelf that it’s National Library Week in the U.S. so it seemed fitting to choose a short story for April from this collection, edited by Michael Cart: In the Stacks: Short Stories about Libraries and Librarians. Don’t you just love the cover image? Can’t you smell that Library Smell captured therein?

Flipping through, at first I planned to choose the story whose first line captured me most immediately, but then I got to Lorrie Moore’s short story “Community Life” and, because I had so recently finished reviewing The Gate at the Stairs for my Orange Prize reading , and because it was a good first sentence, I settled into that one and left the other stories’ first sentences unsampled for the time being.

“When Olena was a little girl, she had called them lie-berries — a fibbing fruit, a story store — and she had a job in one.”  (83)

Don’t we all know a small child who has pronounced it thus? If just knowing about the library-ish-ness of this story wasn’t enough reason to make me feel comfortable, this bit’s familiarity would have encouraged me to get to know Olena a little better all the same.

Olena becomes a librarian in one of the American Midwest’s most prestigious university libraries, one with a large collection of rare and foreign books, in which she supervises the cataloguing of the foreign collection.

The setting was a familiar one and I loved the way that Moore describes it: “It was a college town, attractive and dull, and it hurried the transients along — the students, gypsies, visiting scholars ad comics — with a motion not unlike peristalsis.” (86)

I like the way that Moore takes everyday processes (like peristalsis) and objects and transforms them metaphorically. Here’s another that struck me in “Community Life”, wherein Olena describes meeting Nick for coffee, how she doesn’t usually like espresso, “its gritty, cigarish taste”.

But as much as I appreciate her use of language, often startling for all its simplicity, what I’ve read of Lorrie Moore so far reveals her ultimate preoccupation to be with character, and that is true of this short story as well. The action in “Community Life” is largely internal and the events recounted are ordinary…well, except when they are extraordinary.

What’s your favourite fictional library story?