Sunday, May 18, 2008

Book Review: "Quiet, Please"

I first got to know Scott Douglas through his McSweeney's column, "Dispatches from a Public Librarian," of which I have become a devoted fan; when I heard he had a book coming out I knew it would be a must-read. Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian (DaCapo, 2008) is an insightful, blunt and provocative look at public libraries and librarianship from the inside out. Douglas, who's only in his early 30s if that, writes with a bitterness beyond his years, but thankfully it's that sort of witty bitterness that's tempered by his knowledge that what he's doing really does matter to the people who use his library (even if it's just to sleep in the bathroom).

Covering issues as wide-ranging as library school, food in the library, computer use, patrons (children, teens, homeless people, the handicapped, the elderly and just about every other demographic group gets sliced and diced here at some point) and his colleagues, Douglas offers a series of anecdotes - some depressing, some uplifting - about life as a public servant. The freewheeling narrative is broken up by sidebars of exposition on various matters related (or not) to libraries, as well as to footnotes (usually humorous) explaining or qualifying statements made in the text.*

Douglas gives us reason to doubt the complete accuracy of his stories: in one of the footnotes, on page 110, he writes "Things about the characters have been changed for their protection and to bring more humor to the story." He adds later "Everything in this book happened (though some in less exaggerated form)". Even if some of his stories about staff or patrons aren't entirely true, they might just as well be. And naturally he'd have had to disguise at least a few of the things he wrote about his colleagues, since I don't think they'd let him back in the building otherwise.

A fun read, but with a powerful punch lurking beneath the humor.

*I loved these.