Monday, June 13, 2011

How to Break a Librarian's Heart

A patron came in today asked for a book recommendation.  (I know! A book question!  Not an internet question, a tax form question, a "where's the bathroom?" question, or a "how do I use the printer?" question. I turn into a big overenthusiastic puppy with reader's advisory qusestions!)  Here's how it went:

Patron: I'm looking for a good book to read.

Me:  [walking him out to the fiction aisles] What types of books do you usually like?

Patron: I don't read much, but I want to get back into it.  I read Of Mice and Men a long time ago and liked it. What would you recommend?

Me:  Cool!  What kind of movies do you enjoy?

Patron: Y'know, just tell me what you like to read.  You look like you've read a lot of books.

Me: [hedging] Well. . .it depends on what I'm in the mood for.  I tend to read all over the place.

Patron: What have you read recently?

Me: I just read this really interesting book about identity theft and the nature of self.  It's called Await Your Reply.  You might like that.  Or, have you ever heard of Neil Gaiman?

Patron: Nope.

Me: He writes these really creepy/cool novels.  That movie Coraline was based on one of his children's books.  [I hand him American Gods.] This one's good--about what would happen if all the gods of ancient mythology were still around hanging out undercover in the U.S.  Or you might like his Sandman series of graphic novels [rush to the graphic novels section and back].  These are neat--look they're narrated by Dream who's like the personification of dreams. [Flip through the illustrations with him.]

Patron:  Yeah!  That's rad. So what else do you like to read?

Me: Well, you gotta love Sherman Alexie [searching madly for The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven which, of course, is checked out].  Here try The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian.  Anything by Alexie is funny and sad and true.  He writes really great characters who are just trying to make it through life.  You'll love this guy! 

Patron:  Cool, thanks! [eagerly takes the books from me]. How about that guy who was writing during World War I.  Really famous.

Me: Hemingway?

Patron: Yeah! That guy!  He sounds like a really cool dude. A real man's man, y'know?

Me: [thinking to myself, "yeah, and a misogynist"]:  Well, here's The Old Man and the Sea if you want a quick taste of his writing.  He really makes you feel this guy's struggle against the marlin he's attempting to catch.  Or we have Farewell to Arms if you want something a little more in-depth about World War I.

Patron:  I really enjoy tragic heroes.  You know, guys who try really hard to do the right thing and die.

Me: Hmm. Let me think on that and get back to you. [He continues browsing.]

I end up giving him The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey by Walter Mosley, because to me, Pitypapa is totally a tragic hero--does what he has to do in the face of death. I also recommend Grapes of Wrath since he liked Of Mice and Men and Tom Joad is a tragic hero, of sorts.  Plus, I throw in The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter for good measure because it made me laugh, it's current and Matthew Prior is a tragic hero in his own way.

This whole time, the guy is very appreciative and asking for more. Making eye contact. We're having a good discussion about books.  Really, he seems genuinely interested and engaged.

Then he asks to use the internet.  Talks on his phone and checks his Facebook for an hour.  And LEAVES WITHOUT checking out a SINGLE BOOK! 

Where did I go wrong?  I wouldn't have even minded if he'd taken something I hadn't recommended. Just leave with something, dude.  <sigh>

While we're on the subject, though, do any of you have recommendations for books with tragic heroes?


  1. Awwww: that's so sad!

    I just read Grief Lessons, a translation of four Euripides plays translated by Anne Carson, and it's full of tragic heroes and mysogynism. ;)

  2. Oh wow. That's awful. You think he just wanted a list of cool books that he could add to his FB page and/or dating site page to make him look interesting? Hoping he got some very bad news on the phone and had to rush off but he'll come back and check out all those books and come back again and tell you you've changed his life...

  3. @Eva--I know, right? Oh well. I will definitely seek out Grief Lessons. I just finished Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson and really enjoyed it, so I am up for anything she's had a hand in.

    @Helen--LOL! Maybe that's what he was doing. After he left empty-handed, I was puzzled as to why he even bothered with the conversation at all. He did have the stack of books next to him the whole time he was on the computer. I like your theory. =-)

  4. ACK!! Heartbreaking indeed. At least you got to handle and remember books that you loved in the process. I love the term "hand sell" because there is a tactile aspect to a heart-felt recommendation.

  5. That's true, it is fun to remember my favorites. We have end cap displays, so rather than re-shelving them, I stuck them there. Await Your Reply and American Gods have disappeared. I love your thoughts on "hand selling." That is so true--the tactile experience is really a part of it.

  6. He seems tragic, but not a hero :)

    I can only imagine how frustrating that experience was for you. One of the librarians at our local branch often bemoans the fact that he spends much more time arbitrating disputes between patrons over computer time than doing anything that remotely approaches what his degree in library science is about.

    I still get frustrated by the kids who come in asking for something that is exactly like Harry Potter, down to it has to have a teenage wizard with cool friends and take place at a magic school. Oy.

  7. I can relate--sometimes it does feel like a good portion of my shift on the reference desk is dealing with the whinier computer patrons.

    HP and corresponding magic school/wizardy/friends books hasn't been as big this spring (I'm sure it will pick up when the last movie is released next month). Twilight read-alike questions abound, though. Luckily, those aren't too hard to field since there are at least 4,032 YA vampire series out there now.

    Like you, though, I wish they'd be a bit more open-minded about what books they'll try.