Monday, March 4, 2013

Case Study No. 0825: Robert Openshaw and Alexandra

The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger
Check out more of PammyPam's reviews at www.unconventional
Tags: The Time Traveler's Wife Audrey Niffenegger Unconventional Librarian
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[scene opens with a young female librarian holding a copy of Audrey Niffenegger's "The Night Bookmobile" while speaking directly to the camera]
PAM MARGOLIS: Hi friends, PammyPam here. I wanted to tell you about a very quick story that I found the other day, that's perfect for when you just have to wait ... ten, fifteen minutes maybe in between appointments or something.
[she looks at the book]
PAM MARGOLIS: It's called "The Night Bookmobile," and it's by Audrey Niffenegger. She wrote "The Time Traveler's Wife," many of you have read it or seen the movie. I haven't seen either, it's a little too dark for me. And, um, that's why I haven't read it. But, um, I like "The Night Bookmobile," mostly because it's a graphic novel.
[she points at the cover]
PAM MARGOLIS: And I love graphic novels, and ... this is a little dark, but it's got some really beautiful moments that I thought I would share with you.
[she opens the book and begins reading from the first page]
PAM MARGOLIS: "The first time I saw the Night Bookmobile, I was walking down Ravenswood Avenue at four o'clock in the morning. It was late in the summer, at that quiet time of morning when the cicadas have given up but the birds haven't started in yet. I'd been walking for about an hour. I had started at Belmont and then I was at Irving Park Road. There are two trains that run along Ravenswood, the Chicago-Northwestern and the Ravenswood El, and periodically one of them would run up behind me and ahead of me with nobody in it. I was starting to feel a little peaceful, a little tired, so I kept on walking. Everything was very clean and slightly wet, because it had been raining around three, which is when Richard and I had had the argument. So I was out walking around in the cool end of the night ... "
[she moves the book closer to the camera, showing the illustration of the Night Bookmobile (a white and orange Winnebago parked on the sidwalk)]
PAM MARGOLIS: "And I saw ... the Night Bookmobile."
[she turns the page]
PAM MARGOLIS: "It was sitting at the corner of Ravenswood and Belle Plaine. I didn't know it was the Night Bookmobile, of course. It was an enormous, battered Winnebago, all lit up and thumping out 'I Shot the Sheriff' ... "
[she stops reading]
PAM MARGOLIS: So, as you can see, it's kinda dark. Kinda mysterious, but it's really kinda fun. And look at the librarian, Mister Openshaw ...
[she moves the book closer to the camera, showing the elderly male librarian Robert Openshaw (balding, thin glasses, bowtie)]
PAM MARGOLIS: See him? He reminds me a lot of John Malkovich ... which, I guess if there was such a thing as a Night Librarian, that's probably who the librarian would look like.
[she closes the book]
PAM MARGOLIS: Anyway, I'm not gonna give it away, because I hate spoilers. If you've got ten or fifteen minutes to spare, and you want an interesting read, do pick up "The Night Bookmobile" by Audrey Niffenegger.



The Night Bookmobile
Audrey Niffenegger (Author)
Publication Date: September 1, 2010

Audrey Niffenegger, the New York Times bestselling author of The Time Traveler's Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry, has crafted her first graphic novel after the success of her two critically acclaimed "novels-in-pictures." First serialized as a weekly column in the UK's Guardian newspaper, The Night Bookmobile tells the story of a wistful woman who one night encounters a mysterious disappearing library on wheels that contains every book she has ever read. Seeing her history and most intimate self in this library, she embarks on a search for the bookmobile. But her search turns into an obsession, as she longs to be reunited with her own collection and memories.

The Night Bookmobile is a haunting tale of both transcendence and the passion for books, and features the evocative full-color pen-and-ink work of one of the world's most beloved storytellers.



Novelist and visual artist Niffenegger brings the dark dreaminess that characterized her bestselling novels to her first full-length graphic novel. After a fight with her boyfriend one night, Alexandra goes for a walk and comes upon a bookmobile. When she goes inside to look at the books, she discovers that it's a library of her own reading history; every book she's ever read, including her diary, is on the shelf. As her life continues, she searches for the bookmobile, but years go by before she finds it again. Meanwhile she becomes a librarian and a loner, eventually deciding that she wants to work in the bookmobile, though the price for doing so is high. Niffenegger's full-color art has a naïve tone, with sometimes stiff figures, and text written in childlike script. The simplicity of the images contrasts with sophisticated page layouts in which she plays with panels and perspective. The story was originally serialized in the Guardian, and in an afterword, Niffenegger reveals that the book is the first volume in a larger project. At heart this romantic, melancholy tale is a paean to reading and to the life one person lives through books.



Niffenegger's love for and wariness about libraries is threaded through her best-selling first novel, The Time Traveler's Wife (2003), and blossoms poisonously in her first graphic novella. An artist given to elegantly eerie and clever drawings, as seen in her two illustrated novels, Niffenegger makes supple use of the graphic format in this pensive and unnerving story. Alexandra is out walking late one night on a quiet Chicago street after a fight with her boyfriend when she happens upon an old Winnebago that turns out to be a magical mystery bookmobile open between "dusk and dawn," and piloted by Robert, a gentleman librarian who serves tea. Even more strangely, its collection comprises every book Alexandra has ever read. She is galvanized. She looks for the bookmobile every night and longs to work with Robert. Years go by. Alexandra reads incessantly and becomes a librarian. Yet still she is refused a place on the bookmobile, until one especially grim night. With beautifully complex perspectives, lustrous and moody colors, and refined expressiveness, Niffenegger has created a haunting cautionary tale about solitude, obsession, and the unfathomable power of books. Originally serialized in the Guardian in England, this is the first provocative volume in a larger work titled The Library. While the book is best suited for adult collections, teens who like classy and psychologically subtle spooky tales will shiver happily over this gorgeous short story as well.



Attendees of the recent Texas Library Association (TLA) annual conference - which took place April 12–15 in Austin - were greeted with a nice graphic-novel welcome this year: Besides panels about graphic novels and a forum featuring some well-known creators and the $20,000 Great Graphic Novel Library Giveaway, the book selected for the One Book, One Conference reading group was Audrey Niffenegger's The Night Bookmobile. The graphic novel, which tells the story of a woman who one night discovers a supernatural library that houses every single thing she's ever read and who subsequently spends the rest of her life looking for it again, is a beautifully illustrated and haunting story. It's also a book that contains its fair share of controversy and discussion points, as evidenced by the healthy, invigorating discussion that took place when TLA attendees got together to talk about the book. Here, Texas Tech University Associate Humanities Librarian Rob Weiner, who moderated the One Book, One Conference panel at the show, gives us the scoop on the book and the discussion around it.

* How did The Night Bookmobile get selected for this distinction?

TLA membership chose the book (some of the others on the ballot were Gene Yang's American Born Chinese, David B's Epileptic, and David Small's Stitches: A Memoir). I think for obvious reasons The Night Bookmobile was chosen because it is about a librarian.

* What was the reaction when this graphic novel was announced as the pick for "One Book, One Conference"?

I think the choice of a graphic novel was seen as a positive thing. Most librarians don't "thumb their nose" at graphic novels anymore. We are realizing as a profession the positive aspects of comics/graphic novels. Using a graphic novel for the "One Book, One Conference" is just another step in the acceptance of graphic novels by librarians.

* What was the audience like for the discussion?

There was a nice mix between librarians who had previous knowledge of graphic novels and those who were reading a graphic novel for the first time. We had a nice cross-section of participants, including school, public, and academic librarians. In that way, I think TLA was breaking some new ground here and exposing some librarians to a new storytelling/art form.

* How did the discussion go?

It went very well.. Obviously there were those who had mixed emotions (including myself) about The Night Bookmobile. There are some very positive things about the book (without giving away spoilers), but its portrayal of librarians/librarianship at least in the main character is controversial. Everyone who read the book had some kind of response to its view of librarians. Other discussion revolved around the concept of the librarian's role as a gatekeeper of knowledge and as an information provider. Parts of the book are inspiring, but the tone of the volume is very serious (the goal of the author was to have a story about the "claims that books place on their readers"). The artistic style of the book was also "hotly" discussed and debated! We had lots of good discussion and no one was shy about joining in.

* Without giving too much away, what did you find controversial about the portrayal of librarians in the book?

Well, let's just say that the book deals with a suicide. I don't want to give too much away.

* What did you think were the most interesting discussion topics covered?

I think the emotions that were brought up in some of the respondents concerning librarianship and the way the main character becomes a librarian. What happens to her after she is a librarian certainly brought forth much discussion and comment.

* After the discussion, did you get the sense that librarians would recommend the book to readers?

We did have mix of librarians who were not used to reading graphic novels alongside those who read them regularly. I think it was mixed! There were those who would certainly recommend the book, but others who may be a bit hesitant. As one participant pointed out to me, the discussion questions that worked the best were general questions about the book and librarianship. Those questions that required a more intimate knowledge of graphic novels didn't work as well in the discussion. With that being said, I did have a librarian approach me and tell me it was one of the BEST TLA presentation he had been to. No joke!

* How did you get involved?

When I heard that TLA was going to use a graphic novel for "One Book, One Conference," I immediately contacted the TLA program committee to see if I could be the moderator/facilitator. They agreed. I invited some colleagues to be discussion leaders with me: WyLaina Hildreth (Aassistant Manager, Denton Public Library), Carrye Syma (Associate Social Sciences Librarian, Texas Tech University), and Dr. Elizabeth Figa (Professor of Library and Information Science, University of North Texas). I think these participants also shows the wide cross-section of interest in graphic novels.

* Graphic novels seemed to have a much bigger presence at TLA this year. What do you think made that the case?

I think that having some graphic novel writers/artists like Hope Larson, Raina Telgemeier, and Dave Roman helped tremendously. Those panels were well attended and attendees were very interested in what the writers/artists had to say. There were more programs related to graphic novels and partnerships with the comic/graphic novel vendors. Also the Maverick Graphic Novel list committee contributed a great deal to the success of graphic novels at TLA.

Personally I am proud to be associated with an organization like TLA that is responding so positively to the call of graphic novels and libraries. I noticed the graphic novel/comics vendors were a little more prominently placed than in years past.

* Do you think a graphic novel will be selected again for this distinction in the future?

I certainly hope so. In case it is, I'd volunteer to lead the discussion again.

* What were some of the discussion questions that came up about the book?

Here is what we used as for part of the discussion:

What is the significance of the Bookmobile coming around only at low points in Alexandra's life?

In today's digital age, what does The Night Bookmobile say about books as physical objects?

How does the music of Jimi Hendrix, the Dead Kennedys, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Marley affect the narrative? What do all of these musical artists have in common?

What does The Night Bookmobile say about our professional calling as librarians to preserve humanity's "collective memory"?

Librarian Robert Openshaw is not the first librarian in sequential art. How does his character compare with other librarians in comics (e.g, the librarian in Neal Gaiman's Sandman)?

What does Alexandra's desire to be a librarian say about the being a professional librarian in the "real world"?

What point do you think Niffenegger is trying to make about being a librarian today?

What does The Night Bookmobile say about the library profession as a whole (and our ever changing roles)?

Does The Night Bookmobile portray suicide as positive?

The Night Bookmobile is in some ways a very dark tale. Do you think it's a tragedy?

How did you like the artistic style?

Niffenegger sometimes "breaks the fourth wall" by directly talking to the reader. Do you think it is an effective storytelling technique in this particular instance?

The author argues that The Night Bookmobile is "about the claims that books place on their readers." Do you think she is successful in conveying this point?

Does the Bookmobile still have a place in today's world?



The first time I saw the Night Bookmobile, I was walking down Ravenswood Avenue at four o'clock in the morning. It was late in the summer. The sky was the terrible Chicago orange-purple color at that quiet time of morning when the cicadas have given up but the birds haven't started in yet. I'd been walking for about an hour. I had started at Belmont and then I was at Irving Park Road. There are two trains that run along Ravenswood, the Chicago-Northwestern and the Ravenswood El, and periodically one of them would run up behind me and ahead of me with nobody in it. I was starting to feel a little peaceful, a little tired, so I kept on walking.

On some blocks of Ravenswood there are houses, and on some blocks there are factories. The houses were all dark, as you might expect. The factories were like sleeping robots. Everything was very clean and slightly wet, because it had been raining around three, which is when Richard and I had the argument. So I was out walking around in the cool end of the night, and I saw the Night Bookmobile.

It was sitting at the corner of Ravenswood and Belle Plaine. I didn't know it was the Night Bookmobile, of course. It was an enormous, battered Winnebago, all lit up and thumping out "I Shot the Sheriff." I like Bob Marley as well as the next person, but there was something pretty peculiar, almost scary, about hearing it played really loud on a deserted Chicago street at that hour. I paused infinitesimally, but I didn't want whoever was in the Winnebago to think that I was pausing because of them, so I started walking again. As I passed, the door opened and I glanced in. There was an elderly white man sitting behind the wheel, drinking tea and reading a newspaper.

I must have been staring at him, because he looked at me over his bifocals and said, "Would you like to see the collection?"

Now you might be wondering if it was at all safe for a woman like me, not very tall, not very old, not a black belt in karate, to be wandering around alone like this in the wee hours. All I can say is, at that time in my life I used to do it a lot and no one ever bothered me. So when the old gentleman inquired whether I cared to see the collection, instead of shaking my head and continuing on, which is what any sensible girl would have done, I said, "What collection?"

"The books," he replied, handing me a card. It read:


"The Night Bookmobile?" I said.

"At your service." Mr. Openshaw made a sort-of-pretend bow and turned off the music. I stepped up into the Winnebago and past him, and peered into the back of the camper.

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. I looked back at the librarian. He was reading his newspaper.

I turned to the books. The section I was standing in was full of children's books. I drifted along, noticing textbooks mingled with picture books, and an assortment of books you don't usually see in libraries: family Bibles, photo albums, telephone books. Some of the books had catalog numbers on their spines, some didn't. The books weren't arranged by subject, and some of the numbers seemed to belong to different systems. In fact, the books seemed to belong to many different libraries. I wondered if Mr. Openshaw was running around stealing books from all these places and putting them in his Winnebago.

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, from Betty Crocker's Cookbook to The Raw and the Cooked to my college biology textbook, every book on the shelves was familiar. I even saw a lot of books I'd forgotten I'd read, Judy Blumes and Agatha Christies. And then I saw my diary.

I took it off the shelf and opened it. On the first page was the date, December 25, 1976. "Dear Diary, Hello. I am at Grandma Eloise's, it is Christmas . . ." Over my painstaking purple-ballpoint-pen handwriting was rubberstamped THE LIBRARY. 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." Mr. Openshaw took off his glasses and polished them with his handkerchief. "It's a very complete collection."

"But how - were you waiting for me?"

"No, not exactly." The librarian stood up, his knees cracking. "Dear me." He led me back to the books. "You see, the Library, in its entirety, comprises all the printed matter ever read by anyone alive at this moment. So we are quite ready for any patron."

"But - "

Suddenly a bell rang. It sounded like a kitchen timer. "Oh, my," said Mr. Openshaw. "I'm afraid the Library is now closed. 'Hours: Dusk to Dawn,' you know." He took the diary from me and replaced it on the shelf. I wanted to protest, but instead I said, "Can I check some books out?"

"Oh, I'm sorry, but the Library's collections cannot be loaned to patrons. There's not enough staff, you see, to administer all the fines that would accrue." Mr. Openshaw herded me toward the entrance, and I could see through the windshield that the sky was much lighter. "I'm really very good at returning books on time," I told him as I climbed out of the Winnebago.

"I don't doubt it," the librarian assured me as he started the engine and turned on the music. "Holiday in Cambodia" blasted from the speakers, and I wondered if the Bookmobile housed everything I had ever listened to as well as everything I had read. Mr. Openshaw gave a chipper little wave as he drove off. Ravenswood is not very wide, and the Bookmobile gave the impression, gliding down the street, of a large egg sliding slowly through the body of a snake. I stood and watched until it turned a corner and disappeared.

The sun was shining as I let myself into the apartment. I stood in front of my bookshelves and there were all my books, haphazardly crowded together as always, needing dusting, as always. I was running my finger across my broken-backed set of The Lord of the Rings when Richard appeared in the doorway of our bedroom. He had gone to sleep in his clothes. His hair was standing up and he was blinking at the sunlight. Somehow I always loved him best after a fight, and right then I couldn't even remember what we'd been fighting about.

"Hey, Lexi," Richard said. "Where ya been?"

So I told him. "You won't believe this . . ."

And he didn't. He sat at the kitchen table and ate the fried eggs and bacon I cooked. He listened without interrupting, which he was good at. But when I concluded triumphantly with ". . . and there are all my books, right where they're supposed to be!" Richard just rolled his eyes and smiled. "No shit, Alexandra," he said.

"No, really, it was a real bookmobile, and look, the librarian gave me his card!" I put my hand in my back pocket, but the card wasn't there. I had lost it. How could I have lost it? I wanted to cry. Richard made the face he always made when he thought I wasn't being reasonable, a face that said See what I have to deal with here?

That was when I decided to keep this Night Bookmobile thing to myself.

Have you ever found your heart's desire and then lost it? 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.

I went back the next night. I stood at Ravenswood and Belle Plaine for six hours, by myself. I brought a book with me, The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins. I'd read it a few times, so I figured it would already be in the collection and I could compare the copies. When the sun came up I went home.

This happened more times than I can count. I gave up looking for the Bookmobile on that particular corner and began roaming the city aimlessly at night. Richard accused me of seeing someone else, and I couldn't convince him otherwise. He moved out. I found myself alone in the apartment, alone with my books.

I began reading all the time. On the El, on my lunch hour, during every meal, I read. I looked forward to finding each book again someday on the shelves of the Bookmobile. I wondered if Mr. Openshaw was impressed with my choices, and my dedication. Like a pregnant woman eating for two, I read for myself and the librarian.

Years passed.

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