Book review: Quiet, Please: Dispatches From A Public Librarian, by Scott Douglas

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Don't judge a book by its cover: a memoir of life in a library is a surprisingly funny read, writes Stuart Kelly


Scott Douglas

Da Capo Press, 14.99

IN THE history of publishing there must have been many more scintillating and attention-grabbing pitches to editors than "it's the memoirs of a twenty-something librarian". Unfortunately, and unfairly, most people's immediate mental image associated with the word "librarian" will be a composite of grey buns, horn-rimmed spectacles, suede elbow-patches and pursed lips.

Even if it is pointed out that some rather famous and interesting people (the artist Marcel Duchamp, the erotic writer Georges Bataille, the Renaissance magician John Dee; heck, even Casanova!) were once librarians, it has the air of special pleading. Even the Bible is down on librarians. In Ecclesiastes it is written: "As regards anything besides these, my son, take a warning: To the making of many books there is no end, and much devotion to them is wearisome to the flesh."

So Scott Douglas must have had a mighty pile of preconceptions to shift in convincing publishers that his memoirs, about being a public librarian in the Californian city of Anaheim, were worth a second glance. Thank goodness that he managed. Quiet, Please may be unassuming and almost pathologically self-deprecating on the surface, but it has a core of genuine humanity, comedy and warmth that is so often lacking from more outwardly glitzy autobiographies.

Douglas, by his own account, drifted into librarianship. As he applies for a postgraduate course he writes: "Maybe I didn't have what it would take; maybe I wouldn't even want to be a librarian. But, as of that moment, I didn't really care. The tuition was free and it allowed me to put off my life choices for just a bit longer."

There is a rich vein of humour in the book, at times wry and at others boisterous, like a Douglas Coupland slacker hero relocated from the world of e-commerce. On his first day at work, Douglas is shocked to discover that his fellow librarians think that Thomas Pynchon is someone going out with Julia Roberts, and is cautioned (as if he were a rookie cop) not to "try and handle it yourself" if a library user is obviously masturbating at a free internet terminal. Being a librarian, he discovers, is not as much about ivory towers and great literature as it is about making popcorn, getting physically assaulted by 70-year-old women and cleaning up vomit.

His relationships with his co-workers are an ongoing source of comedy, albeit a kind of cringe-inducing absurdity that will be familiar to fans of The Office. In particular Brenda, a wannabe dictator with an inferiority complex, reveals the surprising levels of confrontation, tension and intrigue that go on behind the reference desk.

The library is not, Douglas learns, about books, but people. He writes with a very American disarming honesty: one chapter even begins: "I'm not a fan of the handicapped." But over the chapter his initial discomfort is converted into a realisation that this place is as much theirs as it is the researchers, the teenagers, the lonely war veterans and the homeless. These people's stories, such as the old woman who thinks the Eskimos are going to attack, are funny, but they themselves are not mocked.

It must have helped in getting Quiet, Please into print that it began life on the website of ber-hip literary group McSweeney's. Douglas uses the same kind of knowing, geekily self-conscious style as the movement's founder, Dave Eggers (author of A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius); and the text is peppered with double-take footnotes. "But I'm not bitter", for example, is footnoted "I am, in fact, bitter". There are Q&A sections, inset quirky facts and mordant political asides.

This style can become self-indulgent, but although Douglas does include an overlong and vaguely embarrassing ream of acknowledgements, he doesn't fall into the kind of hopeless narcissism that has typified some of the more recent McSweeney-ite productions (such as Amy Krouse Rosenthal's irksomely winsome Encyclopaedia Of An Ordinary Life).

What insulates Quiet, Please from that corrosive flippancy is the hidden narrative of the memoir. It's all about how a shy, tetchy, purposeless young man became interested in other people. Without getting schmaltzy, even a character as mean-spirited as Brenda is shown to have more humane qualities. Douglas gradually becomes proud to be a public servant, regardless of how annoying, mad, tragic or peculiar that public is.