May 15, 2008


Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian. By Scott Douglas. Da Capo. $25.

Man Killed by Pheasant and Other Kinships. By John T. Price. Da Capo. $25.

      Maybe it takes a librarian to know what makes a good book – even one about himself. Not that Scott Douglas was super-enthusiastic about becoming a librarian: “Maybe I didn’t have what it would take; maybe I wouldn’t even want to be a librarian. But, as of that moment [of receiving a grant to study library science], I didn’t really care. The tuition was free and it allowed me to put off my life choices for just a bit longer.” It turned out that library science was in Douglas’ heart, or brain, or maybe spleen, because he seems to have done just fine in the field for the past five years. And in Quiet, Please, he has produced a most unconventional memoir about his experiences. Sample chapter title: “Chapter 004.16 – GATE – The Day of the Gateway: Being How, for Better or Worse, the Computer Changed the Library Once and for All (and Why the Perverts Now Will Never Go Away).” It is typical of Douglas to take something that “everyone knows,” such as how immense changes came to libraries because of computers, and put an offbeat (or even strange) spin on it. Take his way with footnotes. Books have all sorts of footnotes to elucidate their research, right? Not this one. Here are random Douglas footnotes: “8. She was, in fact, three times the size of a normal woman.” “5. Turns out the chair really did have bugs – fleas, to be precise. …” “11. I don’t like the nickname Scooter.” “1. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: dumbest name ever.” So what does all this oddball humor have to do with libraries? Quite a bit, it turns out. Douglas, a librarian at the Anaheim Public Library, has kept his eye out for strange patrons, peculiar colleagues, and – most importantly – a sense of whether public libraries still have a place in our modern video-and-Internet-saturated culture. Perhaps surprisingly for someone in his 20s, Douglas concludes that they do. They are, he finds out, a focus of a community (sometimes in strange ways), a vestige of the “melting pot” concept of American society, where people from all walks of life touch each other, even if only tangentially. Not everything in Quiet, Please is funny: one chapter is about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and how they showed the changing way we look for information. But the majority of the book is on the light side, and shows Douglas to be an astute observer both of human nature and of what libraries can (and cannot) do. “I wasn’t supposed to know people,” writes Douglas. “I was merely supposed to be their guide. The person who pointed them to the person they wanted to know.” In the case of Quiet, Please, Douglas himself is the person a reader will want to know.

      Man Killed by Pheasant is a much more conventional memoir, despite its unusual title. It turns out that John T. Price wasn’t actually killed – he couldn’t have written the book then, could he? But he did have an encounter with a pheasant that flew into his car while he was driving, flapping in his face and almost causing an accident. And that helped inspire Price to the realization that Iowa, where he has lived all his life, is not as ordinary and predictable as he had previously thought. Price’s memoir, though, is fairly predictable, and although it deserves a (+++) rating for its caring writing and patent sense of community, it does not really have many new thoughts or forms of expressions to offer. “It is often winter that is in my earliest memories of [my grandfather], after a big blizzard, like the one in 1975, when he was required to be at the Gas and Electric service garage all day and night to monitor the trucks.” “The hills, thick with ponderosa pine, and with shrubs that had turned their autumn crimson and gold, enfolded then released me into the grassy bottomlands.” “There were certainly aspects of living on a farm that Steph [Price’s wife] and I loved: the quiet days, the clear and starry nights, the apple trees from which we made pie after pie. Sometimes, though, when I was sitting alone on the porch, like right then, it didn’t take much effort to imagine evil permeating everything.” There is no real evil in the book, though, although Steph, a teacher, has a troubled student, and development has come to parts of Iowa, with all its decidedly mixed blessings. Most of the book is simply about everyday life and the moderately interesting past lives of Price’s family – a gentle, homespun story whose pleasures are of the old-fashioned sort.

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