Now that I finally have my library card sorted out I spent a good part of the weekend casing the local library. I have (shocker, I know) always loved libraries and I used to volunteer at the tiny one in my hometown. When I say tiny I mean it, too, it consisted of two main rooms and a small back room full of reference books. It was like three studio apartments awkwardly welded together and absolutely crammed full of books, when they ran out of room for shelves they added rotating book stands like you’d see in some of the larger supermarkets and waterproofed what had originally been a bit of a shed out back, integrating it into the overall structure. I had a lot of fun there between the ages of 14 and 16 or so. I can still rattle off most of the DDC off the top of my head and remember the layout of the place even when I haven’t been back there for close to a decade.
It really shaped my mind’s eye vision of libraries for a long time to come, having gone there since I was very young. I didn’t really start seeing larger libraries until I went to university and the Mantor Library out at UMaine Farmington became available to me, at which point I would say I spent about two or three hours an evening there reading old historical documents and clippings and anything remotely interesting I could get my hands on. Part of the reason I made the transition from an English degree to a History one, honestly – both involved reading and writing but I ended up having more fun with the wider scope of the historical texts at the time.
Then I lived down in New York and obviously partook in what will forever in my mind be known as The Ghostbusters Library, where, like my heroes, I wandered the stacks looking at weird and esoteric shit. Unlike my heroes I did not do it with Crystal Skull Vodka or 300 cc’s of Thorazaine in hand (I love that movie but in retrospect you really can describe it as two socially maladjusted manchildren, a black dude and a sexual predator fight the undead and environmentalism) and I never encountered anything supernatural, but the atmosphere of the place was just tremendously strong and you could feel the weight of millions upon millions of old words pressing down on you and books staring out at you as you walked past.
Most of my favorite characters from fiction have been librarians. Lucien from Gaiman’s Sandman comics, The Librarian from Pratchett’s Discworld series, Rupert Giles from Buffy, Wan Shi Tong from Avatar: The Last Airbender (still counts even if he is a giant owl monster who hates people checking out the books from his archives), I could go on forever. I flirted with the idea of being a librarian for a little while but realized I’d probably neglect my duties and just sit around reading all day, which I could get away with as a teenage volunteer but not as an actual employee. Plus, unfortunately, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t bestow nearly as many mystical properties on a person as so much fiction seems to imply and you don’t end up dealing with any kind of sentient books, forgotten spell tomes or ancient artifacts.
Anyway, the library out here turned out to be pretty awesome and much more technologically advanced than I’ve ever encountered before. When you enter, immediately to your left there’s a set of cube-shelves with computer screens attached to them. Each book has a chip in it and when you return said book to one of these empty shelves, the scanners will read it automatically and flag it as returned with info about how long you had it out, shelving data, ID number, all kinds of neat stuff. When you’ve returned everything you sign off on the transaction and just like that you’re good to go grab more books. I’ve seen some similar things before but nothing quite like that, and it really tickled me how far technology has advanced from when I worked in a very rustic setting at the tail end of the 90s. I also love how this library has an entire section devoted to graphic novels, labeled as such, and an absolutely massive number of private rooms, seats, desks and balconies that you can lounge on and read. It’s in walking distance and as soon as the weather starts getting better and less prone to flash-storms I fully intend to spend a lot of my free time with a notepad and an armful of reference books out in the sunshine. I’m still working through some stuff I actually bought but I made a list of about a dozen there I’m going to need to borrow, including some fascinating stuff about the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Irish regiments in WW1, and Animism in the Pacific Northwest.
Anyway, speaking of knowledge, you should go read Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson! I read it when it came out a couple of years ago and it struck me pretty hard. It melds together elements of Jinn lore, the events of the Arab Spring, some of the racial tension in the middle east that usually isn’t acknowledged in western literature, and more. If I had to make a direct comparison to a more widely read book I would probably say American Gods, but the focus of this book is a bit narrower (and that’s not a complaint, it would not have worked with a wider spread). The very basic gist is that an Indian-Arab hacker in totally-not-Saudi-Arabia works to help his clients stay under the radar. Political dissidents, extremists on either side of the aisle, oppressed minorities and more all come to him for help in making untrackable money transfers and communications on an internet that is heavily monitored by the government, who can be at your door minutes after you make an inflammatory post that does not meet with the moral standards of the theocracy. Alif, the hacker guru, has been able to operate without a problem for many years but that comes to an abrupt halt when a government-sponsored technical security guru nicknamed The Hand of God starts cutting straight through the intricate series of proxies and firewalls that have served Alif without fail. The Hand’s technical expertise seems downright supernatural in scope and, as it turns out, it is. He’s found and weaponized ancient scrolls and tomes of jinn magic and is using it to root out those dissidents Alif has been protecting, as well as Alif himself. Alif goes on the run and finds himself in the company of the jinn, the hidden people who live alongside mankind but keep to the shadows and employ their own system of laws and magics and who are not particularly happy to have been sucked into a mortal drama like this. Now, from the early description you’d expect something bordering on islamophobia and critical of the Arab world in general, but to my pleasant surprise it was incredibly nuanced. What a lot of urban fantasy seems to forget these days is that the jinn themselves are tied in to Islamic belief structures in a big way and many of the supernatural creatures believe themselves to be our cousins under Allah, with their own twist on Islamic rituals and rites. The book acknowledges this and is far more critical of governments who twist and pervert the religion to fit their own designs, and if anything it deals with Muslim characters fighting back against this. It’s a great example of what draws me to jinn lore as a Jewish guy, we really don’t have anything like them in my peoples’ culture and I find them fascinating and a real window into a different way of thinking and explaining the world. Wilson’s name may stand out to you if you follow the comic book world at all, as after this she went on to write for the fantastic Ms. Marvel series that has gone on to become one of the best in the Marvel lineup over the last couple of years.