I want to go to a book to find a library
December 2, 2010 1:54 PM   Subscribe

All great libraries have books in them, but how many great books have libraries in them? I just finished reading "Big Machine" by Victor Lavalle, and am currently reading "Kafka on the Shore" by Haruki Murakami (yes, finally!), and it's purely coincidental, but they both happen to feature libraries prominently. So now I'd like to know what other really good novels feature libraries in a significant way.

I'm looking for excellent (probably, but not necessarily "literary") fiction in which a library (or libraries) is in some way central to the plot. "The Name of the Rose" and "The Historian" come to mind, for example.
posted by taz to Writing & Language (31 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
Murakami's "Hard-Boiled Wonderland" has some library action.
posted by lhall at 2:00 PM on December 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, also Borges' "Library of Babel". [wiki]
posted by lhall at 2:02 PM on December 2, 2010 [5 favorites]

Short story, not novel, but about libraries in the most concentrated and central way: The Library of Babel by Borges.
posted by Paquda at 2:02 PM on December 2, 2010

In Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, the protagonist explores the abbey's labyrinthine library in the course of a murder investigation.
posted by JaredSeth at 2:15 PM on December 2, 2010 [5 favorites]

Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind has the Cemetary of Forgotten Books, which is just as spooky and wonderful as it sounds.

In Franco's Spain, library book chooses you! Which is unfortunate if, like the protagonist, you happen be chosen for protection by a book that shadowy figures with dark pasts are determined to destroy. It's a Victorian-style pot boiler in the best sense of the genre. The prose can be a little melodramatic at first, but when plot turns very suspenseful and atmospheric it's a great read.
posted by erstwhile ungulate at 2:15 PM on December 2, 2010

I was looking for a Gene Wolfe novel that has a library featured in it (Shadow of the Torturer), and I found this similar-to-your question and answers.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 2:24 PM on December 2, 2010

Chapter 11 of Italo Calvino's If on a Winter' Night a Traveler.
posted by Iridic at 2:29 PM on December 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is maybe not quite "awesome" novels, but the Eyre Affair series by Jasper Fforde are very literary based (in kind of an alternative history/fantasy) way. And the novels after the first one are set pretty heavily in a library and it deals with the love of books through the series. I really liked them (and the more nursery-rhymed themed Nursery Crime books are very fun to read as well).
posted by skynxnex at 2:36 PM on December 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

One part of Rumo and His Miraculous Adventures takes place in a library. If I'm not mistaken, that library is in the mind of another character but is physically a library, so it's a weird reality/virtual type of place.
posted by CathyG at 2:47 PM on December 2, 2010

The story Magic for Beginners, from the collection of the same name by Kelly Link, has one of my favorite metafictional libraries.

Firebirds Rising has In the House of the Seven Librarians by Ellen Klages (podcast!).

And for gorgeous library eyecandy, there's Candida Höfer's photobook Libraries.
posted by nicebookrack at 3:07 PM on December 2, 2010

Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes
posted by canoehead at 3:11 PM on December 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 by Richard Brautigan
posted by gyusan at 3:16 PM on December 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Jason Shiga's Bookhunter focuses more on the world of overdue books, but is quite entertaining.

Also, in a vein closer to "Big Machine," Ta-Nehisi Coates' The Beautiful Struggle returns repeatedly to the same theme of African-American-uplift-through-autodidacticism that LaValle does (but minus the magical swamp gas).
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 3:24 PM on December 2, 2010

M.K. Wren's A Gift Upon the Shore is all about founding a library in a post-apocalyptic Oregon.
posted by dd42 at 3:40 PM on December 2, 2010

The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken is told from the POV of a librarian (McCracken is one IRL too) who starts by describing what it's like in her library, her various colorful patrons etc., and she eventually falls in love with one of them.
posted by ifjuly at 3:57 PM on December 2, 2010

Possession by A.S. Byatt.
posted by prior at 4:55 PM on December 2, 2010

The Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers.
posted by Daily Alice at 5:37 PM on December 2, 2010

The Discworld books by Terry Pratchett - especially those that deal with wizards - have many important library scenes (if you can get past the fact that the Head Librarian is an orangutan)

The first Harry Potter books are also library-heavy

And The Time-Traveler's Wife has a truly harrowing library scene
posted by Mchelly at 5:46 PM on December 2, 2010

Defining "libraries" a bit broadly:
- I too was going to mention Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind (though perhaps not a "great book," it's fun and quick and does have a good library)
- Saramago's All the Names (great book)
- Stephensen's Snow Crash (cult classic; library more digital than physical)
- Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (for some reason the book rubbed me the wrong way, so I think it is totally overrated, but it has a library so ... enjoy ... or don't. Or wait until the movie comes out and watch it on fast forward for some of the parts that are really good)
- Gaiman & Pratchett's Good Omens features a used book store in a central way, if that counts
posted by salvia at 5:48 PM on December 2, 2010

Though they are technically non-fiction, they do read like gossipy novels, any of Nicholas Basbanes books about the book trade, have big chunks about libraries. "Patience and Fortitude" is an especially great read if libraries, public and private are on your mind. "A Gentle Madness" is also well worth a read.
posted by EvilPRGuy at 7:50 PM on December 2, 2010

Salamander, by Thomas Wharton, is technically more about books than about librarys, though libraries do appear. But on the strength of your liking Haruki Murakami and wanting to read books about libraries, I definitely recommend it.

Also, I can't come up with any other library books not already listed at the moment, but I could list you a few more books-about-books if you're interested in those as well?
posted by equivocator at 8:22 PM on December 2, 2010

The main character in The Time Traveler's Wife is a librarian at the Newberry Library in Chicago. Many importent scenes in the novel take place there.
posted by luckyme793 at 8:30 PM on December 2, 2010

posted by Temeraria at 10:23 PM on December 2, 2010

If you're into fantasy, the book Lirael by Garth Nix features a "library" prominently, although this one is magical and also has dangerous creatures lurking in it. The books are somewhat secondary.
posted by hoperaiseshell at 10:32 PM on December 2, 2010

Not strictly answering the question: Agora.
posted by ovvl at 10:46 PM on December 2, 2010

Philip Larkin's A Girl in Winter is largely set in an English public library during World War II. Any working librarians reading it will feel immediately at home.

Larkin is also considered to have influenced the excellent public library scenes in Kingsley Amis's second novel, That Uncertain Feeling whose hero is head of a Welsh branch library.

Neither of these novels feature the kind of magical, fantasy, idealized libraries of e.g. Borges, but both heavily centre on real-world libraries being staffed by, and used, imperfect human beings under pressure and are funny and moving by turns.
posted by pyotrstolypin at 3:15 AM on December 3, 2010

2nding The Shadow of the Wind. Awesome book. Zafon's other english-translated book, The Angel's Game, also features the same library and is also good, if not quite as taut as his other one.
posted by Aizkolari at 4:36 AM on December 3, 2010

David Lodge's The British Museum is Falling Down, is largely about working (and not working) in a library (as the national library of Britain was only seperated from the British Museum after the book was written).

Scenes in Solzhenitsyn's Lenin in Zurich feature Lenin working in the Zurich library, however, as was noted in the New York Times when it was published, it's not really a novel, but chapters extracted from other novels.
posted by Jahaza at 7:43 AM on December 3, 2010

The protagonist of Anita Brookner's Look at Me is a librarian.
posted by schweik at 1:02 PM on December 3, 2010

The Grand Complication, by Allen Kurzweil.
posted by bentley at 6:09 PM on December 3, 2010

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