Other Lives: The Night Bookmobile

Posted by on February 9th, 2011 at 12:01 AM

Audrey Niffenegger; Abrams; $19.95, 40 pp. Color, Hardcover; ISBN: 978-0-8109-9617-5

Above the door of the Central Library in Portland Oregon, there is a quotation from Jorge Luis Borges: “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”  It’s a warm welcome, and a sentiment many readers have certainly shared, though few I suspect have had Borges’ lucidity in presenting it.

In The Night Bookmobile, Audrey Niffenegger begins with a similar idea: that heaven is a kind of library.

Alexandra (Lexi) is wandering the streets of Chicago, late at night, after a fight with her boyfriend.  She comes across a kindly gentleman in a worn-out Winnebago.  Through the door, she can see that the camper is full of books, and when Mr. Openshaw invites her in, she goes.  The books, it turns out, are hers.  Not necessarily the books that she owns, but the books she has read — all of them, all the way back to her infancy.

Lexi leaves at dawn, as she is told she must, and she becomes obsessed with finding the bookmobile again.  For years she searches, but only rarely does she find it, and never when she is looking.  After a couple of visits, she comes to wish that she could work there.  She desperately wants it, she inquires and even pleads — but Mr. Openshaw tells her that that is impossible.  In pursuit of this dream she goes to library school, becomes a librarian, then an administrator, then the library director.  None of this satisfies her need, however, for what she wants is to re-capture that elusive night in the bookmobile and, with it, that sense of the past, of one’s own past.

I will admit that there would be something seductive, something intoxicating, about a library devoted only and entirely to books that I had read.  It would be wonderful, comfortable, exciting, to wander its aisles and browse its shelves, to remember fondly all the many things I had read, to be reminded of books I had forgotten, to find again some stories that I thought were long ago lost.  I can see how for a certain type of person — a book-lover, certainly, but also someone who is mildly self-involved, obsessed with past moments, someone seeking to reconnect with something they feel they have lost — such a library might represent a kind of heaven.

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But if heaven is a library, Niffenegger supposes, reading might also be a kind of death.  It is something that we do instead of living.  For books are like other lives, and those who read become committed, at least for a time, to the lives of others, often imaginary others.

Maybe, then, reading is not a denial of life, but a multiplication, a means of living several lives, visiting many worlds, doing far more than any of us could ever, in one life, really do.

Those who fall in love with books devote themselves to the lives of others.  And in the end, this is Alexandra’s fate.  For she does come to work at the magical bookmobile, but it is someone else’s library that she tends.

The Night Bookmobile is a sweet, haunting tale, simply told and plainly illustrated.  The story is an old one, of a girl who seeks an escape in stories, and finds it.  But it is no less unsettling for being so familiar, and no less beautiful for its literal, sometimes awkward artwork.  Niffenegger’s greatest talent here, as in The Time Traveler’s Wife, is to convince us that her improbable fantasies are true — or true enough.  Here, however, she warns us against the spells that she casts.

All images ©2010 Audrey Niffenegger

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