“Have you ever found your heart’s desire and then lost it? I had seen myself, a portrait of myself as a reader. My childhood: hours spent in airless classrooms, days home sick from school reading Nancy Drew, forbidden books read secretively late at night. Teenage years reading—trying to read—book’s I’d heard were important, Naked Lunch, and The Fountainhead, Ulysses, and Women in Love…It was as though I had dreamt the perfect lover, who vanished as I woke, leaving me pining and surly.”
At four o’clock on summer morning, wandering the streets of a Chicago suburb after a fight with her boyfriend, Richard, Alexandra stumbles across an old Winnebago parked on a street corner. Inexplicably draw to it, she goes ventures inside, where she meets Robert Openshaw, the librarian of The Night Bookmobile’s unique collection. As she browses the shelves, Alexandra realizes it contains every book she has ever read, and only books she has read. In fact, they seem to be her exact copies, even of the books she still owns. Everything up to and including her childhood diary is there. When dawn comes, Robert Openshaw tells Alexandra the collection is closed, and that nothing may be checked out, and she goes reluctantly on her way. This is the first of Alexandra’s three encounters with The Night Bookmobile and The Library it represents, and each of these encounters will have a profound effect on the course of her life.
The Night Bookmobile is likely to be a very touching read for anyone who has a powerful relationship with books, because it is a story about the way books define who we are at the various stages of our lives. In Niffenegger’s words, it asks to reader to consider “what is it we desire from the hours, weeks, lifetimes, we devote to books?” The personal consideration will make this a very different book depending on what you bring to it. My own reading has never had the burdensome sense of weight Niffenegger gives to Alexandra’s reading life. There is a sense of oppression and danger there that I have never experienced. I recognized an essential part of myself in Alexandra on one hand, and felt entirely alien to her on the other. Niffenegger has a knack for creating beautiful things that take a dark turn, and The Night Bookmobile is no exception. However, I was left longing for a deeper exploration of this intriguing idea, for the full work entitled The Library of which Niffenegger says The Night Bookmobile is but a part.
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