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The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections

by Carly-Ann

It’s been a minute, hasn’t it? Since I’d put all my blogging eggs in my My Happiness Project basket, I was left a little…lost? quiet? planless? when that came grinding to a halt. I actually quite enjoyed the practice of devoting a month to a specific theme and I adopted some great habits in the process, but who was I fooling when I thought I would enjoy sticking to something – even something that was frequently changing – for a year? Myself. That’s it. I’m keeping my options open for morphing my themes and goals into something similar but different in the future, but I think I’ve satisfied my belief that I am not built for routine. And for the millionth time.

I’ve said this before and it remains true: I’ve been writing. I’ve been writing a lot. I just haven’t been writing here. And I’ve thought about changing that a bunch of times. I’ve thought of things I wanted to share and then the inspiration passed or the topic got overdone or maybe I simply forgot. I’ve thought of the things I want to share in this space and how to reignite my passion for doing so. I’ve thought about the things I don’t share here and wondered why.

Something I’ve never really focused on sharing on my blog is my experiences related to books. It’s strange, really. Even during times when I was off books, I still maintained a reverence for words and collections of them. I’ve always loved books. How can they not be front and center here even some of the time?

So, if you couldn’t tell, I’ve been thinking about writing about reading. And books. And words. And whatever is related. And also unrelated.

Heres goes.

The midway point of the year has come and gone, but I’m still contemplating my goals and I’ve been especially attentive to the ones I’d made around reading. I took a look back at the things I’d resolved to do when it comes to books (lo and behold, the Unread Shelf Project is ANOTHER commitment I grew bored of and abandoned after three months – shocker.)

These were the three key guidelines I wanted to really stick to this year.

  1. Accepting that I am really not into young adult fiction and I need to stop trying to be
  2. Recognizing that I don’t have to continue reading/finish something that I’m not into
  3. Refusing to read a book just because I feel like I should (friends/Oprah/everyone likes it or someone says it’s integral to a topic I enjoy)

How am I doing? Well, honestly, I’m doing pretty well with all three. I am no longer even tempted to consider YA which is a step forward, I am really good at putting down a book that isn’t doing it for me and I am slowly accepting that a book that is for everyone else may still not be for me. Progress!

(See, goals and guidelines I can work with. Routines and commitments? Zzzzz.)

However, lately, I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump. I have felt finicky about the books I’ve been choosing and haven’t really been finishing many at all. I’m becoming and less and less compelled to count the titles I’m completing or focus on how much I’m finishing, but that’s an altogether different post. The thing I started to realize is that I was regressing on one of my old reading resolutions circa 2019 which was to read only one book at a time. What I’ve found myself doing lately is reading a few chapters or 50-100 pages in one book, putting it down to pick up a different one, reading a few chapters or 50-100 pages in the next book, and then putting it down for another still. I am not ruling any of them out for future reading, but they’re all decidedly not right now reading.

The good news is that I think I’ve found my problem and my solution. I am pretty confident that I was suffering from a good old case of having too much too choose from. (The Paradox of Choice is absolutely a book I have unread on my shelf.) I couldn’t settle into one single book because there were too many staring at me from the sidelines when I did. My solution? I returned all my library books (chanting “books are forever, you can read them late when the time is right” to myself over and over while I did so) and put my own books out of my sight and mind. I also gave myself a stern talking to and that seemed to help. I still have a bunch of 1/4 to 1/2 finished books that I need to circle back to, but I think I’m a little more on track. I hope.

The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections by Eva Jurczyk

When I saw the cover of this book, I knew it was one that I probably wanted to read. I’ve been fooled by cute covers before, though, so I did some digging before I committed to reading it. The synopsis sounded intriguing and the early reviews were good so I dove right in.

Liesl Weiss long ago learned to be content working behind the scenes in the distinguished rare books department of a large university, managing details and working behind the scenes to make the head of the department look good. But when her boss has a stroke and she”s left to run things, she discovers that the library”s most prized manuscript is missing.

Liesl tries to sound the alarm and inform the police about the missing priceless book, but is told repeatedly to keep quiet, to keep the doors open and the donors happy. But then a librarian unexpectedly stops showing up to work. Liesl must investigate both disappearances, unspooling her colleagues’ pasts like the threads of a rare book binding as it becomes clear that someone in the department must be responsible for the theft. What Liesl discovers about the dusty manuscripts she has worked among for so long-and about the people who care for and revere them-shakes the very foundation on which she has built her life.

Overall, The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections is an interesting and compelling mystery, but what goes unmentioned is how much is underlying the face of the story. Liesl’s relationships are complicated and, like every great protagonist, she is balancing some secrets from her past while trying to do her best in the present day. There are also some really touching and, frankly, sad, situations that arise throughout the book and Jurczyk does not take the easy way out in any part of her storytelling. It is informed and it is powerful.

Perhaps I just find Liesl particularly relatable, but I thought that her experiences in the workplace and the world – as a woman being overlooked and undermined – were so true that I couldn’t stop taking notes.

I started by sharing just one in a tweet:

Found here.

And then I just kept collecting more and more examples. (These aren’t even all of them.)

  • “The missing book,” Liesl said. “I was here half the night looking, and it seems like it’s my responsibility, but not my choice how I want to handle it.”
  • She always felt it was a good policy to remain calm, maybe to the point of stoicism, when anger or frustration were expected from her – holding back tears at funerals, speaking in a low tone when someone else was yelling – so she could never be categorized as hysterical. She had worked at it for years. But as she placed her sandwich down on her lap, it took all her energy to suppress a scream of aggravation.
  • He had only brought a pen to take notes. He didn’t know the rules. He’d been sent out to the reference area in search of a pencil. Liesl opened the top drawer and rooted around for a sharpened pencil. She handed it to him and instead of looking grateful, he looked amused.
  • “…I always wondered what would have happened if you had put your name forward to be in a leadership position.”
    “Didn’t I?”
    “You kept your head down and did the work. It’s not the same.”

Things I loved about this book: Eva Jurczyk is Canadian and her book is set in Toronto. She is a writer and a librarian, as is Liesl. She created a strong female character and she really stuck with her straight through to the end of the book.

I picked The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections up and I rarely put it down before I was finished. It was more than just a fix for my temporary reading slump. It was a really thoughtful book and it was fun to catch a glimpse into the mystery world behind the library scenes. It was even my companion when I got my second vaccination shot yesterday! I’d give this one five stars and a wholehearted recommendation.

Thanks to Netgalley and Poisoned Pen Press for the opportunity to enjoy this book so far in advance of its publishing date. It was a delight and I can’t wait for it to make its way into the world. It won’t be out until January 2022, but you can get your pre-order on now if you think it might be your thing. And if you want something to tide you over, check out Jurczyk’s website for links to articles she has published online. She’s brilliant!

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