The Librarianist: A Novel

Image of The Librarianist: A Novel
Release Date: 
July 4, 2023
Reviewed by: 

At first glance, Patrick DeWitt’s latest novel, The Librarianist, seems like yet another heart-warming curmudgeon-rediscovers-his-humanity story (see A Man Called Ove or The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry). What differentiates The Librarianist from other novels in this oeuvre is DeWitt’s humor and ability to write broadly drawn characters and situations without making them seem like caricatures.

Retired librarian Bob Comet is in a convenience store one morning when he encounters a confused elderly woman. He brings her back to the local senior center and, once there, feels a pull that makes him decide to volunteer at the center. It turns out that Bob isn’t actually a curmudgeon so much as a lonely guy.

The events that brought him to this point form the bulk of the story. As a child, Bob ran away and joined a circus (no, really). Like most things in his life, it’s not the kind of circus you imagine. In fact, it’s a bit of a disappointment. Circumstances frequently don’t work out the way he expects or even deserves. Yet Bob soldiers on and, remarkably, doesn’t become the bitter curmudgeon one might expect.

Bob loves two people in the world—his wife and his best friend, Ethan—and he loves being a librarian. For a short time he has all three, then he has only the library and the world of books. He is uniquely suited for the work, feeling “an uncomplicated love for such things as paper, and pencils, and pencils writing on paper, and erasers and scissors and staples, paperclips, the scent of books, and the words on the pages of the books. Sometimes he thought of the women and men who’d composed these documents sitting at their desks and aiming for the elusive bull’s-eye and almost always missing but sometimes not, and Bob was certain that a room filled with printed matter was a room that needed nothing. His colleagues weren’t unfriendly, but vague in the face, and with not much to say. Some among them complained of the tedium of the profession, and Bob always expressed his sympathies, but really he had no comprehension of the sentiment. He understood that the people who knew boredom in the role of librarian were simply in the wrong profession. He didn’t judge them for it but felt a relief at not being like them.”

If you’ve read DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, you might not think of him as a writer who is kind to his characters, but he is here. One never gets the feeling that the author is punishing his character. The disappointments and heartbreak Bob experiences throughout his life are laced with just the right levels of absurdity, grace, and humor. It’s the gentle level of absurdity to Bob’s life story that differentiates him from similar characters. The Librarianist probably won’t change your life, but reading it might help you recognize the beauty of a ordinary life, if only for a few hours.