One Librarian’s Hardest Question

Note: Here is the Writing Resolutions for 2018 article. Sorry for the incorrect link in eNews 1-2-18.

“What books changed your life?”

Yes. Go ahead and ask. The book evangelist is at your service. You’ve come to the right person, but you’ve asked the hardest question.

Because the truth is, the books that changed my life will not change yours….

What I quickly realized was that the reasons why I love a book, or treasure a particular author, may not hit on any of the carefully articulated appeal factors I learned about in my master’s program. (Oh, yes—you see, I am a professional book evangelist.) Looking back over the books that have changed my life or stick out in my memory is more like skimming a journal of the times and places and people in my past life who were part of those experiences….

My books are my personal history. The books that made me laugh or cry are entirely contextual—as are what I find funny or heartbreaking. The books that made me angry or excited or scared might as well say more about what I was going through in my life when I read them than anything about the words the author put on the page. Books are imprinted, static, constant. Reading is fluid, capricious, intimate.

The same book is different for every reader because our eyes take the words in from the page and make vivid images, real emotions and magic connections in our individual brains. My brain doesn’t make the same magic as your brain.

Sometimes that means we like different books, and sometimes it means we can read the same book and have different experiences. Thankfully, it guarantees us all the opportunity to have a lifetime of reading and talking about books.

Sometimes you trust me enough to allow me to help you discover your books. Occasionally, I help you articulate what you like to read and help you understand what you like about those stories. Maybe today you are in the mood for something sad or scary or sexy or silly….

We walk to the shelf together, and I pass the time by chattering away about the various perks of being a library user. I will, no doubt, spot one of my own favorites there in the stacks. Maybe I hold in a smile, or I blink rapidly and swallow hard as we pass. This time, my heart leaps at the sight of the bright aqua cover of Living with Saints by Mary O’Connell, which mashes together the sacred and the secular in short stories that shocked and delighted me. I discovered this one the month it came out, browsing the library’s New Books section, not realizing that someday the author would occasionally click “like” on social media photos of my children. I give the book a tiny wave of acknowledgement, so it doesn’t feel slighted. But I don’t point it out to you, because that’s one of my books, and right now we are looking for your books. Your books are waiting for you.

You’ve asked the hardest question, and you trust that I can help you find the books to answer it. But you must understand. My books will wait. Everything that matters to me at this moment is you.

This is an excerpt from librarian Lissa Staley’s personal memoir, “The Hardest Question.”  Read the full memoir. This is one of more than 20 personal stories in the 2017 community novel Revealed written by Topeka and Shawnee County community members. 

Lissa Staley helps people use the library. She is a Book Evangelist, Trivia Emcee, Classics Made Modern book discussion leader, NaNoWriMo Municipal Liaison, and frequent library customer. She loves her kids, being a librarian, living in Topeka, and helping people form connections and community. (She's the Community Connections Librarian!) She reads a new book every few days, but is enjoying the audiobook of "Empress of Forever" by Max Gladstone, the ebook "When We Were Magic" by Sarah Gailey and is eagerly awaiting John Scalzi's "The Last Emperox" in April!