I’ve been feeling a bit bad for how few books I’ve been reading (as compared to my usual) while I’ve been working on side projects, watching DVDs obsessively, and having a social life. To make up for it, I’ve been targeting standalone, anthology, and shorter books in my Pile to make a dent (and not just because I’m going to be filling it up again soon). Which brings me to today’s breakfast book, a picture book for adults. Well, the cover says “graphic novel” but when the thing is a hardcover 11.75″ long x 7.75″ tall x 0.375″ wide, it’s a picture book.
This is The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger, a find from Quimby’s, the indie bookstore on North Avenue. From their sale section too, which always has the most bizarre assortment of reading material. If you’re unfamiliar, Quimby’s is a great place to go for self-published comics, graphic novels, and zines, as well as some more conventional books. And some unusual book sections, such as Cats. They have a section just for cat books.
Anyway. The Night Bookmobile reads like a fairy tale, like a children’s book. A woman is wandering around Chicago late at night (this is not always as suicidal as it sounds) and happens upon a beat-up Winnebago. The driver, Mr. Openshaw, explains that it is the Night Bookmobile and invites her in to view the collection. Alexandra (that’s her name) is looking through and realizes that she has read all of these books. And the contents include…her old diary.
That’s when Mr. Openshaw explains that everything she’s ever read is in this collection, but she cannot check anything out.
It’s a haunting tale, with joy and sorrow, and no matter what it looks like or how the rhythms of text deceive you, this is no children’s book. In fact, it’s actually quite depressing in the end. Not a comfortable read. Still, there’s something in it that calls out to me, saying “isn’t this neat?” and “I do not want to be like Audrey.” In fact, it surprises me not at all, as I turn the book over to remove price stickers, that the quote on the back is from Neil Gaiman. This is the sort of dark fairy tale he’d write.
I don’t regret picking up The Night Bookmobile, but I don’t see myself revisiting it that often. And thank goodness I read this in the bright and sunny morning because I’d rather not read it just before bed.
THE REST OF THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS AND PROBLEMATIC CONTENT. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
I just cannot let the opportunity go by without actually talking about the ending of this book. Alexandra becomes obessed with the Night Bookmobile, asking Mr. Openshaw repeatedly to hire her, and he refuses, sadly, as the years pass. Eventually she becomes so desperate that she commits suicide, and then she is finally hired. Mr. Openshaw tells her as he introduces her to her new job that “Only the Living can be Readers,” which truly resonates with me.
I am not suicidal and I don’t think of myself as being mentally unstable, but who doesn’t occasionally consider about such things? But the conclusion that I always come to is the fact that I would desperately miss all those new books that have not yet come out for me to read. If I took my life, I could have missed things like the conclusion to the Symphony of Ages, to Artemis Fowl, to Claymore. If I died now, I’d never get to read the finally-coming book two of the Dragon Prophecy. This aside from all the people I love.
I dislike the fact that Alexandra takes her own life in her obsession. I suppose that it is truly a sign of her obsession, which we see in glimpses of her daily life as she becomes a reader even more voracious than I after her first encounter withe the Night Bookmobile. But still, it’s not a heroic act to perform, taking your own life. The story, for me, would be more enjoyable if she lived to a ripe old age like Mr. Openshaw, and died a more natural death.
I suppose the darkness of suicide is the tone Niffenegger was going for which, again, doesn’t suprise me when reading glowing praise from Neil Gaiman, the master of creepily dark takes on ordinary tales. But it doesn’t make for an enjoyable read for me. It fits the tone, but it’s not the story I wanted.