The Bookshelf: In Sue Halpern's New Novel, the Library Takes Center Stage

Dec 21, 2018

In the new novel by Sue Halpern, a young woman named Sunny gets busted for stealing a dictionary and a judge sentences her to work as a volunteer at a library in the small town of Riverton, New Hampshire. This “Riverton” is not the actual “Riverton,” New Hampshire but a fictional one that has fallen on hard times. Summer Hours at the Robber’s Library is Sue Halpern’s seventh book. She spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello. 

 

Sue Halpern's Top Five Reading Recommendations:

 

Halpern writes as a preface to her recommendations: "I am an eclectic—which is to say undisciplined—reader. For my work as a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, I am often reading books I might not otherwise choose to spend time with, not because they aren’t good, but because they are academic and dense (but important). So when I’m not doing that, I crave great fiction and non-fiction. In that, my choices are not unlike what happens when I go to the library: they are random and offer the joy of serendipity."

 

1.   The Library Book by Susan Orlean. "Orlean is a master of non-fiction narrative writing, and this book does not disappoint. In fact, for anyone who loves libraries, it may be considered her finest book yet, combining an unsolved but colorful mystery: who, if anyone, set the massive Los Angeles Public Library on fire back in the 1980s, the history of that library itself (which becomes a history of the city); and a gorgeous meditation on what libraries do and what they mean."

2.   Where Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald. "This is one of the angriest and most beautifully written memoirs of growing up black and “making it” that I’ve come across. Gerald challenges all our assumptions about what “making it” is, and turns the idea of success inside-out. He’s a deeply thoughtful and creative writer, and when I finished the book I felt like I had been schooled about race, privilege, elite education and how the stories think are true are the worst kinds of fictions."

3.   Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening by Manal al-Shariff. "I have found that it is sometimes easier to understand geo-politics through the experience of someone on the ground, in this case Manal al-Shariff, the Saudi woman who led the movement to allow women in Saudi Arabia to drive. Al-Shariff was not an activist—she was a woman who was not able to get herself to work and to the supermarket and to her child’s school without a man present, because Saudi laws prevented this. If necessity is the mother of invention, in this case it was also the mother of outrage, defiance, prison-time, and, to an extent, social change."

4.   Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan. "I had the good fortune to be the keynote speaker at the American Library Association’s Carnegie Medal Ceremony, honoring Egan for her magnificent historical novel New York in the 1930s and 1940s. This is a book that could not have been written without the assistance of librarians and historical archives, yet all of that fades into the background because Egan is such a gorgeous and enthralling storyteller."

5.   This Could Hurt by Jillian Medoff. " Most of my day is spent alone, at my desk, so I found this darkly comic novel about people at a corporate HR office a wonderful antidote to my solitary workplace, where my dog Birke is in charge of my working conditions. (They have to do with getting sufficient exercise and naps.) Medoff has a wicked sense of humor, which would have been enough to carry this story, but she’s also got an empathetic understanding of human foibles, and is a terrific writer to boot."

 So what came to you first? Was it the idea of this town, a place that where you wanted to set a story, or was it characters, characters like Sunny and Kit, the librarian? 

Actually they kind of came simultaneously. I knew I wanted to write about a library in a town that may not be doing very well, but the library is kind of the center, the sinecure, it stays stable in a certain way as everything else around it changes. I knew something about the characters and I wanted to put them in the library in that town.

"I crave great fiction and non-fiction. In that, my choices are not unlike what happens when I go to the library: they are random and offer the joy of serendipity."

I think maybe I just answered the question by telling you that the town came first, but I really did have this idea of this young woman, this girl, really, who gets sentenced to community service in a library and the people that she meets there and the protagonist who isn’t really Sunny, it’s Kit the librarian, and what she’s doing in there and how the library becomes a community and how it brings people together who may not have much in common other than the fact that they’re finding themselves in this one space. 
 

Kit is a fascinating character. She’s struggling with the trauma of divorce. She had a husband who was a doctor and that husband had some really controlling parents. As a result of that trauma, she’s really peeled back from intimate human connection, and it seems like this library, for all the things it does, it also draws her out a little bit.

Yes, she doesn’t want it to draw her out. She’s a librarian and, almost by osmosis, because of Sunny, she gradually gets back into the world of the animate and real people having real lives.

Does that speak to the power of libraries? In other words, could a story of Kit getting back out into the world and building a relationship with someone like Sunny happen, say, in a hospital or in a restaurant? Or was that completely dependent on this being a library?

I feel like it was because of the library, and the reason why I chose a library was because a bunch of years ago I was living in upstate New York in the Adirondacks in a very, very poor town that had very few public services and, among other things, it had never had a library. I was asked, along with two people, two retired teachers, to start one. And we did. And we did changed everything in this town. It changed people’s relationships with each other and the relationship of people to their town.

Can you tell me how it changed in all those many ways?

The first thing that happened was--we put this library together and people started to show up. People started to talk to each other who didn’t know each other. Then some people who met in the library started a book group and from there, there was a play-reading group. And then a movie group. And one of the people who started going to the play-reading group was this one person we put on our board who was very wealthy, who was a summer resident, and he and his wife noticed that the people who were going to play-reading really wanted to put on a play, but there was no place to put on a play, so they gave money to not only build an arts center in our town but to endow it.

So suddenly there was not just a library in the back of town hall, but we had this beautiful art center and in the course of that, a young woman whose father was one of the carpenters asked the guy with the money if he would float her a loan and she would take that money and build a cafe in one of the abandoned buildings on Main Street. So she did that. So suddenly we had a very vital library with lots of programming, we had an arts center, and we had a cafe where people could go and talk and use the internet and all that. And the physical changes started because people started to talk to each other and get together.