13 Books We Love Set in the Library Because Libraries Are the Best

13 Books We Love Set in the Library Because Libraries Are the Best

Monday, 28 September, 2020

Sure, books about books are great. But how about books set in libraries?! Those are irresistible. They feature books, yes, but they showcase floor-to-ceiling shelves and librarians and, if we’re lucky, rare books and secret archives and crinkly parchment and people who love to read and — maybe for drama — people who don’t love to read and…

I think we can all agree that stories about libraries and set in libraries are wonderful, indeed.

These 13 titles put libraries in a starring role with surprising amounts of action and drama for a setting that’s generally associated with nerdiness and quiet. Turns out, people who like to read are the real heroes.

To hear us discuss some of these books and more stuff that makes libraries the fantastic places they are, listen to our podcast The Library: Endless Books, Reading Nooks, and Lots of Possibility.


The Mystery of Henri Pick - David Foenkinos

The Mystery of Henri Pick
> David Foenkinos

The library in a small town in the Brittany region of France should have remained mostly unremarkable. But librarian Jean-Pierre Gourvec created a space on a back shelf for the world’s homeless manuscripts, a repository for books that no one wanted — not even, perhaps, their authors. In the 10 years that followed, he collected nearly 1000 manuscripts, and then, one day, he died. And the rejects sat on the shelves, collecting dust.

This is where our heroine Delphine enters the action. She’s a Parisian editor in search of a hit. While on holiday in Brittany, she discovers a discarded novel that she’s sure will be the next big thing, and she takes it back to the city for publication. This act sets off a string of events that affect the small town’s quirky inhabitants and the literary intelligentsia.

This is a sweet, light-infused, funny tale of self-discovery draped around the skeleton of a literary mystery. It reveres the tender moments that add up to a life: the joy of getting lost in a just-right-for-you book; the first wistful, promise-filled hours of a love affair; a moment you recognize as perfect while it’s happening. {more}

One thing is certain: Gourvec’s enthusiasm and passion for his library never faded. He gave his full attention to every customer, striving to listen carefully to what they said so that he could create a personal journey through his book recommendations. According to him, it was not a question of liking or not liking to read, but of finding the book that was meant for you. Everybody could love reading, as long as they had the right book in their hands, a book that spoke to them, a book they could not bear to part with. — David Foenkinos

Something Wicked This Way Comes - Ray Bradbury

In this modern Gothic classic, two boys’ lives are changed forever when a sinister traveling carnival rolls into their Illinois town. Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show is irresistible. It arrives by train, sometime after midnight, bringing Halloween a week early and enthralling Will Halloway and his neighbor and constant companion Jim Nightshade.

Will’s father works at the town library, and his love of knowledge has been passed along to the boys, who race each other to the library and discover new worlds between the covers of the books. The library — the decency and order it represents — plays a big part in the story and the life of the town.

Then one night, as Will and Jim explore the carnival grounds, they run afoul of the carnies: an illustrated man with tattoos that seem to come to life, an insane dwarf, a Dust Witch. And they see some things they should never have seen. This sets off a chain of events that threatens the innocence of their small town. {more}

The library deeps lay waiting for them. Out in the world, not much happened. But here on the special night, a land bricked with paper and leather, anything might happen, always did. Listen! and you heard ten thousand people screaming so high only dogs feathered their ears. A million folk ran toting cannons, sharpening guillotines; Chinese, four abreast marched on forever… This was a factory of spices from far countries. Here alien deserts slumbered. Up front was the desk where the nice old lady, Miss Watriss, purple-stamped your books, but down off away were Tibet and Antarctica, the Congo. There went Miss Wills, the other librarian, through Outer Mongolia, calmly toting fragments of Peiping and Yokohama and the Celebes. — Ray Bradbury

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore - Robin Sloan

This is an exuberant story of a secret society, code-breaking, friendship, young love, new technology, and, perhaps, the secret to eternal life — all told through the people that circulate through an unconventional bookshop in San Francisco. Our hero Clay, a victim of San Francisco’s tech implosion, somewhat reluctantly takes a job in the bookstore of the title to lick his career wounds and begin to rebuild his life.

But it’s not long before he realizes there’s something unusual going on in the stacks of the shop. It seems to be more a lending library, with quirky customers appearing at all hours of the day and night. Plus, kindly Mr. Penumbra is keeping troubling and potentially lethal secrets. When he disappears, it’s up to Clay to figure out just what the devil is going on.

Author Robin Sloan’s prose captures the energy of both San Francisco and New York City, as well as the sinister allure of a secret library. Delivering plenty of big ideas to chew on while it takes us for a thrilling ride, this novel is an ode to books and bookishness, friends and loyalty, and the legacy we leave behind when we write our own stories. {more}

Let me be candid. If I had to rank book-acquisition experiences in order of comfort, ease, and satisfaction, the list would go like this: 1. The perfect independent bookstore, like Pygmalion in Berkeley. 2. A big, bright Barnes & Noble. I know they’re corporate, but let’s face it — those stores are nice. Especially the ones with big couches. 3. The book aisle at Walmart. (It’s next to the potting soil.) 4. The lending library aboard the U.S.S. West Virginia, a nuclear submarine deep beneath the surface of the Pacific. 5. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. — Robin Sloan

Library: An Unquiet History - Matthew Battles

> Matthew Battles

Matthew Battles — a rare books librarian — takes us on a tour through the ages of information from the ancient Library of Alexandria to the modern wild west of the Internet. Buckle up for a fascinating ride.

The story begins, more or less, in Alexandria around 283 BCE when the Library was founded by Alexander the Great. The history moves forward through time, and sadly, the destruction of libraries is a recurring event. Many of the scrolls, tablets, and papyrus artifacts we still have today survived because they were in private libraries, hidden and safe.

The history is also populated with compelling characters who still influence our experiences in libraries today. Like Melville Dewey, creator of the Dewey Decimal System and, unfortunately, a history of sexism, homophobia, antisemitism, and racism.

Ultimately — despite book burning and Dewey — the story of the library is one of the triumphs of decency, of curiosity, of respect for knowledge, and of the endless potential contained in a room lined with the books and the texts between the covers. {more}

In the stacks of the library, I have the distinct impression that its millions of volumes may indeed contain the entirety of human experience; that they make not a model for but a model of the universe. Fluttering down the foot-worn marble stairs that drop into the building’s bowels, descending through layer after layer of pungent books, I am often struck by the sense that everything happening outside must have its printed counterpart somewhere in the stacks. — Matthew Battles

The Historian - Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian
> Elizabeth Kostova

‘Vampire librarian.’ If those two words have sold you on this book, feel free to stop reading this and get your hands on a copy of the book immediately. If you want more, try this: It’s a spine-tingling page-turner and a celebration of the unbreakable bonds we form with people in the unlikeliest of circumstances.

Or this: Most of the action takes place in historical libraries, dusty archives, and mountaintop monasteries — or around tables loaded with endless cups of tea, pastries, and Balkan food.

The story begins in 1970s Amsterdam: Late one night, while exploring her father’s library, a teenage girl finds a collection of old letters and a mysterious book. She reads the letters and is suddenly more frightened than she’s ever been. When her father disappears, she sets out on a quest to find him and to resolve letters’ secrets.

Equal parts Gothic thriller, detective story, travelogue, historical fiction, and a love letter to libraries, this epic effortlessly keeps track of a large cast of unforgettable characters as they fight for light in the face of an unspeakable evil. {more}

My favorite bench in the nave of the old university library was still being warmed by the last sun of a spring afternoon. Around me three or four students read or talked in low voices, and I felt the familiar calm of that scholar’s heaven soak through my bones. The great hall of the library was pierced by colored windows, some of which looked into its reading rooms and cloister-like corridors and courtyards, so that I could see people moving around inside or outside, or studying at big oak tables. — Elizabeth Kostova

The Weight of Ink - Rachel Kadish

The Weight of Ink
> Rachel Kadish

Prepare yourself to meet two extraordinary women in London, 400 years apart, but drawn together by their yearning for knowledge and their desire to be move beyond what society expects of them.

In 1660s London, Ester Valesquez is many things the world finds inconvenient: She’s Jewish, she’s an emigré from Amsterdam, and — the saints preserve us — she’s a woman. Fast forward to 2000 to meet Helen, a British historian who has a deep love of Jewish history for secret reasons that only become clear later. She’s recently learned of a cache of 17th-century Jewish documents discovered in a wall during a home renovation. She recruits a Jewish-American grad student to help her decipher the texts. Soon, they’re in a race with another team of historians to identify the author of the documents.

This is like library Crossfit for nerds, as the dueling researchers face off in the archive library, compete to get their hands on the fragile documents, and translate the handwritten characters from Hebrew and Portuguese to modern English. The backstabbing and intrigue have all the drama, blood, sweat, and tears of a fight for the gold — in this case, a literary legacy that will save and break careers. {more}

The rich library they’d brought with them from Amsterdam to London required tending like all else in the house, for coal soot found its way even behind the curtain that protected the long shelf of books. The first time Ester had been assigned the task of dusting the Rabbi’s treasures, she’d drawn back the curtain and stood breathing in wonder at the leather-and-gilt spines… She opened a supple leather binding to discover a work by the Englishman Francis Bacon, translated into Castilian. — Rachel Kadish

The Giant’s House - Elizabeth McCracken

The Giant's House
> Elizabeth McCracken

This novel is a quiet heartbreaker, a beautifully wrought story of unusual people with an odd relationship that can only end one way, no matter how fervently we wish otherwise.

Peggy Cort is the 26-year-old unmarried librarian in a small town in Cape Cod. And because it’s 1950, her single status labels her a spinster — left behind and unloved. Until she meets James. At 6-feet, he’s an ‘over-tall’ 11-year-old boy with a condition that eventually makes him grow to well over eight feet. But to Peggy, he’s just a boy with qualities she instantly recognizes: a safe escape into books, the still wariness of an outsider, the wistfulness of a dreamer who believes dreams might not come true.

The descriptions of the library are luscious and capture the spirit of possibility that we inhale every time we take a book from the shelf. There’s comfort in the order of catalog: ‘[O]rdinal, cardinal, alphabetical, alphanumerical, geographical, by subject, by color, by shape, by size. Something logical that people — one hopes — cannot botch, although they will.’

This is a powerful examination of love and loneliness with just enough whimsy to make it a pleasurable journey. The odd couple of Peggy and James will stay with you long after you turn the last page of this fractured fairy tale about a giant and his not-princess. {more}

The idea of a library full of books, the books full of knowledge, fills me with fear and love and courage and endless wonder. I knew I would be a librarian in college as a student assistant at a reference desk, watching those lovely people at work. ‘I don’t think there’s such a book—’ a patron would begin, and then the librarian would hand it to them, that very book. — Elizabeth McCracken

The Book on the Bookshelf - Henry Petroski

The Book on the Bookshelf
> Henry Petroski

Author Henry Petroski is a civil engineering professor at Duke University. He’s wildly curious about the world, and you might be familiar with his previous book about the history of the pencil. This time, he turns his attention to the printed word. This is extreme book nerdery, and it is glorious.

You probably know already if this book is for you, but here are a few more selling points: There are extensive footnotes and charming anecdotes. There’s an appendix that explores the various ways you might arrange your books on the shelf. There are peeks behind the scenes of book storage in some of the largest, most prestigious libraries in the world. Petroski has a sharp eye for detail and is adept at translating research prose that makes you say, ‘Huh! Who knew?’

The story begins with scrolls, then continues through carved tablets and the codex, which was the first instance of a book composed of sheets of paper. There’s talk of illuminated manuscripts and illuminated rooms where ‘windows and natural light were also important because of the fear of fire, and many old libraries were open only as long as the sun was up.’

This is a book geek’s book about books, essential for anyone who loves to read and is curious about how we got from scribbles on a scroll to leather-bound books stacked floor to ceiling. {more}

From the early Middle Ages, some orders have a custom similar to that of the Benedictines, in which the members of each chapter assembled at a predetermined time to return books that had been issued to them during the previous year and to borrow a new book for the coming year. — Henry Petroski

The Book of Speculation - Erika Swyler

The Book of Speculation
> Erika Swyler

This novel probably doesn’t need a hard sell. It includes, in no particular order, two librarians, a tarot card reader, a traveling circus, mermaids, dark secrets, a family curse, and an antiquarian book that plays a pivotal role in the action.

Our hero is Simon, a librarian who lives alone in his family’s crumbling home on a bluff overlooking Long Island Sound. Both of his parents are dead. His much-adored mother was a circus mermaid who performed by holding her breath. But on a fateful day, on the beach just below their house, she drowned. That terrible event was the beginning of the end for his family. Soon, his father had also passed, and his younger sister had run away with a traveling carnival.

One day, a fragile, water-damaged book arrives in the mail. Simon soon learns this mysterious volume, a logbook from a traveling circus of the 1700s, may hold the key to a centuries-old mystery involving the women in this family. Is his family cursed?

Erika Swyler combines the magical and the mundane in a way that’s irresistible and immersive. And during the climax of the story — when a massive storm is raging outside — our heroes take refuge in the library. What else do you need to know? {more}

The box contains a good-sized book, carefully wrapped. Even before opening it, the musty, slightly acrid scent indicates old paper, wood, leather, and glue. It’s enveloped in tissue and newsprint, and unwrapping reveals a dark leather binding covered with what would be intricate scrollwork had it not suffered substantial water damage. A small shock runs through me. It’s very old, not a book to be handled with naked fingers, but seeing as it’s already ruined, I give in to the quiet thrill of touching something with history. — Erika Swyler

The Cemetery of Forgotten Books Cycle

The last four recommendations on our list comprise the Cemetery of Forgotten Books by Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafón. He’s said that he wrote this cycle of novels to create a literary labyrinth that we’re invited to enter at any point; the characters and setting overlap, but they can be read in any order. All the stories swirl around the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a secret library in Barcelona where beloved and threatened books are protected. Visitors to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books are allowed to take out one title, thus becoming the protector of that book to ensure its existence.

The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Shadow of the Wind
> Carlos Ruiz Zafón

It’s 1945 in Barcelona. The furor of the war years has diminished, but the city is still healing from its wounds. Shadowy and somewhat sinister, but not without hope, the city is home to a young boy, a good-natured family friend, a troubled author, and a mysterious book — all caught in a web of intrigue together.

When Daniel awakens on his eleventh birthday and can’t remember his mother’s face, his father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a labyrinthine collection of books left behind by the rest of the world. The books on the spiraling shelves wait for someone to care about them again. When Daniel carefully pulls The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax from the shelf, he unknowingly sets in motion an adventure that will change the lives of everyone he knows.

At the heart of that story is the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, the magical, sinister place where the real story begins and ends. It’s a celebration of literature and what stories mean to us. How they help us cope, understand the world, and find the truth of ourselves. {more}

Once, in my father’s bookshop, I heard a regular customer say that few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which, sooner or later—no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover, or how much we learn or forget—we will return. — Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Angel’s Game - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Angel's Game
> Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The story is set in Barcelona of the 1920s and ’30s — a volatile city populated by anarchists, communists, monarchists, and people merely trying to eke out a living.

Our hero, David Martin, lives in an abandoned mansion — alone — writing sensationalist novels under a pseudonym and exploring the shadows of his imagination. To escape a painful past and troubled present, he hides in the words and worlds of his books.

But his home may be haunted by more than his flights of fancy: Within a locked room, he finds mysterious photographs and letters that imply the house has secrets. When an enigmatic French editor makes him an irresistible offer — money, fame, power — to write a one-of-a-kind book, David agrees, and his life takes on deeper shades of darkness. {more}

Before that, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books was hidden under the tunnels of the medieval town. Some say that, during the time of the Inquisition, people who were learned and had free minds would hide forbidden books in sarcophagi, or bury them in ossuaries all over the city to protect them, trusting that future generations would dig them up. In the middle of the last century, a long tunnel was discovered leading from the bowels of the labyrinth to the basement of an old library that nowadays is sealed off, hidden in the ruins of an old synagogue in the Jewish quarter. — Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Prisoner of Heaven - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Prisoner of Heaven
> Carlos Ruiz Zafón

It’s a time of celebration in Barcelona. Christmas is coming. The War, over for a dozen years, is fading into a thing that happened once. Newlyweds Daniel and Bea have a bouncing baby boy, and their dear friend will soon be married. What could possibly go wrong?

On an otherwise uneventful day at the family-owned bookshop, a mysterious stranger appears and requests the rare copy of The Count of Monte Cristo that sits in a display case behind the counter. He writes a cryptic inscription on the title page: For Fermín Romero de Torres, who came back from among the dead and holds the key to the future.

These words send Daniel and his dear friend Fermín on a quest for a perilous truth that could upend all of their lives. Their investigation takes through the Gothic Barcelona of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s imagination, to the 1940s and the early days of the fascist Franco dictatorship — and closer to learning a heart-piercing secret. {more}

I write these words in the hope and conviction that one day you’ll discover this place, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a place that changed my life as I’m sure it will change yours… I know that if you ever read these words, you’ll be overwhelmed by questions and doubts. You’ll find some of the answers in this manuscript, where I have tried to portray my story as I remember it, knowing that my days of lucidity are numbered and that often I can only recall what never took place. — Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Labyrinth of the Spirits - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Labyrinth of the Spirits
> Carlos Ruiz Zafón

In the final, epic installment of The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, author Carlos Ruiz Zafón takes us back to Barcelona and Madrid, just before and just after WWII. Combining elements of fantasy, historical fiction, romance, and detective procedural, this story hinges on one of his most compelling characters yet. Meet Alicia Gris.

At just 29 years old, Alicia is already cynical and gifted with street smarts she earned the hard way. By all objective measures, she is also stunningly beautiful and a force to be reckoned with in Madrid’s secret police. The world-weary girl, suffering from an injury that won’t heal and the heavy baggage she carries in her heart, wants to get out of the business. Her boss coerces her into taking just one more case, and then he’ll let her go: She must find Spain’s Minister of Culture who just poof! disappeared from his palatial estate.

The scaffolding of this sweeping story is the investigation into what happened to the Minister. Gripping as the mystery is, it’s merely an excuse for Zafón to snare us in his spellbinding world where every conversation has subtext and truth hides in the shadows, even on the sunniest of days. And, as always seems to happen in Barcelona, the path to the truth passes through the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. {more}

When a library disappears, or a bookshop closes down, when a book is consigned to oblivion, those of us who know this place, its guardians, make sure that it gets here. In this place, books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader’s hands… in truth books have no owner. Every book you see here has been somebody’s best friend. Now they only have us. — Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Top image courtesy of BGSImage/Shutterstock.

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