Pub date October 7, 2008
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature

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REVIEW Whether you admired his fierce intelligence or considered him a negative influence on the young, you have to admit that David Foster Wallace was one of the few contemporary writers who managed to pin down and unpack questions of writerly narcissism and grasp their implications. The McSweeney’s brand owes its greatest debt to Wallace. Young librarian Scott Douglas’s bildungsromanesque Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian (Da Capo Press, 352 pages, $25) would not exist without his influence: it’s an outgrowth of Douglas’s column for the McSweeney’s Web site, and it embodies what younger writers find so seductive in Wallace’s digressive, footnote-heavy writing style.

Quiet, Please chronicles Douglas’s experiences working in an Anaheim public library, a site in the shadow of Disneyland. Once you set aside the obligatory librarian jokes, this setting promises the kind of collisions absent from corporate offices: it’s a place where wastrel romance novels live feet away from Gravity’s Rainbow, where the very old and very young bide their time, in the mystery stacks and on the Internet, respectively. Douglas’s book isn’t particularly descriptive, though, and despite being a kind of memoir, its autobiography is fuzzy. Its confusion about genre is where the conversion from the Web to the page becomes a problem. Douglas fractures the surface of his story, but his attempts to make the tangents cohere often prevent the book from finding a consistent pace. The thin narrative thread that follows Douglas from library page to accredited librarian gets snowed under by unnecessary footnotes and what he deems "short pointless interludes" — factoids intended to break up the monotony of, er, paying attention. The mildly condescending, conversational tone of these commercial breaks highlights Douglas’s ambivalence toward writing the book: a perceived need to convince the reader that he or she is getting more than just a Web-groomed, self-reflexive story battles with the author’s own doubts about a lack of content. Those doubts largely turn out to be valid.

For a long time, I thought a career as a librarian was a foregone conclusion: during high school I was a regular at San Jose’s Almaden Branch Library, a suburban place not unlike the library in the book, and without that formative experience I wouldn’t have found out about Emil Nolde or Paul Klee or Kurt Vonnegut or T.S. Eliot when I needed them. The lack of any real emotional connection to libraries or convincing description of them as portals to different, better worlds are two things that keep Quiet, Please from gaining real relevance beyond its narrow scope. Douglas’s attempts to get at something bigger than the boredom of work (and his attempts to capture that boredom) suffer from a lack of convincing detail. The author’s frequent digressions — he spends a grip of pages early on pontificating about the impact of 9/11 — often come off as obligatory rather than the byproduct of an extremely curious mind.

But where Quiet, Please suffers most is in its self-policed tone. Douglas, one imagines, has deep pockets full of stories about eccentric library regulars, but they’re painted with all the imaginative gusto of a term paper on deadline and hastily capped with showy compassion. The book also clearly positions itself, in part, as a satirical bureaucratic romp, but his toughest critique involves describing the head of his library science program as a "bitch." Online, Douglas’s column had a certain charm; on paper, it’s simply a matter of dull obligation for the author, to say nothing of the reader. *