Imagine all the books you’ve ever read neatly shelved in a battered Winnebago that’s a night bookmobile. I mean every book, including the ones you sold to Half Price Books, and the ones you loaned to friends and relatives and never got back, and the ones you partially read standing in the aisle of a bookstore. We’re talking not just novels and biographies, but textbooks and cookbooks, picture books and car manuals. This would be your very personal library that followed you through time, and it would include all the letters you’ve read, and the cereal boxes, too.
Audrey Niffenegger, bestselling author of The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry, tells such a charmed, eerie story in her graphic novel The Night Bookmobile. The narrator is a young woman named Alexandra. She comes upon a Chicago bookmobile while walking the city streets at 4 a.m. after a fight with her live-in boyfriend. The librarian, Mr. Openshaw, invites her inside. Alexandra discovers stacks of books that are everything she’s ever read and only everything she’s ever read.
Books cannot be borrowed from this library on wheels. Also, it’s only open dusk to dawn, so Mr. Openshaw sends her away and drives off at sunrise. “Have you ever found your heart’s desire and then lost it? I had seen myself, a portrait of myself as a reader. …It was as though I had dreamt the perfect lover, who vanished as I woke, leaving me pining and surly.”
Alexandra walks the streets at night looking for the Night Bookmobile, but nine years pass before she finds it again and, after that, another 12 years. Each time her voracious reading during the interval appears on the shelves. She wants more than anything to stay with the Night Bookmobile, but Mr. Openshaw says she cannot. Even though she becomes a librarian, working for a Chicago branch library, Mr. Openshaw refuses to hire her. He says, “I’m sorry. You don’t know what you’re asking.”
The ending of The Night Bookmobile is shocking, and profound for the way it illuminates a passion that gives up everything for reading. Niffenegger writes in an afterword that this graphic novel began as a story about a woman’s secret life as a reader. She writes, “As I worked it also became a story about the claims that books place on their readers, the imbalance between our inner and outer lives, a cautionary tale of the seductions of the written word.”
The Night Bookmobile ran as a serial in the Guardian May to December 2008. You can still read it on the Guardian’s website, but the book version is a more pleasurable format. This is not the last we’ll hear of The Night Bookmobile — Niffenegger says it’s the first installment of a larger work, The Library.