Today's Reading

Now I was late. I hurried to the circulation desk, where I signed the card and slid Dracula into my purse. The Directress was waiting. As always, her chestnut hair was swept up in a bun, a silver pen poised in her hand.

Everyone knew of Miss Reeder. She wrote articles for newspapers and dazzled on the radio, inviting all to the Library—students, teachers, soldiers, foreigners, and French. She was adamant that there be a place here for everyone.

"I'm Odile Souchet. Sorry to be late. I was early, and I opened a book..."

"Reading is dangerous," Miss Reeder said with a knowing smile. "Let's go to my office."

I followed her through the reading room, where subscribers in smart suits lowered their newspapers to get a better look at the famous Directress, up the spiral staircase and down a corridor in the sacred "Employees Only" wing to her office, which smelled of coffee. On the wall hung a large aerial photo of a city, its blocks like a chessboard, so different from Paris's winding streets.

Noting my interest, she said, "That's Washington, DC. I used to work at the Library of Congress." She gestured for me to be seated and sat at her desk, which was covered by papers—some trying to sneak out of the tray, others held in place by a hole puncher. In the corner was a shiny black phone. Beside Miss Reeder, a chair held a batch of books. I spied novels by Isak Dinesen and Edith Wharton. A bookmark—a bright ribbon, really—beckoned from each, inviting the Directress to return.

What kind of reader was Miss Reeder? Unlike me, she'd never leave books open-faced for a lack of a marque-page. She'd never leave them piled under her bed. She would have four or five going at once. A book tucked in her purse for bus rides across the city. One that a dear friend had asked her opinion about. Another that no one would ever know about, a secret pleasure for a rainy Sunday afternoon—

"Who's your favorite author?" Miss Reeder asked.

Who's your favorite author? An impossible question. How could a person choose only one? In fact, my aunt Caro and I had created categories—dead authors, alive ones, foreign, French, etc.—to avoid having to decide. I considered the books in the reading room I'd touched just a moment ago, books that had touched me. I admired Ralph Waldo Emerson's way of thinking: I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me, as well as Jane Austen's. Though the authoress wrote in the nineteenth century, the situation for many of today's women remained the same: futures determined by whom they married. Three months ago, when I'd informed my parents that I didn't need a husband, Papa snorted and began bringing a different work subordinate to every Sunday lunch. Like the turkey Maman trussed and sprinkled with parsley, Papa presented each one on a platter: "Marc has never missed a day of work, not even when he had the flu!"

"You do read, don't you?"

Papa often complained that my mouth worked faster than my mind. In a flash of frustration, I responded to Miss Reeder's first question.

"My favorite dead author is Dostoevsky, because I like his character Raskolnikov. He's not the only one who wants to hit someone over the head."

Silence.

Why hadn't I given a normal answer—for example, Zora Neale Hurston, my favorite living author?

"It was an honor to meet you."

I moved to the door, knowing the interview was over.

As my fingers reached for the porcelain knob, I heard Miss Reeder say, "Fling yourself straight into life, without deliberation; don't be afraid—the flood will bear you to the bank and set you safe on your feet again."

My favorite line from Crime and Punishment. 891.73. I turned around.

"Most candidates say their favorite is Shakespeare," she said.

"The only author with his own Dewey Decimal call number."

"A few mention Jane Eyre."

That would have been a normal response. Why hadn't I said Charlotte Brontë, or any Brontë for that matter? "I love Jane, too. The Brontë sisters share the same call number—823.8."

"But I liked your answer."

"You did?"

"You said what you felt, not what you thought I wanted to hear."

That was true....

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