The Personal Librarian
I really liked “The Personal Librarian.” That being said, yes, I did find it alittle dry at times, but the content more than made up for it with me. I really liked the subject, how the authors described the characters and made them come to life, and of course, the library! After I finished reading this book, I immediately went online and started researching the real story of Belle, J. P. Morgan, the library, just all of it. I couldn’t get enough of the history, and to me, that is the mark of a successful Historical Fiction novel. To begin with, I couldn’t believe the premise was actually true (but it was!) Belle da Costa Greene was a Black woman who managed to pass as white all her life. Now, today I know that “passing” is a very controversial issue (hello “The Vanishing Half”) but back then, it was even more forbidden. On one hand, I wanted Belle to be recognized as a strong Black woman who was blazing a trail for other minority groups, but then on the other hand, I had to remind myself that doing so would have much more dire consequences in 1902 than it would in 2022. She took a chance just being in a position of power, and while she didn’t do it openly as a proud Black woman, this book made it clear that she was very aware of her heritage throughout her life. But I’m getting ahead of myself. This book focuses on Belle, who was personally hired by J.P. Morgan in 1905 as his personal librarian. I didn’t know this but besides being a financier, Morgan was actually an art collector, and his collection was massive. No wonder he needed someone whose sole job was to organize, catalog, display, and add to it! Belle was given this job and she exceled. Under her expert eye, Morgan’s library grew to be the preeminent American art collection of the day, even rivaling the Smithsonian. She focused specifically on rare books and manuscripts, often traveling abroad, and she wasn’t afraid to bargain aggressively for what she wanted. In this male dominated industry, Belle grew to have a fiercesome reputation that won her respect and admiration from everyone around her. And all the while, she was hiding the fact that she was not only a woman, but a Black woman! I have to admit, while I liked and respected Belle, it was the authors depiction of J.P. Morgan that I liked best. His antics made me giggle out loud, but then other times he was borderline cruel, especially toward his daughter Anne. Seeing both sides of Morgan made him less of a rich tycoon to me and more of a real person. And while he may have guessed Belle’s true ethnicity, he never allowed it to cloud his opinion of her, and I respected that. It didn’t surprise me when this book was nominated as the Best Historical Fiction Novel in 2021. Even though it didn’t win, it’s easily one of the best books in that category I’ve read in awhile.