A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies by Alix E. Harrow
My rating: 5/5 cats
(There have only ever been two kinds of librarians in the history of the world: the prudish, bitter ones with lipstick running into the cracks around their lips who believe the books are their personal property and patrons are dangerous delinquents come to steal them; and witches).
oh, man YES!
i MEANT to spend the day reviewing this author’s full-length novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January, which i finished last week and LOVED, but Tadiana ✩Night Owl☽ beseeched me to read this story immediately, and even though i had been planning to save it for my annual december short story advent calendar project, i’m so glad i obeyed, because it is a wonderful WONDERFUL story about books and magic and the librarians who oversee the realm where these two overlap.
even though i am not currently working as a librarian (FEEL FREE TO HIRE ME, THO!), i have the degree, i am a substitute librarian at a high school, and i’ve been a bookseller for about a million years, and a lot of this story is about the part of librarianship/booksellerhood about which i am most passionate: readers’ advisory, which practice is summed-up here with a little more magical flourish than any of my RA textbooks ever did:
Because I am a librarian of the second sort, I almost always know what kind of book a person wants. It’s like a very particular smell rising off them which is instantly recognizable as Murder mystery or Political biography or Something kind of trashy but ultimately life-affirming, preferably with lesbians.
I do my best to give people the books they need most. In grad school, they called it “ensuring readers have access to texts/materials that are engaging and emotionally rewarding,” and in my other kind of schooling, they called it “divining the unfilled spaces in their souls and filling them with stories and starshine,” but it comes to the same thing.
this is a truly exceptional short story about the power of books—of the right book—to transport, rescue, sustain, a reader—to help them escape. it may be a more literal take on the theme than most, but it’s incredibly life-affirming and feels like a love letter to those of us who really just want to be useful; to help connect the right reader with the right book at the right time, especially those special readers who know what they want to get out of a book, but don’t know how to find the signal in the noise; The kind that let their eyes feather across the titles like trailing fingertips, heads cocked, with book-hunger rising off them like heatwaves from July pavement.
i probably read it from a very self-centered perspective, but it gives hope to those of us still desperately seeking a forum in which this VERY IMPORTANT skill can also put food on our tables. books are important. the right book is important.
I sent him home with The Count of Monte Cristo, partly because it requires your full attention and a flow chart to keep track of the plot and the kid needed distracting, but mostly because of what Edmund says on the second-to-last page: “… all human wisdom is summed up in these two words,—‘Wait and hope.’”
But people can’t keep waiting and hoping forever.
They fracture, they unravel, they crack open; they do something desperate and stupid and then you see their high school senior photo printed in the Ulysses Gazette, grainy and oversized, and you spend the next five years thinking: if only I’d given her the right book.
a poignant and beautiful story that’s strengthening my waiting-and-hoping muscles.
read it for yourself here: