Thursday, July 8, 2021

The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict & Victoria Christopher Murray


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I picked this book up not knowing a whole lot about the subject matter and under a deadline to read it in ten days before returning it to the library. Add in a very busy  July 4th weekend and I only had a few days to read it.  I wasn't sure I'd make it, but happily the story grabbed my attention and I've spent the last few nights reading about an amazing librarian: Belle da Costa Greene.  

Belle became the personal librarian of JP Morgan in 1906. JP Morgan had built an impressive private library to house his already impressive collection of manuscripts and rare books. Belle was hired to organize and develop his collection. What JP and everyone around Belle didn't know was that Belle was an African American woman who passed as white. Her secret would drive her career and personal choices for the rest of her life. 

Belle's family history was definitely one that kept her conflicted about her choice to follow her mother's wish to pass as white in a city and country where African Americans were being lynched, denied rights, and only hired for menial, low paying jobs. Belle's job had her dining with the Vanderbilts, attending the opera with well known New York socialites, and most importantly, garnering JP Morgan's admiration and trust. Belle traveled to Europe to spend millions of JP's money at auctions, all the while building his private collection into one that rivaled most museums. 

Belle was an amazing woman--brilliant, hard working, and self-taught. She gave up a lot to keep her secret, and her place as librarian. I was curious enough to google her, and there's a lot out there about her. The Morgan Library and Museum will have a exhibition on Belle in 2024.  

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel about a woman who blazed a trail during a time when women were struggling to be heard and respected. She was the ultimate career woman and remarkable for her time. 

Both authors have notes in the back of the book detailing their experience writing this novel during the 2020 Pandemic. This would make an interesting discussion for a book club. I'd like to read more about Belle. 

Rating: 4/6 for a fascinating novel about JP Morgan's personal librarian. She was an incredibly smart, talented woman who defied societal norms while creating one of the most important collections of manuscripts, art, and books in the United States. Anyone with a love of libraries, art, or books will find this novel hard to put down. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio.

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