Monday, October 3, 2022

The Personal Librarian

  The Personal Librarian
Author:  Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2021. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0593101537 / 978-0593101537

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The Old North bell tolls the hour, and I realize I'll be late."

Favorite Quote:  ".. all I've ever wanted for my children was the opportunity soar, no matter their heritage, and to live a life of meaning. That has been my fight. But in our current society with our current laws, it's enough that you succeed, that you are able to follow your passion in your work, that you leave a legacy that will benefit the multitudes - one day, even the colored multitudes."

This book does what I love best about historical fiction. It introduces me to a history I might never otherwise have learned. It tells a story that keeps me turning pages beginning to end. It sends me on a search for the actual history that underlies the fiction.

Recently, I had an opportunity to visit the Morgan Library in New York City. It is like discovering a secret treasure trove. Currently, it is a museum and research library. It began in 1890 as a private library of Pierpont Morgan and was build adjustment to his New York home. It was not until 1924, eleven years after Pierpont Morgan's death, that the library was opened as a public institution by his son, JP Morgan Jr.

On the Morgan Library website under the "about" section appears a name - Belle de Costa Greene. She served the Morgan Library for forty three years. She was first recruited by Pierpont Morgan as his personal library. After his death, she remained on in that role as the library transitioned to JP Morgan. She also served as the first director as the library transitioned into a public institution. She was instrumental in amassing the collection, transitioning it into a public resource, and building around it programs that continue to this day.

This book is the story of Belle De Costa Greene. Her career achievements as a woman at that point in history are an amazing enough story. What is even more amazing is the personal story of the woman. Belle De Costa Greene was born Belle Marion Greener. She was the daughter of the first Black graduate of Harvard College. Her father was an educator and an activist for racial justice. When her parents separated. Belle's mother moved the children to New York and changed their surname to Greene. She described their heritage as Portuguese and lived as white in what was a racist and segregated society.

It was perhaps this fact that allowed Belle to get the job she did. Yet, this dichotomy in her life was always a challenge in so many ways. There was always the obvious fear of being found out. There was the separation from family for what purpose would a white, Portuguese family from New York have in getting together with an African American family from Washington DC. Beyond, there was the constant struggle of denying a part of who she was. "I realized that to achieve one dream, you had to forsake your core identify. Changing your name is easy. Changing your soul is impossible."

Yet she did - for her entire life leaving an unmatched legacy. "One day, Belle, we will be able to reach back through the decades and claim you as one of our own. Your accomplishments will be part of history, they'll show doubtful while people what colored can do. Until that time, live your life proudly."

This is the story of this book, beautifully told and beautifully rendered. I am so glad this fiction told an engaging story and even more led me to this amazing history.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.


  1. My book group just finished this book. We all enjoyed it enormously. What we took away was how talented Belle was and also confident to deal with men in a man's world. Personally, I cannot imagine how frightening it must have been every day to get up and fear this might be the day you would be discovered. What would Mr. Morgan have said to that truth. She was so fortunate in the love for art her father instilled in her. This was an excellent read I would highly recommend.

    1. I am glad your group enjoyed the book. I just recommended it to one of my book groups. I completely agree with you about that constant fear. I cannot imagine!