A reading life is full of strange and unpredictable coincidences not least those connections between two reads which are poles apart in genre and yet somehow merge and overlap into the same territory.
An Illuminated Life, Belle Da Costa Greene's Journey From Prejudice to Privilege by Heidi Ardizzone published by W.W.Norton is one of those biographies that looks sumptuous but who on earth was she?
I bet you all know, but for the minority few like me who don't I'll tell you.
This is the biography of a librarian.
Belle Da Costa Greene was hired by wealthy New York banker J.P.Morgan in 1905 to collate and catalogue his rare book and manuscript collection.If you thought JPM might be on the lookout for a highly qualified librarian then think again because Belle was young and inexperienced in the art of wearing the squeaky shoes and the cardigan but she adored books and knew that was where she wanted to work.
"Belle knew that her chosen work as a librarian hardly fit the image and attitude that her flamboyant mischievous soul demanded "Just because I am a librarian...doesn't mean I have to dress like one""
So now we'll have a little rest while the librarians who visit here take deep breaths and plan their comments, I can't wait because I know they are the wittiest of the lot.
The other drawback could have been that Belle was fractionally on the wrong side of the colour line with black ancestry on her father's side and raised "in a family of colour" in Washington DC. In fact despite being distantly related to the singer, Paul Robeson, Belle effectively crossed the colour line.
Crossing the colour line is a new concept for me and one I have never read about in any depth, so it is this that makes for enlightening reading in the first hundred pages or more that I've covered so far. Belle never actually lied about her background but nor did she fully embrace it and many struggled to describe the strange beauty of a woman who became increasingly powerful as she sat at the right hand of one of the wealthiest men in America. For me this was all new information and all the more engrossing for that, coupled with the fact that Heidi Ardizzone's writing style is eminently readable and absorbing.
I will read this one right through because I am intrigued to see just how the enigmatic Belle becomes what she does, a world-famous celebrity whose New York life was "dazzlingly white, upper-class, upper-crust, high culture". How and why did she make her choices and you have to admire or perhaps feel sorry for a woman who felt compelled to take four to ten years off her age for her entire life.
The book that immediately jumped into my mind was Love Across Colour Lines, Ottilie Assing & Frederick Douglass by Maria Diedrich, and the story of their twenty-eight-year relationship.That's another 375 pages of unread book sitting here forlornly, but Frederick Douglass and Richard T.Greener, Belle's father worked together so perhaps I have a reading trail opening there.
But the real coincidence was much more ordinary really because simultaneously I'm reading The Collectors by David Baldacci and hey ho it's all about intrigue and mystery in the Library of Congress's Rare Books Division.Librarians both dead and alive stalk or lie amongst the shelves, bibliomaniacs and cardigans abound, the shoes squeak loudly and even the revered JPM gets a mention.
OK librarians, it's all yours.