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The Personal Librarian

by Marie Benedict, Victoria Christopher Murray

The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict, Victoria Christopher Murray X
The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict, Victoria Christopher Murray
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  • Published:
    Jun 2021, 352 pages


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There are currently 81 reader reviews for The Personal Librarian
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Learned a lot
I only knew that JP Morgan was wealthy. This story of his personal librarian is very engrossing. I knew nothing about manuscripts or books he acquired. She has a story of her own which was never brought to light during her lifetime. I enjoyed the story but was disappointed when the authors at the end of the book relate all the inconsistencies and liberties they took.
Power Reviewer

Didn't live up to reviews
I'm sorry to be a spoilsport, but The Personal Librarian didn't live up to its hype. While it probably was well-researched, I just couldn't seem to care about the main character - she was way too self-centered.
Kimberly C. (Ypsilanti, MI)

Not for me
I really wanted to like this book, because it combines favorite topics: history, libraries, New York. But it tries too hard to cram in facts, with a writing style that swings from simplistic to overwrought. Overall, a disappointment, but it did inspire me to learn more about Belle da Costa Greene.
Marganna K. (Edmonds, WA)

The Personal Librarian
I'm very glad I read The Personal Librarian. My knowledge of J. P. Morgan was very limited & sketchy. My knowledge of Belle da Costa Greene (Belle Marion Greener) was nonexistent. Enhancing my knowledge of these two people in addition to gaining a better understanding of a fascinating era are enough reasons to have enjoyed this book.
I know this book is fiction but I didn't realize it is based on facts with well documented circumstances & people. I found it somewhat unbelievable and the characters never came alive to me. I believe a historical prologue would have been helpful. After reading the epilogue & historical notes I did gain more appreciation and I understand why the two authors collaborated.
Although the writing fell short for me there was value in discovering Belle & her story.
I would recommend this book to friends & it would be an interesting book club recommendation.
Shirley P. (Colorado Springs, CO)

Why I wish I could give this book four stars.
The Personal Librarian is a very good account of the life of Bella da Costa Greene, the librarian at the John Pierpont Morgan library in NYC. She had a background of art history, but no formal education in this field. She was innately talented in recognizing and purchasing the art, manuscripts etc that so interested Mr. Morgan. The book is rich with factual information about this singular person in history. She want on to direct the library when it was converted to a public institution now known as the Morgan Library and Museum in 1924. The overwhelming secret of Belle's life what that she was a colored woman passing as white. Her entire career rested on this fact being hidden. Her racial identity was not uncovered until 1999, when a JP Morgan biographer found her birth certificate which recorded her father as Richard Theodore Greener, the first black man to graduate from Harvard, and a prominent scholar.

The problem I had with this book was the divergent writing styles within it. Perhaps this was because it is written by two authors, though I have no way of knowing how they divided their participation. The parts of the book dealing with Bella's life verged on the melodrama at times, describing her long affair with Bernard Berenson and a couple of liaisons during her life. It was almost unseemly to me to relegate her personal life to this level, though, of course, she was a human being.

The parts of the book which dealt with her struggle with her race and the political scene during that time like suffragism is written in a lecturing, dry style. According to all accounts, Ms. da Costa Greene seldom mentioned race, and in her attempts to stay "under the radar", probably stayed away from any controversial social issues of the day. I recognize this part of the book as an attempt to make it relevant to its time in history, but I felt it it detracted from Belle's story, which needed no help to make her interesting and fascinating.
Jenna W. (North Potomac, MD)

This book for me was just OK. I didn't feel a connection with the characters and for me, that is very important. Because of this, I gave the book three stars. The plot wasn't bad, I just couldn't connect with the protagonist.
Carolyn D. (Chico, CA)

Too many parties and clothes
I confess to being a librarian so I would have liked more details about her work, especially the organization and description of the cataloged works. She is a fascinating subject but I thought the book a little superficial because of the emphasis on how she looked and who she knew. She has a fascinating story to tell, but I am not sure this is it. Almost a 4 star but not quite.

Pedantic and redundant
In a rather heavy-handed tone, this historical fiction lays out many serious big themes in the first two chapters, frequently in authors' message dialogue: racial prejudices and misogyny; people of colored ancestry passing as whites and the attendant stress and fear of exposure that choice generates in daily life; walking away from who one is, betraying oneself; hidden identities; the value of family, but also the burden of family; the value of the printed word and the near holiness of rare books; and fine arts appreciation. (I found it ironic that the black Fleet family is much more cultured than its white neighbors.) Add to that weighty list the debilitating laws of segregation, the deceptive rules of society, nontraditional lifestyles and how distressful emotions must be buried. It's a lot to cover, particularly since the story is based on true events and historical characters.

I did not find a way into Belle's emotional life to adequately engage my even caring about her much. I found the irascible J.P.Morgan more accessible in multiple scenes, but Belle remained elusive and cold. That the story is embedded in a world of high society and art adds interest, culture and beauty to the novel's atmosphere. It's an extremely fascinating tale; I just wished Belle could come more alive to me. But perhaps that is at the very heart of her dilemma: always a careful actor on stage and never simply a woman.

Beyond the Book:
  Belle da Costa Greene

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