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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 29, 2021, 352 pages


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There are currently 79 reader reviews for The Personal Librarian
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Ilene M. (Longmont, CO)

Well done!
Wonderfully written book about a fascinating woman in American history. It is also a condemnation of the racial discrimination that has plagued our history. Bravo for Marie Benedict having the understanding that she could not write this book by herself. Adding Victoria Christopher Murray as the co-author gives authenticity to the feelings of the protagonist. This is my introduction to Marie Benedict as an author. Now I want to read more of the books that she has written about unsung women heroes.
Jackie H

Intellect, Passion and Sacrifice
Knowing nothing of J. P. Morgan’s Library or personal librarian, I was intrigued by the title. Written by two authors, one white, one black, created an authentic look at the cost/benefit of “passing”. Professionally and socially, Belle was able to dramatically succeed through her intellect, passion and perseverance for the printed word and for visual art. Belle was able to effectively deal with the business associates who sought to use her for their personal gain and as she weighed responses to questions to avoid spilling her deepest secret. The family dynamics, both immediate and extended, were interesting. Especially interesting was the pressure from the mother for her to succeed while seemingly content for the mediocrity for the other children. This is sure to be on the agenda for book clubs across the country.
Jessamyn R. (Fayetteville, NC)

Better than a Fairytale: a real Belle, enchanting library and its (sometimes) monstrous owner
Once I got into the story of Belle da Costa Greene, I was swept away - and knowing that she was real made it an even more enticing. I came to love the heroine's balance of professional chutzpah and vulnerable heart, and the vibrant depictions of life in the gilded age (with attention to those not in the stratospheric heights of wealth). I think this would be an excellent book club book: there's something for everyone to identify with or want to discuss from professional identity, to romance and subverting societal expectation around sexual morality, to books as objects of art and reverence, to the U.S.'s complicated history of race relations at the core of the novel.
Susan B. (Fort Myers, FL)

Amazing story of a woman who creates a world class library while holding onto a dangerous secret
This story of an amazing woman you probably have never hear of.

Bella da Costa Greene is an accomplished librarian with a dark, dangerous secret. J.P. Morgan chose her to help him build a library of priceless books and manuscripts and she excelled at locating rare works and had great purchasing skills. Her relationship with J.P. Morgan brings the reader a rare understanding of the financier and his love for the library.

Never married, she had a life among the art elite and a complicated romance with a married art dealer, Bernard Berenson. At all times her secret was paramount in how she lived.

The book moves along at a rapid pace. The authors' prose and vivid descriptions put you into the scene.

I recommend this book to all lovers of historical fiction. It is one of the best I have ever read.
Mary Jane D. (Arlington Heights, IL)

A Very Timely Read
The Personal Librarian is a very well researched book that was collaboratively written by two women authors. The story is fascinating and although I didn't know anything about J.P. Morgan and Belle de Costa Greene I was drawn into their story and wanted to keep finding out more. The book is very close to the true facts about their lives and the little known fact that J.P.Morgan's much admired assistant who helped grow his library was a black lady passing as white.

I found the authors' notes at the end very interesting and made the book even more appreciated by me. The perspective of one black and one white author clearly added depth and feeling to the characters. Also the fact that it was written during the pandemic and these troubling racial times made it very timely and offered food for thought.

The book would be a good Book Club choice and offer many topics for discussion.
Margaret S. (Palo Alto, CA)

Secrets in Public
It takes very courageous writers of deep experience to take on Belle da Costa Greene, a vibrantly authentic woman. Choosing a first person post of view and placing it in a historical context in the present tense, while creating a fictional text is certainly ambitious. The focus of the book, indeed the center of the book is a woman who deserves to be remembered and celebrated.She is memorialized in the world of rare treasures in a fascinating biography by Heidi Ardizzone, AN ILLUMINATED LIFE: Belle daCosta Greene's Journey from Prejudice to Privilege. Here, in THE PERSONAL LIBRARIAN imagination enlarges historical fact. It is helpful that each chapter has a date as a chapter head and flashbacks between Washington DC and New York City. These dates are important anchors.

This is a layered book of secrets hidden and uncovered, quests and an enchanting main character, Belle..

Belle da Costa Green lived her professional life as the professional emissary of J. P Morgan, one of the immensity rich barons who helped to gild the Gilded Age. She remained the representative negotiator for the J.P Morgan Library into mid century. The characters with whom Belle mingles have volumes written about them - Vanderbilt, Elsie de Wolfe, Lillian Russell, Oscar Wilde, Steichen, Stieglitz, Bernard Berenson and of course the collector himself, J.P. Morgan. (E.L. Doctorow's RAGTIME, covers the same period. I sure did miss Coalhouse Walker Jr., but he was fiction. Remember how he took on J.P. Morgan who wasn't) The intricacies of acquisition and collection are detailed - if you want one (thing), you want another one. The obsession of collecting, sometimes called "rationalized greed", is detailed. The desire for knowledge, like the thirst for more - more riches - more more, increases with the acquisition. Nothing but the prize - the goal is the thing.
Jennie R. (Highland, CA)

So enjoyable...
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this story, and feel the authors did a fine job of filling in the many gaps in a historical account with what might've been Belle's life story. The tension was so vivid...passing as a white woman while feeling the injustice of the necessity to do so, in order to become a person of respect in society and in the rarefied world of art collection for one of the wealthiest men in the world. Belle was constantly on alert, inwardly panicked any time she thought she may have been recognized and outed as "colored". The relationship with Bernard was well developed, adding another layer of tension as it also needed to be kept a secret; it also ended in a way that was likely the most painful periods in Belle's lifetime, bringing this reader's sympathy response. Belles's relationship with Mr. Morgan was intense, mainly in its fragility. Belle had to walk a tightrope between two worlds and the authors did a wonderful job of portraying her life. Highly recommend.
Mary S. (Bow, NH)

A woman ahead of her time
The Personal Librarian is an engrossing story about Belle da Costa Greene, a unique woman for her time and for our time as well. This piece of historical fiction is a well written and well plotted biography for a remarkable woman. Ms. Greene was the personal librarian to JP Morgan, helping and guiding him to build a library rivaled only by the best in the world. Greene started with Morgan in 1905 and served as his librarian until his death. Fortunately for all of us, after Morgan's death she continued as the librarian for the collection and helped establish it as a reference library open to all in 1924.

During the time when she and Morgan were establishing the library, Greene was taking trips to Europe and buying manuscripts and other rare pieces of art - headily spending Morgan's money (with his permission). All this doesn't sound unusual now, but the turn of the 20th century it was rare to find a woman in business, let alone a single woman, who was entrusted with and did, spend huge amounts of money on acquisitions.

However, the crux of the story is that Belle da Costa Greene was "passing" as a white woman. At first, I was frustrated by the authors' continuous mention of her passing and the anxiety it caused. After stepping away from the book for a couple of days, it occurred to me that as a white woman, I couldn't possibly know or imagine the constant terror of being discovered as a member of the Black race; especially at the turn of the century with the rise of Jim Crow laws and the KKK. After that epiphany, I found the reminders of Greene's anxiety crucial to understanding how successful she was and how amazing it was that she accomplished what she did. For you see, Greene didn't hide in the library. As a Morgan's personal librarian, she was invited to and attended the very rich people's social affairs, including lavish parties and weekend get-aways. The story has other engrossing details about Greene's life, including her affair with a married man. It was a life well lived and story well told. I hope you enjoy the book as much I did.

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