Friday, May 3, 2019

CHOP IT UP: Call Numbers by Syntell Smith

I love the public library. Loved the place since I got my first library card in the first grade (and still have it). Spent my childhood begging to go there, and dreaming I had a car to take myself whenever I wanted. I can do so now three or four times a week if I choose, thank you very much. Nevertheless, life is always good when you have access to a public library. Which is why I wanted to read Call Numbers when asked by the author, Syntell Smith, to do so and share my thoughts afterward. And while the library-centric aspect was the titling piece in my decision, other interesting elements were too. For starters, Call Numbers is set in the '90s ('80s baby/'90s kid here). And it carries a cast of knotty characters traversing personal and professional troubles inside a New York (say "hey" to the big city piece and messy drama) public library. So it has the decade, character and setting that rang my bells. And, despite a few grievances, bells it rang.

As stated, Call Numbers is a library drama. It's populated with an ensemble cast, pushing character dynamics with both forward and subtle interplay. This leaves plenty of layers of plot and sub-plots to unpack. And it's especially satisfying when you count secret agendas, and the residue of intrigue left by some of the between dialogue. However, because there is so much to unpack with this cast; it's necessary to take a slim, concentrated approach. Therefore, aside from the ensemble cast carrying respective arcs, it's the character of Robin Walker who controls the central narrative. He's the character the ensemble narratives orbit. The keystone to this involved and heavy drama. The "call to adventure" figure.

Robin Walker is an eighteen-years-old who is passionate about libraries, politics and information (to say the least). And Call Numbers is his coming-of-age story, launching from his newfound position as a part-time library clerk. From the jump he has somewhat of an unassuming disposition in this environment. He’s almost like the variable no other employee at the branch saw coming. More so, he arrives complicated on papers as a Ms. Robin Walker as opposite to Mr. Robin Walker–to his advantage. Nevertheless, the juxtaposition that make up his character doesn’t end there. Robin can rap A Tribe Called Quest’s entire discography, and match Dewey Decimal Classification numbers with their associated subjects. In his head, by the way. So Robin is not one to be underestimated. Though that’s where much of his drama in this new position arrives. He finds himself tested time and time again, with those before and behind the circulation desk. It also goes without saying he butt heads with authority figures, who are usually spinning some self-interest agenda in the back offices of the library. Many of which Robin disagrees with.


Needless to say, Robin’s story makes for an interesting character set-up. But what made Robin glow was his challenging nature. And not just his challenging the library's systems/hereditary, but also the reader with his opinionated commentary. Whether he expressed his viewpoint on the issues behind social injustices, politics and race; it was a subtle challenging of thought toward the reader. But in context of the book itself, Robin afforded the opportunity to pounce and correct opposing view points. Which I sometimes found rewarding, and sometimes didn't. Given Robin's
age and his eager nature, I found his delivery immature at times. His temperament sometimes were expressed as a volley of unhinged curses at his given “adversary”. I understood his passion, but it often made it hard for me to rely on him. Especially on occasions where he became physical.

Nonetheless, as stated, Robin is central to this 357-page-filled ensemble. And that’s where much of my grievances arrived. Call Numbers tugged at one of my reading pet peeves: too many characters, too many arcs, too many story threads, too many topics, and too much to keep up with. And I emphasis too. Call Numbers is without a doubt a demanding read because of this. It took patience. And I wouldn’t suggest another reader attempting to keep up and tackle all that it has to offer in one go.


From the get-go characters began spilling in. We're introduced to the library’s senior clerk, Sonyai, and her particular story arc. Head librarian Augustus Chavez and information assistant Heywood Learner propel scenes. The character of seventy-two-year-old Zelda works as Augustus’s assistant. Then the characters of Tommy (a brute of sorts) and Gerry come along. Mr. Coltraine and Miss Ethel Jenkins joins the drama. And don’t forget the general public slipping in and out of the library to cast his or her story threads. Needless to say, Call Numbers can be a daunting reading. Characters slide his or her name and role in from the start, then slip in and out various scenes on forward. Granted the book is about the inner workings and relationships of a New York City library during the early ’90s. Still, as a reader, I found the book less laborious when I compartmentalize which characters I wanted to invest in. Namely that of Robin Walker himself. Which in some respects, his interactions with other characters were solely to facility movement within a given scene. (Call Numbers does have a second book on the way that'll probably iron out some matters.)


For some engaging conversations about race, politics, romance, education, and a handful of personal dramas to keep any library spicy, this is a great book to go along with. It’s slow. It’s demanding. And it requires patience for both characters and pace. Yet, it carries a certain thoughtfulness and commentary that make it worth the reading experience.

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