too many words by laura lemay

questions asked (and problems solved)

At the book warehouse. Part of Sob Story, a very well done comic by Ed Brisson.

Of course I am guilty of asking librarians and bookstore clerks really dumb questions myself (“I’m looking for that book about tuscany…”) because most of the time they can actually answer them. Sometimes they even like it.

I was in Seattle this last autumn with my mom, and we took a tour of the new Seattle Public Library. Its an incredibly gorgeous and weird building and definitely worth a trip if you are in the area. As part of the tour the guide explained that they were particularly proud of their reference librarians — that they could answer any question about anything. Anything at all.

Well it so happened that there had been a particular book I had read when I was a kid that had deeply freaked me out. I had been looking for this one book ever since but I had forgotten the author, the title, and most of the plot. Others had read this same book — I had had conversations about it on usenet and on various BBSes and I was not the only out who had been way affected by it, but none of us could remember any details about it. I had done web searches about it over the years and nothing had turned up. So when the Seattle Public Library bragged about being able to answer any question, I immediately thought of my mystery book.

We were staying at the hotel across the street from the library, so I went back on a quiet afternoon and wandered over to the children’s section. “I’m looking for a book,” I explained to the librarian. “Published probably in the 70’s, about a psychological experiment done on teenagers. They are imprisoned in a maze and have to dance in order to get food pellets. It was a really dark book. There were escher-like stairs on the cover.”

The librarian tilted her head sideways for a moment and said “That sounds like William Sleator.” She typed something into the computer and then read off to me: “House of Stairs: Five sixteen-year-old orphans of widely varying personality characteristics are involuntarily placed in a house of endless stairs as subjects for a psychological experiment on conditioned human response.”

Well, I’ll be damned. Less than a minute to solve a problem I had been working on for twenty years. Score one for the Seattle Public Library.

The book, by the way, is not nearly as terrifying as I remember it (I mean, food pellets, right) but one is much more easily traumatized when one is ten.