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Fall 2014

On Libraries

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Francine Prose

During my senior year in college, the offices of my literature professor, with whom I met weekly for tutorial, were located deep in the stacks of Harvard’s Widener library. I rarely saw anyone else among the aisles of medieval romances and Icelandic sagas, and when I did, they seemed to materialize from the darkness, like the spooky nun in Vertigo. I heard noises, I saw shadows, I imagined the grisly scenarios of horror films. My heart was always pounding by the time I got to my professor’s door.

In fact nothing unpleasant happened to me in Widener Library. That would have to wait until I reached the heartland and was teaching at the University of Iowa. A guy showed me his penis when we were alone in the library elevator. I recall him looking like a sumo wrestler, but that may not be true.

I didn’t think he was going to hurt me; he just wanted me to look. The door opened, I got off. He stayed on the elevator. But after that I got vaguely phobic about the library. I no longer enjoyed going there, and I began to avoid it until finally I asked my husband if he would accompany me into the stacks—on the off chance that Sumo Guy might reappear. My husband readily agreed; there were art books on the same floor as the literature section, and he is a painter.

I was browsing the nineteenth-century novels when my husband came and found me. He was carrying a huge volume of Egyptian Coptic texts with magnificent reproductions. But what he wanted to show me was something he’d found in between the pages of the book.

It was a rubber fetish magazine, The Best of Rubber Life, a weird species of porn, because in the sequences of photos, people got dressed instead of getting naked: they started off without any clothes and wound up encased in rubber. The article I read addressed the question of whether baby powder was the answer to many of the rubber community’s problems.

I think of myself as a tolerant, open person, curious about the romantic lives and predilections of others. But the magazine freaked me out. I thought of its rightful owner coming to find it waiting for him in the secret place where they had their trysts. And it wouldn’t be there! What would he do then?

I said, Please. Put it back. My husband returned the Coptic texts—and the magazine—to its shelf. We left the library and went to do some errands.

On the way it occurred to me that a short story I was writing, and for which I couldn’t think of an ending, might conclude with its narrator finding a copy of The Best of Rubber Life. It would tell her something she needed to know or at least change her mood in a way that would allow the story to end.

I realized that I needed the magazine. For research. I asked my husband if he would please go back to the library and get it. He wasn’t that eager to do it, for understandable reasons, among them his concern that the magazine had somehow gotten magnetized by spending so long inside the book, and that it would set off an alarm when he took it out of the library inside a properly checked out art book on Chinese bronzes. On the other hand, it seemed like a dare that he couldn’t refuse to take.

No alarms went off. The magazine was ours.

The story I was writing came to be called “Rubber Life.” In the final pages, the narrator, a small-town librarian who is having a difficult time in her life—involving a romantic heartbreak and a Victorian doll that may or may not be possessed by the spirits of the dead—finds the magazine inside a book. This is how the story ends:


Perhaps I should have been disgusted, it was really extremely sordid, or even frightened of being in the library with whoever had hid it there. In fact, I felt nothing like that, but rather a funny giddiness, an unaccountable lightness of heart. I felt remarkably cheered up. Standing there, in the stacks, turning the pages, I realized, as never before, what an isolated moment each photograph represents, one frozen instant stolen from time, after which time resumes…

I looked at the women in the rubber magazine, and I began to laugh, because all I could think of was how soon the strobes would stop flashing, the cameras would click one last time, how that day’s session would end, and they would collect their checks and rise from their rubber sheets and fill the air with hilarious sounds as they stripped off their rubber suits. It was almost as if I could hear it, that joyous sigh and snap—the smack kiss of flesh against flesh, of flesh, unbound, against air.


The story was published in 1992. More time passed, and at some point we realized that we had no idea what had happened to the rubber magazine. We were pretty sure we’d brought it home from Iowa to upstate New York, but we’d lost track. It was somewhere in the house.

When our sons were adults (old enough so one could comfortably bring up the subject of rubber fetishes), we made a point of telling them this story, because we didn’t want them finding the magazine after we were dead and thinking that Mom and Dad had been into rubber. I don’t know why this seemed important to us, but it did.

A few weeks ago my husband told me that he had found the rubber magazine between the pages of a book of woodcuts by Bruegel. It seemed like a perfect place for it, though he had no memory of having put it there. Later he took the Bruegel book—and the magazine—out to his painting studio in the barn, so for all practical purposes the magazine is lost again.

It doesn’t matter. I have the story, or should I say the stories, the one I am writing now and the fictionalized version, “Rubber Life,” both of them stories about how a library can inspire us.

—Francine Prose



Francine Prose's most recent novel is Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932.
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