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Checking Out

December 26, 2012 | by

We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2012 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

Porn books and librarians have always had a passionate, mutually defining relationship—it was, in fact, a prudish French librarian in the early nineteenth century who coined the word pornography. So it comes as no surprise that the sexy librarian, a fixture of the pornographic imagination, is most at home in books. Each year, new titles are added to the librarian-porn bookshelf. This past season’s crop included additions like Hot for Librarian by Anastasia Carrera; Lucy the LibrarianDewey and His Decimal by John and Shauna Michaels; The Nympho Librarian and Other Stories by Chrissie Bentley and Jenny Swallows; A Librarian’s Desire by Ava Delaney, author of the Kinky Club series; and soft-core selections like Sweet Magik by Penny Watson. The conventions of the form—the dimly lit stacks, the librarian’s mask of thick glasses and hair tied into a bun, et cetera—are, of course, well known. Unlike video porn, where these conventions are typically used as a wholesale substitute for narrative, porn books still feel the compulsion to tell a story, to make the glasses and bun mean something. I was curious just what story these new books were telling. What does our most current version of the librarian fantasy say about us? To answer this question, I visited the library.

Almost immediately, I hit a snag. It is close to impossible to browse a serious library’s collection of porn and porn criticism without getting sucked into big, sexy historical theories. Within an hour of my visit to Harvard’s Widener Library, I was beginning to suspect that smut had been behind the rise of … everything. I discovered that pornos caused the French Revolution, and that the Renaissance really got going when images of hard-core, swan-on-guy action began to circulate among the people. Every pornographer of note, it seemed, was a pop philosopher; every philosopher, a closet pornographer. As for the rise of the novel, of literary realism, this, I learned, was linked to a certain eighteenth-century depiction of a ponytailed dude taking it from behind from another ponytailed dude while the first dude gets sucked off by a chick, who is also taking it from behind from yet a third ponytailed dude, all while another chick—who happens to be wearing a lovely Dormeuse-style cap—rides piggyback on the first dude, which positions her perfectly to flog the third dude, while being orally pleasured from behind by the second dude. The caption to this illustration reads, “A Typical Scene.” According to the pile of books I’d stacked onto my library desk, our story is nothing but the evolutionary history of the Porno sapiens.

Just as I was letting this thought settle in, I began to hear moaning sounds. At first, I dismissed these as some kind of auditory hallucination, an occupational hazard of reading too much porn. But then I looked around and determined that this particular moaning belonged to a real woman standing a few rows away. To be precise, she was in the process of being properly pinned to the bookshelf by a male companion. After a hasty glance, I retreated to my carrel but can report that the proceedings were, if not quite spirited, certainly forceful—a book fell from the shelf—and that they terminated in muffled resound and a swift escape.

I was alone again in the silence of the stacks. Never before had the questions of the library sex fantasy been so close at hand yet so elusive. What was the relationship between these library fuckers and what I had been reading? And what was the relationship between the library fuckers and what they had been reading? Wasn’t library sex all about harmonizing books with experience, about connecting our unruly and our rule-abiding selves? And, if so, why did I find that the stories told in last year’s library-porn books consistently painted a grim picture of twenty-first-century library sex? Why did many of the best sex scenes in today’s librarian porn take place outside of a library?

It wasn’t always this way. Library sex began with high hopes. Long before the era of the public library, stories of sex among books were set in private collections, in secluded humanist studies. The protagonist of Antonio Vignali’s 1526 La Cazzaria (The Book of the Prick) examines a collection of raunchy books and manuscripts in a private study as he awaits the arrival of a lover. The presence of smutty works in progress is telling: there is an elegant cross-pollination here. Books inspire sex, sex creates books—and all within the four walls of the library.

A Chinese Tale, a filthy poem published anonymously in 1740 and available on the streets of London for a shilling, introduces Cham-yam, a young lady blessed with “a most inviting Tit, and dainty, / As ere seen ’twixt twelve and twenty.” She is sitting in her study. After detailing a long, breathless bibliography of erotic books, the poet concludes, “What more can heighten mortal Sense / Than all this soft Magnificence?” Cham-yam, curious to understand the rise and fall of civilizations—how, in other words, the male passion for sex leads to great wars and upheavals—lifts her naked leg onto a table and gazes into a carefully placed looking glass. There, between her legs, she beholds the secret to understanding the tides of history, “the World’s great Primum Mobile, / That Master-piece! That Source of Passion! / that Thing! that’s never out of Fashion.” The library sex that follows is understood as an advanced study of history that unifies all bodies of knowledge in the bodies of the people who pursue knowledge.

It took more than two hundred years, the creation of the public library, the rise of women in the profession of librarianship and second-wave feminism for library sex to get serious again, in the 1970s. Although there is no authoritative list of titles from this late-twentieth-century renaissance, serious readers and writers of contemporary library porn consistently cite Bang the Librarian Hard, Hot Pants Librarian, The Librarian Gets Hot, The Librarian Got Hot, The Librarian Loves to Lick, and scores of other titles from those years.

Bang the Librarian Hard is a case in point of this earnest libertine revival. After a dirty interlude with the school’s coach on her office floor, librarian Samantha turns to the man and says, “Hasn’t your attitude toward libraries and librarians changed in this past hour?” Samantha is a proud activist, a progressive. Her passionate approach to library science also makes a strong impression on the conservative head librarian, an older woman who hasn’t benefited from women’s lib. There is a poignant cultural moment when Ms. Gustafson turns to Samantha during a threesome and says, “I’m so grateful to you, my dear.” After a great deal more shagging, on a pile of noncirculating books and on a marvelous secret bed that flips out of the stacks, Samantha rises to the post of head librarian—Ms. Gustafson retires and founds an NGO dedicated to “sex counseling for undersexed older women.” After a celebratory roll in the hay, Samantha muses on her triumphs and on history.

Head librarian, she thought. She was so fucking proud of that ... She was going to be known as the best fucking librarian in Madison High School history.

This was also the era of the road-tripping sexy librarian, the picaresque heroine. Remember Lynn, in Waldo Beck’s 1974 The Lusty Librarian? After fornicating with a prudish American college town she responded to her critics by traveling to Spain and fornicating with a hotel mariachi band. With Lynn, and her cohort, there was a confident sense that the library had set them free. Even on the road, they were sexy librarians.

Today’s library porn lit is a totally different story. An inferiority complex has crept into the books’ marketing divisions, as evidenced by the anxiety-laden description of 2008’s The Librarian’s Naughty Habit:

Though not quite a classic on a par with The Librarian Loves to Lick and lacking the studied innocence of Horny Peeping Librarian, The Librarian's Naughty Habit is easily the finest account of sex and the circulation desk that we at the Olympia Press can legally do.

Gone are the boasts of being the law-bending revolutionary, “the best fucking librarian”: the best that can be said of contemporary library porn is that it’s legal. Another recent title, Lucy the Librarian, is a good example of this year’s gloomy mood. In Lucy, we read of a “pleasantly plump” public librarian and her tryst with a mysterious reader. The book dishes up American-size portions of the genre’s conventions: the outsize appetites of repressed book lovers, the S and M underpinnings of the Dewey Decimal System, the librarian’s uniform, and, of course, transgressive screwing in a semipublic corner of the shelves.

But a closer look at Lucy reveals a zeitgeist of anxiety. In a lot of recent library-porn lit, sex is set against an anguished backstory. Lucy, we learn, is a woman of her desperate times. She hasn’t had sex in two years, ever since her boyfriend left her for a woman who works in … the video industry. When Lucy tells another librarian of her plan to linger after-hours to do “online research”—an excuse for a rendezvous in the stacks—her library colleague tartly replies, “You know the porn’s blocked, right?” The joke is supposed to be on the coworker and, by extension, on our culture of video porn. Lucy’s very real encounter in the stacks is the modern library’s attempted rejoinder to the loneliness of life online. The physicality of the library space is presented here as a concrete alternative to the interminable virtualness of contemporary erotic imagination. It’s the last argument for the library’s continued relevance as a space and of the subversive potential of books—both of which are, ironically, called into question by the very existence of Lucy. This book, like all recent library-porn books, cannot not be found on any actual shelf in the real world. It lives exclusively in virtual space.

Existential anxiety has become the central theme of these books. In a 2010 book, Ava Delaney’s The Librarian's Love—not to be confused with its precursor, Delaney’s 2011 A Librarian’s Desire—Erica, a weary librarian, suddenly encounters an old boyfriend in her section of the stacks. In graphic detail we learn just how “a nearly extinct flame is rekindled in the Paleontology section.” The threat of extinction has become a mainstay of recent library porn: again and again, the neglected love life of the librarian is a stand-in for the doomed state of the library generally.

According to our porn books, the library, once a hothouse of eros and a laboratory of realism, has become a burial site. But somewhere on those shelves there’s still a memory of when books were really subversive, when being a libertine was actually about Voltaire and freethinking, and young girls were guarded from the corrupting influence of novels. The fantasy of awakening the librarian is also a fantasy of awakening the subversive power of the book, of excavating life from a dying cultural monument—or else scratching a bit of graffiti on it.

The library sex fantasy has, in other words, entered an apocalyptic period. “Throw me on my back in the dark room with the microfiche,” says the narrator of “Checking Out,” the final story of 2011’s Nympho Librarian. “Fuck me amidst the relics of a world that progress threw away.” And in the eyes of the next generation, whose view isn’t sweetened by nostalgia, things look even bleaker. In another story from Nympho we overhear the devastating comment of a brash young paramour—a boy with no memory of a world before Google—as he pinions his elder librarian mistress to a shelf of Russian lit (“not a section of the library that received many visitors”).

“I like your hair down like that,” he says, “it makes you look abandoned.”

Avi Steinberg is the author of Running the Books, a memoir of his adventures as a prison librarian, recently out in paperback.

59 COMMENTS

27 Comments

« Older Comments
  1. Joe Carlson | January 30, 2012 at 9:08 am

    Gee, didn’t know my card entitled me to this kind of service.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4D5v8e3-AMA

  2. Arty | January 30, 2012 at 3:55 pm

    Glasses desk forever.

  3. KT Grant | January 31, 2012 at 12:13 pm

    You really need to get your facts straight in regards to book titles. It’s Sweet Magik not Sweet Magick and there’s no library porn scenes in the book at all.

    Did you read the book? I don’t think you did and just called it out among other titles to make your article more titilating so someone will read it.

  4. Brian A. Oard | January 31, 2012 at 5:06 pm

    The passage in the second paragraph that runs from “As for the rise of the novel…” to “‘A Typical Scene’” is absolutely the funniest thing I’ve read so far this year.

  5. Robin Camille | February 1, 2012 at 12:15 am

    This is fantastic. Totally buy the argument that librarian porn reflects the times. Attend any ALA conference, and you’ll hear the same quietly apocalyptic tone in most presentations. In fact I’ve heard the phrase “that should have been us” a fair few times when pointing at projects like Google Books.

    How many of these erotic novels are penned by librarians themselves who may have less and less to do, or who at least need some kind of outlet? …I’m guessing most.

  6. Kara | February 1, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    I love the description of “a typical scene” but the suspense is killing me! What book about the rise of literary realism documented this image? I would like to read it.

  7. Avi Steinberg | February 1, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    Dear KT,

    I not only read Penny Watson’s Sweet Magik, I absolutely loved it! It was the most sophisticated recent treatment of the librarian fantasy I encountered during my research for this article.

    The author makes extensive figurative use of the sexy librarian’s uniform—or, in her words, the “gray, shapeless suit, hair pulled back into a bun low on her head, and clunky tortoise shell glasses perched on the end of her nose.” The bun alone appears at least nine times, according to my count, and the glasses become a recurring image of librarian Kiana’s self-deception (Spoiler Alert: the glasses are a ruse!). At crucial moments, Kiana struggles to maintain this costume; she tries to “tighten every last hair into a severe bun, but a few strands of rich chestnut escaped.” Ultimately, she cannot hide her “gorgeous, goddess-like appearance beneath hideous clothes.” We also see things from her lover’s perspective. This man, who appears on the cover showing off his fantastically toned abs, has a “perverse wish to rip off her glasses and tear the bun out of her hair, freeing the woman behind her well-crafted façade.”

    Later he spanks her thoroughly.

    “What was that for?” she asks.
    “That’s for the bun in your hair…”

    As you may have noticed from my article, I am not opposed to cheap titillation, as long as it’s honest. But I don’t believe my mention of Sweet Magik was that at all. On the other hand, my reference to librarian Lynn’s (of The Lusty Librarian) “fornicating with a mariachi band” was, in retrospect, probably an example of what you called “making your article more titilating so someone will read it.” I do hope we can still be friends, though. (As for the misspelling of “Magik”: my fault entirely, and I regret the error.)

  8. KT Grant | February 3, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    Avi,

    Sorry I reacted in such a way because I’m so used to others putting down romance and I really thought you were making fun of Sweet Magik in a not so nice way.

    My apologies. Can you forgive me? ;)

  9. Avi Steinberg | February 3, 2012 at 6:26 pm

    Of course I forgive you, KT! If you can’t passionately defend romance, what has this world come to? And, in fact, I’m excited to see some more of that passion in your Sleeping with the Frenemy this weekend…

    http://www.ravenousromance.com/breathless/sleeping-with-the-frenemy.php

    PS, Kara: I found that illustration in The Invention of Pornography, 1500-1800: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, ed. Lynn Hunt

  10. KT Grant | February 3, 2012 at 8:37 pm

    Avi,

    Perhaps a post on nympho lesbians next? ;)

  11. Mike Brown | February 5, 2012 at 7:14 am

    Alas, real life is more problematical

    http://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/society/saucy-librarian-fraud-exposed-201110204448/

    So much for Dewey and His Decimal …..

  12. Jenny Swallows | February 5, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    As one of the authors discussed (“The Nympho Librarian”) and a librarian too, thank you Avi for a fine, fine piece. And for the observation that libraries were considered sexual long before librarians came along to be sexualized. And there was me thinking it was the glasses and hair bun that everybody was lusting after!

  13. Holly Rose | February 6, 2012 at 11:40 am

    First of all, I love this article! A friend sent it to me just for the title and first image, but the article was inspiring and informative, and I’m so glad I read it!

    But I have to make a comment on the last paragraph, the idea of an apocalyptic view–I see it differently. I know I tend towards the polly anna, but I like to see this as people who are fighting to survive amongst extinction. They are procreating amidst corpses, almost as a rebellious reaction to being told that they, too, will one day be robbed of life. And they *will* procreate, and people (hopefully smart ones who value the library) will prevail over obsolescence. Of course, I know I’m terribly optimistic, so excuse me. And this from a librarian who can’t find a permanent position, but keeps bouncing from one grant-funded temporary contract to another as all institutions’ budgets get cropped!

    Anyway, I really appreciate the article and all of the issues you’ve brought up. I also appreciate all of the comments here. I typically never read comments on the internet, but these were a lesson in why I should.

    Thanks so much for the article and the references!

  14. Olympia Press | February 6, 2012 at 8:56 pm

    Actually, the Greenleaf (Patch Pocket) librarian porns–Librarian Loves to Lick, etc.–were sold exclusively to men, in the adult bookstores on the edge of town, which by that point in the ’70s were run by the Mafia (just before the launch of VHS.)

    They were sold exclusively to men, at least in the early going, but it was a hit for them.

    /The Patch Pockets imprint also issued books with titles like Daddy-Daughter Fuck, only less subtle.

  15. aaron grimes | February 8, 2012 at 11:16 pm

    Fascinating piece. One book–literary, not porn–that you don’t mention but that takes up these same issues is Michael Griffith’s Bibliophilia (early 2000s?), in which a middle-aged woman is hired to carry a flashlight, wear frumpy clothes, and police the stacks at a college library where hook-ups have become epidemic. It’s a funny, odd take on all this, as I recall.

  16. JP | February 9, 2012 at 6:55 pm

    Any books about male librarians?

    I know a few guybrarians I’d love to have in the stacks.

  17. Sophie | February 11, 2012 at 4:29 am

    Hilarious piece! Let’s not forget the great-grandparents of library porn–Paolo and Francesca.

  18. Arthur Connor | February 15, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    Don’t forget — Casanova was a librarian too –

  19. Avi Steinberg | February 15, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    Arthur, sir,

    Thank you very much for mentioning that! Among other things, it’s a juicy lead for those in search of historical analogs for that resurgent type, the sexy “guybrarian.” I only discovered the Casanova connection after this piece ran, and it will pain me to my grave that it wasn’t included. As it turns out, though, Casanova’s tenor as a librarian seems to have been not particularly sexy–and yet crucial in the composition of his tales of sexiness…

    This from Wikipedia:

    In 1785, Casanova began searching for another position. A few months later, he became the librarian to Count Joseph Karl von Waldstein, a chamberlain of the emperor, in the Castle of Dux, Bohemia (Duchcov Castle, Czech Republic)… Although the job offered security and good pay, Casanova describes his last years as boring and frustrating, even though it was the most productive time for writing. His health had deteriorated dramatically and he found life among peasants to be less than stimulating…Casanova, the testy outsider, was thoroughly disliked by most of the other inhabitants of the Castle of Dux. Casanova’s only friends seemed to be his fox terriers. In despair, Casanova considered suicide, but instead decided that he must live on to record his memoirs, which he did until his death.

  20. James | February 15, 2012 at 5:44 pm

    I got all excited about the new books you listed, until I discovered they were all ebooks. It might be nice to mention that in any future articles.

  21. Stephanie Brown | June 3, 2012 at 4:12 pm

    Interesting…I wrote a post called “Sex in the Stacks” that references some of the same titles back in May, 2010. Editor Stacey Harwood got the idea from my posting the cover of the Nympho Librarian on my Facebook page during National Library Week. http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/2010/05/last-week-was-national-library-week-we-asked-poet-and-librarian-stephanie-brown-for-a-roundup-of-librarians-in-literature.html

  22. DEP | July 28, 2012 at 9:38 am

    The word pornography (le pornographe)was created by Nicholas Retif (Restif) in 1769. Retif was a Parisian writer but not a librarian nor prude. Perhaps half of his works *over 200 volumes were pornographic. Many would not be acceptable by modern standards. He also proposed the maison clos (government run house of prostitution). Incidentally, he also created the word communism.

  23. Avi Steinberg | July 28, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    My source for that statement was Lynn Hunt’s essay “Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, 1500-1800.”
    Hunt writes: “The earliest modern usage of the term ‘pornography’ that I have been able to find is in Etienne-Gabriel’s Peignot’s Dictionnaire critique, littéraire et bibliographique des principaux livres condamnés au feu; supprimés ou censurés, published in Paris is 1806. Peignot was interested in cataloguing not only the books but the reasons for censoring them.” This included “books that, though not obscene, were filled with ‘bizarre and dangerous opinions,’ such as Rousseau’s Emile and the works of Helvétius; immoral books written in prose which ‘one calls sotadique or pornographic’; and works of the same kind written in verse. Pornography,” writes Hunt, “is here clearly associated with immorality and with the need to protect society.”
    Hunt also cites Restif de la Bretonne’s Le Pornographe (1769)–the work that you mention. Regarding this earlier usage, Hunts writes, ‘pornographe’ is used “to refer to writing about prostitution.” The words ‘pornographique,’ ‘pornographe’ and ‘pornographie’ “in the sense of obscene writing or images dated to the 1830s and 1840s.”
    The distinction here, I believe, is between the word narrowly applied–as dealing with prostitution lit–and the later use of the word to categorize something broader, a genre (ie a category of smut lit/illustration that would include but not be limited to writing about prostitution). This latter usage is what Hunt identifies with Peignot’s 1806 work, and dubs “the earliest modern usage of the term.” This is the work to which I refer; Peignot is the prude librarian I had in mind. But, you’re right, I might have been more precise when I wrote “coined the phrase.”

  24. Adam Stevenson | December 26, 2012 at 2:23 pm

    On a visit to Ephesus, the large and imposing library in that city had a secret tunnel to the best stocked brothel.

  25. Terry | December 27, 2012 at 10:20 am

    I think it reflects our duality of nature – our desire to be simultaneously civilized (by which we mean: participate in civil society, by depriving ourselves of our animal instincts) and to be animals. Librarians, in our societal memetics, represent the absolute height of civilization by being perfectly poised, prim, and proper, and have therefore separated themselves the most from those animal instincts. We imagine that when the animal within is awakened, it will be stronger as a result – an unleashed desire that overwhelms everything in its path.

  26. Torpe Konyvek | January 2, 2013 at 5:01 pm

  27. Harold | July 21, 2013 at 11:56 am

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on a chinese tale. Regards

32 Pingbacks

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  20. [...] Checking Out [Avi Steinberg, the author of Running the Books, a memoir of his adventures as a prison librarian, via The Paris Review] It is close to impossible to browse a serious library’s collection of porn and porn criticism without getting sucked into big, sexy historical theories. Within an hour of my visit to Harvard’s Widener Library, I was beginning to suspect that smut had been behind the rise of … everything. I discovered that pornos caused the French Revolution, and that the Renaissance really got going when images of hard-core, swan-on-guy action began to circulate among the people. Every pornographer of note, it seemed, was a pop philosopher; every philosopher, a closet pornographer. As for the rise of the novel, of literary realism, this, I learned, was linked to a certain eighteenth-century depiction of a ponytailed dude taking it from behind from another ponytailed dude while the first dude gets sucked off by a chick, who is also taking it from behind from yet a third ponytailed dude, all while another chick—who happens to be wearing a lovely Dormeuse-style cap—rides piggyback on the first dude, which positions her perfectly to flog the third dude, while being orally pleasured from behind by the second dude. The caption to this illustration reads, “A Typical Scene.” According to the pile of books I’d stacked onto my library desk, our story is nothing but the evolutionary history of the Porno sapiens. [...]

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