Books That Inspire 2013

The Madonnas of Leningrad
Debra Dean

New York Times Editor’s Choice (2006) and American Library Association Notable Book of the Year (2007).

The ethos of a library is not far from that of a museum. In both, curators care for books and other objects. We pour our lives into acquiring the skills to appreciate the items we collect, and we commit our hearts to their preservation. But we do this only to share their meaning with others. We love the books; yet we seek to connect the author's world with people who now experience the books because of what we do. Collected objects are physical and tangible, but the personal relationships across time and space engendered by that common experience are more real still.

Debra Dean illuminates this sensibility by describing the curators of an art museum in Leningrad during the German advance in World War II. Dean juxtaposes two phases in the life of her mother, one of the museum workers: first, her mother's memories giving tours to the Russian soldiers defending the city; and second, her much later descent into Alzheimer's, with its memory loss and consequent sundering of many meaningful relationships and personal connections.

"The slow erosion of self has its compensations. Having forgotten whatever associations might dull her vision, she can look at a leaf and see it for the first time. Though reason suggests it otherwise, she has never seen this green before. It is wondrous. Each day the world is made fresh again, holy and she takes it in, in all its intensity, like a young child." (Dean)

People and relationships remain at the center of reality, and of curatorship.

Kerry Magruder
Curator, History of Science Collections
University Libraries