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The Personal Librarian by M. Benedict and V. Christopher Murray

Historical fiction

The Personal Librarian

by M. Benedict and V. Christopher Murray

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Quick take

According to some scientists there is such a thing as too many books. Belle da Costa Greene would like to have a word.

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  • Illustrated icon, Social_Issues

    Social issues

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    Buzzy

  • Illustrated icon, Real_life_characters

    Real-life characters

  • Illustrated icon, Book_About_Books

    Book about books

Synopsis

In her twenties, Belle da Costa Greene is hired by J. P. Morgan to curate a collection of rare manuscripts, books, and artwork for his newly built Pierpont Morgan Library. Belle becomes a fixture in New York City society and one of the most powerful people in the art and book world, known for her impeccable taste and shrewd negotiating for critical works as she helps create a world-class collection.

But Belle has a secret, one she must protect at all costs. She was born not Belle da Costa Greene but Belle Marion Greener. She is the daughter of Richard Greener, the first Black graduate of Harvard and a well-known advocate for equality. Belle’s complexion isn’t dark because of her alleged Portuguese heritage that lets her pass as white—her complexion is dark because she is African American.

The Personal Librarian tells the story of an extraordinary woman, famous for her intellect, style, and wit, and shares the lengths she must go to—for the protection of her family and her legacy—to preserve her carefully crafted white identity in the racist world in which she lives.

Free sample

Get an early look from the first pages of The Personal Librarian.

The Personal Librarian

Chapter 1

NOVEMBER 28, 1905, PRINCETON, NEW JERSEY

The Old North bell tolls the hour, and I realize that I’ll belate. I long to break into a sprint, my voluminous skirts lifted, my legs flying along the Princeton University pathways. But just as I gather the heavy material, I hear Mama’s voice: Belle, be a lady at all times. I sigh; a lady would never run.

I release the fabric and slow down as I weave through Princeton’s leafy Gothic landscape, designed to look like Cambridge and Oxford. I know I must do nothing to draw any kind of extra attention. By the time I pass Blair Arch, my stride is quick but acceptable for a lady.

It’s been five years since I left our New York City apartment for this sleepy New Jersey college town, and the quiet is still unnerving. On the weekends, I wish I could return to the energy of New York, but the sixty cents for a train ticket is outside our family’s budget. So, I send money home instead.

As I duck under a crenellated tower, I moderate my pace so I won’t be breathless when I arrive. You are at Princeton University. You must take extra care working at that all-male institution. Be cautious, never do anything to stand out. Even though she’s nearly sixty miles away, Mama insinuates herself into my thoughts.

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Why I love it

As a long-time New Yorker who adores the city’s landmarks, the Morgan Library & Museum is one of my favorites—a breathtaking space full of rare treasures, a book-lover’s dream. In their new novel, the powerhouse duo of Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray bring to life a shocking secret that lies at the very heart of the collection: the fact that Belle da Costa Greene—who oversaw the library’s vast acquisitions and eventually became an intimate confidante to the powerful financier J.P. Morgan—was a Black woman.

In the early 1900s, when the story opens, segregation is in full force. Belle takes an enormous risk by accepting the job of personal librarian, exposing herself to nasty rumors among the members of high society and ruptures within her own family. The authors take us on a giddy yet fingernail-biting ride as she ingeniously forges her own pathway to success, leaving behind a legacy for the ages.

There were moments while reading The Personal Librarian that I wanted to weep for the injustices Belle suffered, which resonate profoundly in our own times. She fought back with savage wit as well as a deeply-rooted confidence in her own abilities.

At its heart, this story is about a woman who reveres the power and magic of libraries and books—a perfect read for anyone who shares that love.

Member ratings (6,289)

  • Sammi C.

    Portland, IN

    This book is jaw dropping. While I know it’s historical fiction, the author uses so much non-fictional material that is just phenomenal. It makes me angry I have not known about her in the past.

  • Frances J.

    Juneau, AK

    Wow! I usually speed read books but this is one to be savored. It’s a keeper. Beautifully written - I had never considered the emotion associated with ‘passing’ and this book conveys that very well.

  • Kary G.

    Middletown , DE

    I had to idea about Belle’s story until I read this book! Amazing take on her life and how she was able to keep her secrets! This book actually inspired me to go to the Morgan Library - it’s amazing

  • Cheree A.

    Smyrna, GA

    The authors did an amazing job bringing Belle to life. I’m so intrigued by her life that I just want to do research myself on her. This was my first historical fiction read, and I’ll be back for more.

  • Amy M.

    Tyler, TX

    Fascinating and a story I didn’t know anything about prior to reading! I’m a huge fan of the Morgan Library and the Frick Collection, so it was a delight to learn more about art collecting in this era

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Historical fiction
View all
Lady Tan’s Circle of Women
The Women
The Lion Women of Tehran
Husbands & Lovers
Shelterwood
A Thousand Times Before
All We Were Promised
Spitting Gold
The Mayor of Maxwell Street
The Great Divide
The Storm We Made
The Disappearance of Astrid Bricard
Lessons in Chemistry
The Frozen River
What We Kept to Ourselves
The River We Remember
Take My Hand
The Last Russian Doll
The First Ladies
The House Is On Fire
River Sing Me Home
The People We Keep
The Attic Child
Malibu Rising
The Book of Longings
Hester
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev
The Nightingale
Daisy Jones & The Six
The Lincoln Highway
The Secret Book of Flora Lea
Did You Hear About Kitty Karr?
The Circus Train
Peach Blossom Spring
Hang the Moon
Booth
The Good Left Undone
The Perishing
The Postmistress of Paris
The Family
Things We Lost to the Water
The Spectacular
Still Life
Send for Me
The Magnolia Palace
The Bookbinder
China Room
This Tender Land
Atomic Love
All the Light We Cannot See
The Vanishing Half
Outlawed
The Four Winds
Independence
The Fountains of Silence
Libertie
Queen of Thieves
The Great Believers
The Clockmaker's Daughter
A Gentleman in Moscow
The Great Alone
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
The Paris Hours
The Heart’s Invisible Furies
Rules of Civility
Circling the Sun
The Moor's Account
Jacqueline in Paris
Don't Cry for Me
The Christie Affair
Bloomsbury Girls
The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle
Bronze Drum