There used to be parties in the apartments on the top floors of New York City's branch libraries. On other nights, when the libraries were closed, the kids who lived there might sit reading alone among the books or roll around on the wooden library carts—if they weren't dusting the shelves or shoveling coal. Their hopscotch courts were on the roof. A cat might sneak down the stairs to investigate the library patrons.
When these libraries were built, about a century ago, they needed people to take care of them. Andrew Carnegie had given New York $5.2 million, worth well over $100 million today, to create a city-wide system of library branches, and these buildings, the Carnegie libraries, were heated by coal. Each had a custodian, who was tasked with keeping those fires burning and who lived in the library, often with his family. "The family mantra was: Don’t let that furnace go out," one woman who grew up in a library told the New York Times.
What makes the story of the book’s initial publication more than a bit of bookchat trivia is that those circumstances and the novel’s reception support many of the ideas explored within the story itself. Dark Reflections is among the most detailed, thoughtful, and heartbreaking portrayals of a writer’s life — a writer seeking not only to write well, but to earn prestige and build a literary reputation. It was Delany’s own prestige and reputation that allowed the book any notice when it was more or less dumped into the marketplace. Had it been his first publication, or had he had a different sort of career, its fate would have been different.
In many ways, Dark Reflections is a narrative companion to Delany’s 2006 collection of essays, letters, and interviews, About Writing. In the introduction to that book, Delany says that its varied texts share common ideas, primary among them ideas about the art of writing fiction, the structure of the writer’s socio-aesthetic world both in the present and past, and “the way literary reputations grow — and how, today, they don’t grow.” The book is mainly, though not exclusively, aimed at aspiring writers. It provides some advice on craft, but it circles back most insistently to questions of value, and especially to questions of the difference between good writing and talented writing — and what it means, practically and materially, for a writer to shape a life around an aspiration toward the highest levels of achievement. While About Writing poses and explores these questions, Dark Reflections dramatizes them.
In moments of great literal silence, Look gives its audience a counterweight to the deliberateness of wartime jargon. The sense of serenity that intentionally-poetic phrases suggest — terms like TOGETHER FORWARD or GLAD TIDINGS OF BENEVOLENCE, for example; two remarkably ironic names of US operations in Iraq — find their match in Sharif's use of elision.