The Personal Librarian is a historical fiction novel based on the true story of Belle da Costa Greene, the first African American librarian of the Morgan Library in New York City. Set in the early 20th century, the story follows Belle as she navigates the world of art, literature, and high society, while concealing her racial identity. As J.P. Morgan’s personal librarian, Belle becomes an influential figure in the world of rare books and manuscripts, but she must constantly face the challenges of racial discrimination and the pressure to maintain her secret. The novel explores themes of identity, ambition, and the power of knowledge in a society marked by prejudice and inequality.
Thursday October 19th
2:30 – 4:30 pm
1. How might you explain Belle’s rise to such breathtaking heights in society and in her profession at a time when women –especially African-American women–faced such blatant discrimination and exclusion?
2. How did you view Belle’s relationship with her mother?
3. What reaction did you have to Belle’s relationship with her father? Do you think she ever felt deserted by him in the way that her siblings did?
4. What sort of pressure do you think Belle might have experienced from the rumors about her true ethnicity? Do you think J.P. Morgan heard them? Do you think he knew she was passing as white and decided to ignore it, or was he unaware of her heritage?
5. How would you describe the attraction between Belle and Bernard Berenson? What were the attributes that drew them together and, ultimately, forced them apart? How did you feel about their relationship?
6. What surprised you most about Belle’s life? About her time period?
7. How familiar were you with passing before reading this novel? Has your understanding of the reasons and sacrifices behind it altered after reading about Belle’s life?
8. What sacrifices did Belle make by choosing to follow her mother’s path? What advantages did she gain?
9. How do the racial events and issues in the book relate to what is happening today?
10. In the end, do you think Belle was happy with her choices and decisions? Do you think she would have done anything differently?