Jorge Luis Borges
One of the two epigraphs I gave to The Railwayman’s Wife is from Jorge Luis Borges: “I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library.” It’s an echo of the first line from Borges’ The Library of Babel (published in Collected Fictions), in many ways the definitive metaphor for library literature. “The universe (which others call the library),” he begins, “is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite, number of hexagonal galleries.” His narrator travels on through the history and justification of this library, which has always seemed to me to perfectly describe the infinite variety of stories–each book, in a way, a new universe in and of itself.
People of the Book
Geraldine Brooks’ third novel imagines the extraordinary and repeated rescue of one very particular Jewish text—the Sarajevo Haggadah; doubly rare for including illustration—in Venice in the 15th century; and twice, then, in 20th century’s wars. It follows the story of Hanna, an Australian conservator assigned to work on its preservation in Sarajevo, and spins its tale through the delicate detritus associated with the manuscript: a hair, a missing clasp, the preserved remains of a butterfly.
In an article for the New Yorker, Brooks wrote the extraordinary real-world story of the text and its preservation from the Nazis by the chief librarian of the Sarajevo National Museum–and then, fifty years later, during the Siege of Sarajevo.
A. S. Byatt
A. S. Byatt’s magnificent and much-lauded Possession, her fifth novel, opens with a scruffy sort of scholar, Roland Michell, holed up in the famous London Library, his ”favorite place…shabby but civilized, alive with history but inhabited also by living poets and thinkers who could be found squatting on the slotted metal floors of the stacks, or arguing pleasantly at the turning of the stair”. There to research the small, footnote-ish life-pieces of a famous Victorian poet, Randolph Henry Ash, Michell discovers two letters between Ash and an unknown correspondent and a mystery unfolds. The story—warm, fast, and utterly engaging—chases both the 20th century story and its 19th century precedent, highlighting again and again the extraordinary conversations possible between writers and their readers, across a day, a week, a century.
I grew up with Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, but I must have considered myself too grown-up (at seventeen…) to read Matilda when it was released. I discovered it earlier this year–the story of one delightfully clever little girl (precocious, perhaps, more in the biological sense than in the snippy way we usually use that word) and her quest to read and to learn. Before her salvation by—and of—Miss Honey, the loveliest teacher, Matilda keeps herself going with daily trips to the village library, reading a miscellany including Dickens, Jane Eyre, The Grapes of Wrath and Animal Farm before she’s five. I was never that advanced, but Matilda made me remember the unmitigated wonder of being taken to the Thirroul Public Library as a child and realizing that I could borrow, and then read, anything I found there on its shelves.
The Name of the Rose
By the time he died, earlier this year, Umberto Eco’s first novel—a detective story set in a monastery in 1327, with a library at its heart in every sense—had sold more than fifty million copies in dozens of languages. Medieval gumshoe, William of Baskerville, and his attendant, Adso of Melk, are originally dispatched to a Benedictine monastery in northern Italy to investigate charges of heresy when a series of seven deaths unfolds before them instead. At the book’s heart sits a blind librarian named Jorge; a tribute to Borges, and William’s nemesis, who oversees both this labyrinthine place and its story. The bibliophilic means of death at play in at least one instance will take your breath away.
The Incredible Book Eating Boy
Oliver Jeffers’ charming picture book is about a boy called Henry who one day—and quite innocently—takes a nibble from a page. Astonishingly, he absorbs what’s written there by a kind of osmosis, and his appetite is well and truly whet. Henry munches on through “story books, dictionaries, atlases, joke books…even maths books.” And one of my favorite illustrations shows a stern librarian brandishing a nasty list of overdue items, saying, “you owe a total of…” In the end, too much knowledge merely muddles itself (“two plus six equals elephant,” is the best poor Henry can manage), and he switches to nibbling broccoli instead–and realizing you can actually learn what’s in books by reading them, rather than consuming them any other way. (Although our hardback does have a quite suspicious bite mark on its cover…)
The English Patient
I would read Michael Ondaatje at all times; I would find a way of bringing him to any sort of list. But a list of books with libraries delivers me straight back to this beautiful moment: in the pretty hills of Tuscany, a war is trying to end. A burned man is trying to die. And his nurse, Hana, stands in the library of their evacuated villa, playing a tune on its piano: when I take my sugar to tea. Enter Kip, a sapper, alert to the idea of bombs hidden in clocks, in apple trees, in library books, in piano’s metronomes. He returns later to the library to scale its walls to the ceiling as he works to cut the fine fuse he’s traced up to its hiding place up high behind the valance. Ondaatje’s novels always shimmer with the perfection of a whole that exceeds their exquisite parts, and his lines are light with poetry.
When I was growing up, I wanted to be a librarian. I stuck tiny date-due cards in all my books, and I stamped them in and out for all my toys. I dreamed of being a helping librarian, not a shushing one (although the shushing had a bit of authoritarian appeal) and of wearing a lot of cardigans. By the time the Nancy Pearl phenomenon arrived—NP being the Director of the Washington Center for the Book—my textual life had taken me off to the writing side of the fence (cardigans still de rigueur). Nancy Pearl embodied much that is fabulous about librarianship, and her two “Book Lust” volumes are like precursors of today’s bibliotherapy craze—the first one encompassing every reading experience from … My Name is Alice (suggestions by writers including Alice Adams, Alice Munro, Alice Sebold and Alice Walker) to “books that are simply about nothing. At All. Zero. Zip” (including Charles Seife’s Zero and John D. Barrow’s The Book of Nothing.) Even better was the Nancy Pearl Action Figure, complete with raised and shushing finger. I still have mine; it makes my aspirant librarian’s heart soar.
The Little Paris Bookshop
Monsieur Perdu owns a bookshop on a boat, which he calls his literary apothecary, where he prescribes his customers the perfect books to help fix their personal ailments. Ironically, Perdu is still unable to confront his own personal turmoil over a past love. When Perdu finally reads a long-unopened letter from his former lover, he decides to takes his book apothecary up the River Seine on a quest for closure.
One of the questions I’ve been asked most regularly about The Railwayman’s Wife is why its main character, Ani, goes to work in a library. In truth, this is because the real story that inspired the novel dispatched its widow to such a job—but the poetry of incorporating that fact into the imaginings of the novel, of placing books and reading and the magical space that libraries offer up at the center of the narrative, was irresistible.
Libraries have always seemed to me to be places of infinite promise, infinite respite (or escape), infinite inspiration and infinite potential. They shimmer with the excitement of the things you don’t know are housed along their shelves as much as the excitement of the things you go searching for in the first place.
The following books, which all feature different kinds of libraries and book collections, speak to the things we celebrate in reading and researching—or just the job of being near books—as much as to all that has been feared or suspected of text-based activities. In many ways, it’s a list of books about reading for readers, those dedicated people who are always adding to the bulk of their own libraries, real and/or imaginary, through the different stories they encounter and make part of their lives.
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