Book review

If these libraries do not exist in the real world yet, they should

Inevitably, it all began with Borges, as ‘Invisible Libraries’ reveals.

In the library of “Birkertsia”, during a conversation undocumented by the annals (or vagaries) of literary history, Jorge Luis Borges ventures to ask Italo Calvino:

“Have you ever in the course of your wanderings chanced upon a library which you never desired to leave?”

Reading this, you might remember an emperor’s question to a traveller in his court – many years ago in reading time, in another book – about a city of which the traveller had, in all his narratives of the world, never spoken. And if, like Calvino, you have already understood that this was not just a question about libraries, but an invitation (fraught with untold dangers) to self disclosure, read on.

Alternatively, you remember a room full of books that no book has ever described, its shelves smelling of fresh notebooks and old newsprint, its sepia sun softly falling on the pages of your lost, leather-bound childhood. This is the library of Domus, where your inkstained, dog-eared fifth-grader’s heart still resides.

For Birkertsia, or Domus, like all the others imagined in Invisible Libraries, is the library of which we never speak, but always carry with us: metaphors, if you will, of the self as personal collection, mysterious and indelible archive of the experiences that constitute and define you. And it is, arguably, through this playful, quasi-philosophical quest to explore and endlessly remodel the enigmatic, protean library of the mind, that Invisible Libraries becomes more than an esoteric vade mecum for the happy, deluded few who live for books alone.

Be warned, though. This is a phantasmagorical and ultimately futile directory to the world’s most lavishly hypothetical libraries, compiled by a set of self-professed and unregenerate bibliophiles – Lawrence Liang, Monica James, Danish Sheikh, Amy Trautwein, and “Another” (who wisely prefers to remain anonymous, no doubt on account of their dubious daytime profession as “a purveyor of fine snake oils”).

But if all these unsavoury facts, combined, have not managed to deter you, read on. For even though (as Calvino has famously said of cities elsewhere) “the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else”, it is you, humble reader, who devise the rules for navigating these invisible sites. You are the whimsical, wandering taxonomist of this mapless multiverse of books.

Navigation aids

And if between the covers of a book you are a conventional traveller, rigorously reading it from front to back, you will begin at the ancient and secret library of Yin Tu: paradise for all readers who recognise that a single book may be read in infinite ways without even beginning to exhaust the possibilities of its reception. At Yin Tu, it is said, you might find a book written by the imperial archivist of the Zhou dynasty, containing thousands of ideograms “from each of which a universe unscrolled”...but to say more, of course, is to ruin the pleasure (and the pain) of reading it.

Hasten instead to your journey’s end and arrive at the blissful library of Arkadia, where every book is in its rightful place and, therefore, may be found in more places than one. For in Arkadia, books are ordered by their “relational proximities”: each arranged along the songlines of its spiritual kinship to others in the archive of creation, by the wisdom of librarians who “materialise moral worlds through their songs”. Here, you will realise that libraries are as much a testament to our love of taxonomy, as they are a monument to our love of books, and that perhaps these loves are inseparable after all.

Or, if you are a freewheeling sort of reader, you might begin somewhere in the middle and steer by whimsy, in any direction that pulls you. And thus you encounter libraries that are plausible and impossible, humble and grandiose, ludicrous and matter-of-fact. You wander into some that will deny you entry, and others that will never let you leave. Sometimes, they are the same. A few, with an air of indifference, will suffer you to pass, only to devise the most ingenious ruses to keep you there. And when you emerge, you are not the person who entered, nor will you be, ever again. Malingering, in these pages, is fraught with peril.

Reading on, and in no particular order, you come across libraries both delicately traced and painstakingly wrought, some so literally described that they fail to convince, and others so absurdly imagined that they cannot. Some as exquisitely precise as a miniaturist’s brushstroke, or a Borgesian footnote; others conceived as giant, abstract canvases, precisely modelled on a dizzying mathematics of probability, or spun from the stuff of dystopian nightmares. There are those that transpire in the fabulous murmurs of travellers’ tales from a distant time, and those that excavate archives too close for comfort, unearthing pages like bones buried in a childhood garden by a long-dead dog.

Babel or labyrinth or both

For the library is a place of opposites, at once familiar and strange, comforting and contrary – filled not only with the books we have read, loved, and measured time by, but also with those that we might never read, lives we have never lived. Magnify both (our love and our dread of this place) a hundredfold, and you conjure the vast, inhuman topos of the library in the literary imagination of the past century: the symmetrical nightmare of Borges’s Babel, or Eco’s delirious, bloodthirsty labyrinth of books.

Hence in these pages you will stumble upon libraries containing innumerable books, those possessing the single, all-encompassing book, and those that are disquietingly devoid of books. Libraries that goad you to ask the overwhelming question: Can there be libraries that are, in fact, not libraries at all?

“And so it is that in the Library of Fanafilhaq, which is not a library, the only books you find will not be books, and it will not be you who finds them, and it will not be a finding.”

Only you can unravel this ontological riddle, but there is much to see and you must not tarry. So you come to the city of Memorious where, in a refreshing reversal of the present condition of oral traditions and their written archives, the people themselves are living, speaking records of books that have been destroyed:

“When the city administrators decreed that the library of Memorious was to be burnt down, a band of bibliophiles memorised every single book in the library. Now they speak the books out loud to anyone who is willing to listen; the words roll off their tongues in an erotic frenzy. They have been successful where many lovers have failed; in a perfect blurring of boundaries with their beloved they have become living books.” 

Or, following your nose, you might chance upon the temple of Suskindia where untitled books enclose olfactory worlds that have no need of words, waiting only to be bookmarked by your breath. And if you manage to escape this forest of smells, you may find your way to the library of Penrhyn, of which nothing remains but the words “The Catalogue of the Library at Penrhyn” carved on a roof tile, and rejoice.

For Penrhyn – once a library consisting solely of the catalogues of other libraries, then substituted by a single catalogue (its own), and finally downsized to that solitary, self-referential entry – is a peculiarly postmodern convenience, an archive in which incommodious things are replaced by their signs, and signs of signs.

But if you are fortunate, you might rest awhile from your wanderings in the library of Nakojabad, which preserves nothing but the rich silence that libraries demand of their readers. Or pause to wonder at the charred library of Yksityinenkieli, where men devoutly finger the ashes of burnt pages, like the blind reading in Braille, for books – like all human inventions and ideas – become opaque to us the moment they materialize in the visible world, and must then be discerned by other means.

In the balmy library of Vina Del Mar, where knowledge is forever superseded by the life of the senses, nude lovers exit through a back window, leaving you and its “outraged” books behind. As for the Memorial Library of Chemin-des-Dames, it is a catacomb on the site of a World War I battle, where grinning corpses double as books, archived by death:

“[...] for it is consecrated to the view that death vouchsafes us all we can hope to know of the real; [...] that books, too, are compact with the oozes and reeks of history; that there will always be more filth in the world than there is order, more corpses than there are books; that all reading is reading during wartime.”

How to remember

These are imagined sites which undermine our faith in the very idea of the library—in the written word and its manmade archives as our bulwark against the marauding vastness of time. Not surprisingly, the theme of memory (and its limits) is a recurring motif in their architecture. Consider the frail old library of Abelard, whose misty walls and cobwebby shelves confer upon its readers the sinister gift of forgetfulness, or the floating collection of Mneumonia, which houses books once loved and now hopelessly forgotten.

In Asel, the books are engraved on sheets of ice, with pages that begin to melt the moment you touch them, the vapour of your breath effacing the words even as you read. And in mirage-like “Googol”, the evanescent bookshelves bear flickering witness to the fickle search engine of the reader’s mind:

“You realise then the servile nature of the Library of Googol, built to cater to your every whim and fancy, a shrine to the path of knowledge you carve for yourself, neatly disposing of every discarded thought.”

And when you are weary of sublime archives, those which pose as signs of their times and models of the universe, you may turn at last to the “Libraries of Limits”. Like the paperback-strewn, coffee-stained side-table of the Heartsease Motel in Shoshoni, Wyoming, or the tin-roofed shack which holds the day’s newspapers for the fishermen of Vallarpadom until the twilight hour “between the nets and the toddy”.

Browse the pavement libraries of Daryaganj which saved their streets from the bulldozers, or visit the dying suburban library of Number 550, South State Street, replete with noisy schoolchildren, deaf old librarian, and ancient card catalogue, soon to be demolished by the local municipalitys. These fragile, wayside libraries “with their humble heft of the actual” are the greatest miracles of them all:

“[...] this teetering wreck, this mass of decrepit thinghood trussed and bandaged at random by strips of glued paper, your kinsman in the mortal miracle, a piled-up incoherence that you will soon come to ignore, once again, in the name of its ageless idea.

Blindness and books

Like every good little postmodern text, Invisible Libraries also comes equipped with its own origin myths. Each is “a love letter, a puzzle, an invitation to play”, disarmingly printed on yellow pages placed at regular intervals in the book, offering narrative frames for readers who seek guidance in their blind wanderings through its maze. Step into them, and you are lost in the bibliophile’s looking-glass world, led up endlessly forking garden paths, fuddled by inside jokes and intertextual nods, and waylaid by literary ghosts recalled from the grave by bizarre (if reverential) acts of pastiche.

Chief among them is Jorge Luis Borges, Director of the National Library in Buenos Aires, who receives a cryptic telegram from one of his own characters, informing him of a strange book which is rumoured to contain the writer himself and his fictional Library of Babel. And, as if this were not alarming enough, fragments of this trickster text begin to appear in the familiar and beloved books being read to the blind author by his friends. It will not be long before Borges realises that it is all his fault, of course, for this rogue treatise is the work of five avid fans – inspired (ironically) by his library of infinite books, to create the book of infinite libraries.

But there are greater ironies at hand. Here is a writer doomed to inhabit and curate an ever-burgeoning world of invisible books, one that he walks with arms outstretched and eyes unseeing. And this is where the looking-glass becomes ours, as well. For the great battle of our times, nowhere more palpable than in our libraries and their limits (or ours), is between the will to knowledge and the will to oblivion. And in this crossfire we, like Borges himself, have been granted “blindness and books at one touch”.

Invisible Libraries, Lawrence Liang, Monica James, Danish Sheikh, Amy Trautwein, and “Another”, Yoda Press.

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