A reminder that our personal book collections can inform, delight, and enrich our lives during these trying times.
The origin of the modern novel begins, oddly enough, with a library. We first encounter the elderly eponymous hero of Cervantes’ Don Quixote regaling himself with “…books of knight-errantry…”. The contents of his library, which present a romantic and adventurous way out of the dull doldrums of life, spurs the madman onward. Accompanied by taciturn horse and manservant alike, the Don rides out into a world to confront the truth he found in his books.
Three-hundred-and-fifty years later, another author writing in Spanish would present readers with a different sort of library. Jorge Luis Borges’ The Library of Babel is in complete antithesis to his predecessor's in that its books contain no truth about the world because they are infinite in space and time; there is no way out of it.
Don Quixote believed the world was like his library; Borges believed his library was the world. Between the two of them, and the multitude of Libraries recorded in history (from ones lost like Alexandria, to those desecrated and given a new context like the looted remnants of Tipu Sultan’s, to those that have become public edifices like the Bodleian), we are reminded of the enormous power a pile of books can play in shaping our lives.
Carefully reading The Library of Babel makes it clear that Borges was focusing on the metaphysical concept of infinite ideas contained in the boundless expanses of its shelves. Whilst the quest for a divine Ur-language is a fascinating subject on its own right, and Borges’ musings have inspired literary theorists, mathematicians, and modal logicians respectively (Thomas Pavel’s Fictional Worlds being an excellent example), that’s not why I mentioned his library.
If you are reading this, chances are you too are stuck indoors; sequestered thanks to the coronavirus pandemic (on the off chance you aren’t, and are a reader from the future, greetings! I trust Simon Cowell has finally been excommunicated from the rest of humanity for his television programming sins?). We are physically and spatially bound to our domiciles, with only the occasional walk outside to break up the monotony of the day.
It is no surprise we turn to books for succour in these trying times. Literature of all kinds has a way of enriching our lives and perspectives by reminding us of the wider world and the multitude of stories that populate it. This is true of all kinds of writing, even those fashionably considered risible by critics and faux-intellectuals. The label and genre is unimportant; how each individual reader engages and responds is all that matters. It is almost a sacred bond that each of us has experienced with a good book; time fades away, our rhythm morphs to match the flow of each sentence, our bodies respond to the heft of each word.
In that respect, a library is a place of communion. I’m not talking about the public libraries which we can no longer access, but those we cultivate at home. The number of books does not matter; the selection, the organisation, and the emotional attachment that underpins them does. Even a Kindle has the potential to be as infinite as Borges’ vision.
As I write this I occasionally glance up at my own library. There are the books I have read a dozen or more times; spines worn and pages creased through years of being clutched by inquisitive fingers. There are the reference books I turn to for edification. But, above all, there are the multitude of books I have yet to read; and the many adventures contained therein I have yet to embark on.
Having the time to actually read them is no longer a problem thanks to the times we live in. We are saturated with relentless audio and visual content; yet there is nothing quite as ineluctably satisfying as making the time to engage with words. And nothing quite as buoying as the potential journeys made manifest by a library.
In this time of crisis, where optimism and cheer are in short supply, consider this a love letter to the libraries we are all engaging with now. May what we find in them buttress our own perspectives on living in this strange new world. And may we be inspired by them to sally forth and tilt at our own windmills.
At an appropriate social distance, of course.