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Libraries in Literature

By Edited Sep 28, 2016 0 0

Characters in fiction need not be people; they can be inanimate things like cities. And even libraries. In Umberto Eco’s novel, The Name of the Rose, a labyrinthine library of six-sided rooms is set in a 14th century monastery in Italy. He tells us it is, “the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds.” Powerful stuff.

"Steacy Library" by Raysonho

"Steacy Library" by Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler
Credit: via Wikipedia Commons

Eco’s library is clearly based on the one in Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “The Library of Babel.” Its librarian, blind as was Borges himself, is called Jorge of Burgos. Its rooms are hexagonal. In Borges’ classic story the entire universe is an infinite library which contains all books existing and imagined, containing every possible arrangement of letters and symbols, some filled with gibberish, some varying from others by the lack of a single comma. Towards its end the narrator reveals his suspicion that “… the human species – the unique species – is about to be extinguished, but the library will endure: illuminated, solitary, infinite, perfectly motionless, equipped with precious volumes, useless, incorruptible, secret.” Wow!

 Then, of course, we can’t leave out libraries like the Hogwarts library from the Harry Potter series and the Sunnydale High library from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There is also Lucien’s library in Neil Gaiman’s novel, Sandman, and the Jedi Temple Library in Star Wars spin-off novels.

 Some libraries appear in mystery stories. We usually think of libraries as comfortable, benign places but not all of them feel safe. M.R. James’ ghost story, “The Tractate Middoth,” is set in a library where “an unnaturally strong smell of dust” precedes some frightening events. The famous Bodleian Library appears in the Dorothy L. Sayers Peter Wimsey story, “Gaudy Night.” Some literary characters have appeared in works of fiction such as assistant librarian John Lewis, the primary protagonist in the Kingsley Amis novel That Uncertain Feeling, in which he contemplates adultery.

 Many writers served as librarians. I’ll bet you didn’t know that they included the infamous, dissolute womanizer, Giovanni Giacomo Casanova.

 Casanova, who lived from April 2, 1725 to June 4, 1798, was born in Venice, the son of actor parents. He served as a violinist, musician, magician, gambler, writer and rogue. He traveled widely in Europe (Paris, Prague, Vienna, Dresden), using his immense charm and gambling winnings to support himself and seduce women. In the early 1770s he returned to Italy and served as a spy for the Venetian Inquisition from 1774 to 1782.

"Giacomo Casanova" by Anton Raphael Mengs

"Giacomo Casanova" by Anton Raphael Mengs
Credit: Wkipedia Commmons

What is less well-known of him is that he moved to Bohemia in 1785 where he served as librarian at the chateau of Dux. To ensure that his legacy would last he wrote an autobiography called Histoire de Ma Vie (Story of My Life). Today the book is highly renowned for its portrait of Enlightenment society in continental Europe, though not for its biographical accuracy. It gives vivid accounts of his encounters with famous people of the time, including Pope Clement XIII, Voltaire, Rousseau and Mozart, and his myriad romantic adventures.

A movie which shares with Borges’ library the concept of infinite rooms, at least at its beginning is Cube. It is a science fiction/horror film in which a character finds himself in a cube-shaped room with hatches in all four walls, the ceiling and the floor. It is surrounded by identically shaped rooms. He finds that each one has a different means of killing him. He meets other captors, all of whom must find a means of escape.

"Der Bucherwurm" (The Bookworm) by Carl Spitzweg

"Der Bucherwurm" by Carl Spitzweg
Credit: Wikipedia Commons

The Demise of the Library

Sadly, libraries are facing widespread cuts and closures. The paper books that inhabit them, along with print newspapers, are threatened by ebooks. Some day, perhaps the only remaining libraries will be dusty museums to memorialize our past. And characters in some of our favorite works of literature.

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