imagine yourself in the library

library (after Borges) – h č-b

Imagine the library (“the universe (which others call the Library)”) that Borges thought of — infinite, and containing everything that you might want to know, in the way that you can know things from books. Imagine that your brain has been memory wiped — you don’t know what you know but you do know something about who you are because you have your body still, and you experience the world that way. Maybe that body you have is supported by some kind of biological exo-suit “for satisfying one’s physical necessities.”* Whatever is the optimal – that’s what you feel. You’re in a chemically induced state of bliss. And all you have to do — all you’ve somehow been instructed to do – is read. You can read whatever you want. You don’t know anything. Where do you start?

Borges’ “The Library of Babel” starts by building an “indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries.” The Library. The universe. This universe is infinitely recursive in its hexagonal shape. As I was drawing them, it occurred to me that hexagons don’t come naturally to my hand. (I had a “cubist” period recently, by which I mean I kept finding myself drawing and painting cubes). What’s interesting about drawing a hexagon (try it!) is that one hexagon invites another (“each letter influences the next”) — it’s hard to draw one without wanting to draw the next, which takes two of its lines from the first. This is not at all like my cubes, which stood alone (they, too, suggested the next in their own way — much more a result of my own desire to repeat). The hexagon, though: it wants more hexagons. Hexagons have a sci-fi feel — a special kind of texture, a flexible material. But the hexagon doesn’t belong to the future, at least, not only so. It’s already here, and has been here for a long time — in the shapes made by honey bees. (“Idealists argue that the hexagonal rooms are the necessary shape of absolute space, or at least our perception of space. They argue that a triangular or pentagonal chamber is inconceivable.”)

Borges’ library contains everything (totality, wholeness, perfection, completeness), including things that are not true and which cannot be distinguished from the truth. At the same time, this recursivity is not as endlessly expansive as it might seem. Even though Borges provokes a desire in us — a hunger of a kind — for an answer, an end, and a limit in a seemingly limitless space, he also provides a number of imaginative boundaries. Even though there are children, young men, old men, fathers (the writer recalls an experience related to him by his father; the young worship the written word; the old try to mirror the library algorithm in secret) there are no not-men. The library is supposed to be able to produce all things in all languages, and yet the examples of totality are gnostic texts, commentaries, and the “lost books of Tacitus” — not books by, or even about, aliens or trees or deep sea creatures. The English word “book” (like Latin liber and codex) contains within a secret indication of its organic origin. But in the Library, the book itself is pure textuality.

If I am in my own library with my exo-suit but without my memory, I don’t know where I will go.

*As far as I can tell, Borges only really seems to mean “to go to the bathroom” with this phrase: over the course of the story he refers to “water closets for the seated librarian”, and “latrines” where old men would secretly try to replicate the library’s process with forbidden dice. Although he speaks of joy, depression, disease — he never in this story mentions food, drink, nature, exercise (except in the form of travel), sex. He does, however, speak of light in terms which imply organic growth but ultimately deny satiety: “Light is provided by certain spherical fruits that bear the name ‘bulbs.’ There are two of these bulbs in each hexagon, set crosswise. The light they give is insufficient, and unceasing.”

“Elegy for the Library”

This morning I read a recent opinion piece in the New York Times by novelist Mahesh Rao (@mraozing). Online it has the title “An Elegy for the Library”— but in print it seems to have had the title “Lost in the Stacks”, pointed out by Sarah Werner (@wynkenhimself) on twitter. “Elegy” — in the sense of lament— might be the right word for a piece that celebrates the virtues of libraries while maintaining an anxiety about their potential demise. But the idea of being “lost” (and found) in the library is also fitting — as Werner pointed out. In the NY Times piece, Rao does a good job of demonstrating the social power of a library as a public place. In Mysore, India, the library ‘lists “uninterrupted lighting” as one of its services — a real draw in a city that suffers from frequent power cutoffs. This is a place of refuge.’ In a world awash with information, librarians are the guides — Rao points to a poster of a Neil Gaiman quotation: ‘Google can bring you 100,000 answers but a librarian can bring you the right one.’ The agency of people and how they shape knowledge is stressed. Rao cites journalist and academic, Sophie Mayer, and her sense that in a library “each person is pursuing their own aim (education, entertainment, affect, rest) with respect to others, through the best possible medium of the transmission of ideas, feelings and knowledge – the book.”

This piece made me think of the libraries that I’ve used. In Glasgow, my hometown, there was a public library by my house that was attached to a Victorian-era swimming pool. I vividly remember reading Euripides’ Hippolytus in that library. The swimming pool has since been knocked down, but the library, I’m glad to say, is still there.

One of the powers of the library is the fact that it is a public, and physical, structure that persists. Its physicality is striking in a world where our information is increasingly created and stored on the internet. And its public nature is important. At my current university (University of Southern California), its research libraries are open to the public — which makes me proud. One of the characteristics of world class universities is the fact that their libraries are closed off from the public, and carefully guarded. When I was an undergrad at Oxford, my late night reading sessions at the Bodleian felt rarified. Rao’s piece stresses the democratic principles of a library, without using the word itself — the idea that public access to knowledge is important, valued, and supported. Rao is talking about the experiences of a library that anyone can have, but, as an academic, my experience of the library is privileged. With the institutional blessing, I have a kind of access that many don’t.