“I declare that the Library is endless.”
– Jorge Luis Borges, The Library of Babel (1941)
Library (n.): first known use in the 14th century, from Anglo-French “librarie”, Medieval Latin “librarium”, from Latin “libr-”, “liber”, meaning inner bark, rind, book.
(First meaning) A place in which literary, musical, artistic or reference materials are kept for use but not for sale
(Last meaning) A collection of cloned DNA fragments that are maintained in a suitable cellular environment and that usually represent the genetic material of a particular organism or tissue
Rhymes with: BlackBerry, Burberry, Katy Perry, Hail Mary [+more]
Some of my favourite opening lines to a film are from Pretty Woman (1990), the Julia Roberts and Richard Gere classic in which a hooker with a heart of gold lives out the rags to riches dream. At the start of the film, a wanderer cries out to a passer-by on Hollywood Boulevard:
“Everybody come to Hollywood got a dream. What’s your dream? What’s your dream? Hey mister, hey, what’s your dream?”
Depending on who you are, this could either be the easiest or the most impossible question to answer. Most people, I’d imagine, would aspire to become a person of use, but in my more fanciful moments, I dream instead of being “a place where literary materials are kept for use”, as a fortress of intellectual autarky that runs on its own pace and plays by its own rules, as a walking library that recalls and replenishes its contents, all the while retreating from and reaching into the social fold at will.
I suspect my Ovidian fantasy owes something to Jorge Luis Borges’ 1941 short story The Library of Babel, in which the sage Argentinian sides with books over man in the longevity stakes of human history:
“I am perhaps misled by old age and fear, but [while] the human species – the only species – teeters at the verge of extinction,… the Library – enlightened, solitary, infinite, perfectly unmoving, armed with precious volumes, pointless, incorruptible, and secret – will endure.”
According to Borgesian logic, if f(library) = universe, then f(librarian) = ‘god’. After all, the author goes on to pronounce:
“The universe, with its elegant appointments – its bookshelves, its enigmatic books, its indefatigable staircase for the traveller, its water closets for the seated librarian – can only be the handiwork of god.”
Where books and anthologies are catalogued in Dewey Decimal harmony, therein lies Borges’ pantheistic heaven. In the face of the bibliotheca’s sheer amount of stuff and structure, the individual is reminded of his intellectual gutters and relative puniness. It is where ‘so many books, so little time’ ceases to be the sort of glib self-motivational caption one finds on bookstore mugs, and becomes instead a glaringly self-conscious reality.
Yet as much as I empathise with Borges, experience tells me that the library is not the bastion of solitude he makes it out to be. In fact, it’s a place where I formed some memorable bonds – at times with the most unexpected people, one of whom I recently paid a visit.
I could see her from a distance as I ascended the escalators. She had a trademark skip in her gait that was unmissable. A year had passed, but the way in which she ushered us into the library was as sprightly as I remembered it, and the walkie-talkie headset was hanging onto her belt as firmly as that detail was lodged in my mind. I tried to catch her eye while I moved along the queue – ‘Haaaiiii!’, I mouthed, giving her a little wave. She responded with a familiar smile, and we understood, in an unspoken instant, that there’d be some catching up to do later outside the ladies’ loo.
“These are for you.” She handed me a packet of malt-flavoured Vitasoy and a mooncake. “Don’t forget to eat more – you’ve become so thin after a year abroad.”
This happened back in September 2013, right before I left for my second year at university.
I’ve not seen her since.
I call her Ms Y. She’s one of the security staff members in charge of the top floors at the Central Library, which was my second home in the 10 months leading up to my high school public exams. Back then, it was a reminder of heavy stress; in retrospect, it has become a source of happy memories. Even on days when Maths was on the agenda*, I still looked forward to my library visit because of the camaraderie that revising next to friends and other final-year students afforded.
The protocol of silence, for all its strict enforcement by librarians, could never overwrite the currents of empathy inscribed into our collective consciousness. Students at the library, while singular in each of their pursuits, are also united in a common cause against the contingencies and challenges that lie ahead. This paradox brings to mind the first stanza of Matthew Arnold’s 1852 poem ‘To Marguerite: Continued’:
Yes! In the sea of life enisled,
With echoing straits between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
We mortal millions live alone.
The islands feel the enclasping flow,
And then their endless bounds they know.
(Lines 1 – 6, italics mine)
Between the islands of our study cubicles, glass partitions are thrown, but as “echoing straits” they telegraph visceral soundbites of support from desk-shore to desk-shore. In the microcosm of library-as-world, each reader lives alone in his/her intellectual labour, yet it is the reminder that “we” all share a common denominator that finally hammers home an age-old truism – that no man (or student) is an island.
Unlike her po-faced colleagues, Ms Y was the only one who rooted for us on the side lines, mostly just by virtue of her warmth and presence. She never did anything momentous, but it was in the little things that we felt her care: the way she’d look out for the belongings of students who had gone off for lunch, flag up to anyone who left their wallets unattended, ask after how I was coping whenever we bumped into each other outside the loo (i.e. the only chat-friendly space on the floor) etc. If the human memory were a montage of moments, these instances, though brief, would nonetheless feature as some of the key stand-outs in my last year of high school.
Then, about a while ago, I found out from a former ‘library comrade’ that Ms Y has been diagnosed with cancer.
When I recently returned to visit, she wasn’t there. I eventually found out from another security staff member about her Wednesdays-only schedule, which is understandable given her state of health. It’s a shame, because I have work and class from morning till half past nine on Weds, which means I probably won’t be able to see her in the near future.
I ended up leaving Ms Y a handwritten note, but just as I was about to sign off, it suddenly hit me that she might have forgotten my name, since there must have been so many 8th/9th floor student patrons over the years she’s bound to have lost track by now. So I settled for the next best thing:
‘A 2012 high school graduate who misses you’.
It’s referentially vague, but at least emotionally concise, which I suppose is what counts at the end of the day.
It seems, then, that the idea of libraries as a space of solitude isn’t necessarily true. Where some form of community is present – whether it be of readers or scholars, no amount of silence can preclude the need for human connection. For many of us Class 2012 ‘top floor hermits’, Ms Y was the one who provided the link to that need.
Towards the end of W. G. Sebald’s 2001 novel Austerlitz, the title character recounts his daily routine and musings at the Bibliotheque Nationale (National Library of France) in the rue Richelieu, where he –
“… usually remained in my place there until evening, in silent solidarity with the many others immersed in their intellectual labours, losing myself in the small print of the footnotes to the works I was reading, […] Even before then my mind often dwelt on the question of whether there in the reading room of the library, which was full of a quiet humming, rustling and clearing of throats, I was on the Islands of the Blest, or contrary, on a penal colony…”
(p. 363-5, Penguin edition)
Is the library an academic Arcadia or an exiled prison? Are the readers truly bereft of things to share, or are they simply too distracted by the “small print” to look at the bigger picture and the people around them?
I’m not a walking library (yet), so I can’t profess to know the answers. One thing I do know though, is that the library embodies the ultimate irony of human existence:
It is the only space on Earth where strangers come together for the very purpose of being strangers together.
Men are strange beings indeed.
*My revision style back then was to delegate each subject to one day of the week (for e.g. Monday would be ‘English day’, Tuesday ‘History day’, Wednesday ‘Math day’ etc.) As you can probably tell, I’m not your biggest Math fan.
[Except for the Borges image, all photo credits mine]