Fight the Power, Check Out a Book

Philippe Fassier's rendition of Borges's Library of Babel

I’ve fallen in love with a book about libraries. Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night is an unusual combination of fact and reflection, probing the nature of the book collection process.  On the one hand, it is filled with fascinating stories about old buildings, librarians, systems of organization, and anything thing else that touches on the gathering together of books.  On the other, it explores what libraries mean.

An early passage gives a taste of the book:

The love of libraries, like most loves, must be learned.  No one stepping for the first time into a room made of books can know instinctively how to behave, what is expected, what is promised, what is allowed.  One may be overcome by horror—at the clutter or the vastness, the stillness, the mocking reminder of everything one doesn’t know, the surveillance—and some of that overwhelming feeling may cling on, even after the rituals and conventions are learned, the geography mapped, the natives found friendly.

This is not a review of the book so I won’t go on about it.  But here’s a passage that touches on this blog’s concern with the intersection of literature and life. It can be found in “The Library as Shadow” chapter, which looks both at how people in power have sometimes viewed libraries as threats and also (which I guess legitimates this paranoia) how oppressed people have found aid and comfort in libraries:

[E]very library, including those under strictest surveillance, contains secretly rebellious texts that escape the librarian’s eye. As a prisoner in a Russian camp near the polar circle doing what he called “my own time in the North” Josephn Brodsky read W. H. Auden’s poems, and they strengthened his resolve to defy his jailers and survive for the sake of a glimpsed-at freedom.  Haroldo Conti, tortured in the cells of the Argentinian military of the 1970s, found solace in the novels of Dickens, which his jailer had allowed him to keep.  For the writer Varlam Chalamov, sent by Stalin to work in the gold mines of Kolyma because of his “counter-revolutionary activities,” the prison library was itself a gold mine that, “for incomprehensible reasons,” had escaped the innumerable inspections and ‘purges’ systematically inflicted upon all of Russia’s libraries.  On its miserable shelves Chalamov found unexpected treasures such as Bulgakov’s writings and the poems of Mayakovski.  “It was,” he said, “as if the authorities had wished to offer the prisoners a consolation for the long road ahead, for the Calvary awaiting them. As if they thought: “’Why censor the reading of those condemned?’”

Manguel also talks about how, even though the library of his childhood would remove certain titles, others would somehow escape the authorities, opening up opportunities for boys like him to explore forbidden themes:

Up the marble staircase, down the tiled floor, between the grey columns, the library seemed a parallel universe, both fearful and comforting, in which my own story had other adventures and other endings.  Above all, absence (of the books deemed improper, dangerous, provocative) gaped in the dark holes that pierced the countless shelves of books towering up to the ceiling.

And yet, many seemingly innocent titles deceived the librarian’s censorious eye. I remember, in the silence broken by whispered snatches of conversation, the pages at which certain books would spontaneously fall open: Lorca’s Romancero Gitano at “The Unfaithful Bride,” La Celestina at the brothel scene, Cortazar’s Los Premios at the chapter in which a young boy is seduced by a wicked sailor. How these forbidden texts had found their way into our scrupulous library we never knew, and we wondered how long it would be before the librarian discovered that, under his very nose, generation after generation of corruptible students filled the absence on the shelves by selectively reading these scandalous books.

The Library at Night is itself like a library, filled with hidden treasures.  Do yourself a favor and take a look at it.


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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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