Fictive does not mean not functional — the ideal library is alive, universal, default, it contains multiple languages, true and false, and all sources (often unverifiable) listed, even dead endings, slipping between fair use and commons, academic and non-, denying and welcoming. Wikipedia is fictive, functional, and useful. It is often the first result on a Google search page. It beckons us into the blue of link and cross-reference. What could be easier? And yet as mass literacy is now the norm rather than the exception, as we talk about online access as a human right, we know less and are less likely to look for what we don’t know. We fashion echo chambers, hermetic little comfort rooms, rarely venture beyond our soft swaddling-buffer of white noise. Algorithms help us narrow our news feeds; we only need to read so much and no further. Fictive, functional, futile.
Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels was an ironic exercise to deal with the bewildering loss of ground that classicism, the ancients, and religion suffered as a consequence of empirical evidence and natural philosophy. It is one example of the power and endurance of literary irony. As a means of dealing with loss, irony works in both the fictional and political realms, charged as both are with absurdities.112 Hav may be read in either realm, or in both, and its irony retains its luminous charge. Fictions, especially useful ones, needn’t necessarily be fatal, as long as the absurdism of their elusions is apprehended, and it is through ironic distance that literature challenges oppression. The Czechs and their writers, from Kafka to Karel Čapek, Bohumil Hrabal to Václav Havel, maintained a persistent identity through multiple oppressions, occupations, and totalitarian regimes. Passive resistance here involved the precepts of literary irony, not elusion, and a healthy dose of gallows humour. The ironic library, then, is one that deals with loss, and one that negates irrationalism through the absurd. Historically, this library has habitually been targeted by the totalitarian, and yet it has as often escaped suppression, burning, and destruction. Whether through physical existence as samizdat, or a subtextual one as satire,113 the ironic library persists and is never completely lost.
112 That imaginative dissembler Herodotus is often called the Father of History, yet The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by the more factual Gibbon was one of the many books labelled as morally dangerous and heresy in that vicious screed, Index Librorum Prohibitorum.
Like this list, the library is always incomplete: lost people and their vanished libraries, fragments, and indecipherable detritus. Lost manuscripts, painstakingly rebuilt.107 A posthumous publication of an unfinished text will forever intrigue, from Perec’s Portrait of Man to Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, while vanished manuscripts (that may never have existed) take on a mythic, Atlantean status.
.In 1627, the incomplete, utopian vision of Francis Bacon, apparent godfather of the Western scientific revolution,108 was posthumously published. The New Atlantis (like most utopias) was situated on an imagined island where humanity had attained a technological, scientific, moral, and humanist pinnacle. Taking the form of a travelogue, its fictive premise nevertheless had far-reaching effects,109 partly inspiring the establishment of the Royal Society110and, in turn, a savage satirizing by Swift in another fictitious travel tale.111 Gulliver’s Travels is parody written in the vein of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, of which Swift was an avid reader. It is also perhaps noteworthy that travellers’ stories tend to be, at the very least, tall tales (a tradition that Jan Morris referenced to good effect in her only novel Hav). As the ultimate tall tale, the utopia excites as much as it remains elusive. By the impossibility of its existence, a utopia is necessarily imperfect, and so too is the fiction of the absolute, the complete, and the wholly truthful.
107 Archaeologist and military officer T E Lawrence famously described the laboriously reconstructed and rewritten version of his autobiography, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, as ‘hopelessly bad’, after losing the first manuscript in a train station. See Robert McCrum, ‘First Drafts’, Observer, 18 January 2004, https://www.theguardian.com/ books/2004/jan/18/ features.review4.
108 As well as being a philosopher, statesman, jurist, scientist, essayist, and author, Bacon remains a contender for Shakespearean authorship.
109 The depictions of religious equality and legal reform in The New Atlantis possibly influenced the drafting of future liberal constitutions, with some attributing the abolition of slavery, the rise of women’s rights, and the separation of church and state to this work.
110 See Pete Langman, ‘Francis Bacon: New Atlantis’, The Literary Encyclopedia1.2.1.03, 14 April 2010, https://www.litencyc.com/php/ sworks.php?rec=true&UID=3262.
111 By including Bacon, the Royal Society, Hooke and the microscopic, Copernicus and the telescopic, and Hobbes, Spinoza, and other humanists, Swift seems to have rounded up most of the scientific luminaries of the time in his parodying of their work and methods.
The text claimed to be truth teller once, as did the letterpress the intaglio print, till the photographic became evidence. Not long after that, the frozen frame was found to be fraudulent, as would its successor, the moving image. What bears witness now? Does the arc of truth telling curve, does it bend to the first testimonies of our species — the drawn, the inscribed, and the symbolized? What are our testimonies, and what is it we affirm? Are our certainties just circles of rationalizing, restless half-truths, vivid imaginings, and cynical manipulations? Or can we ask where the smallest form can speak to larger testaments — drawn declarations, circles, a handprint as witness on a cave wall?102 Every mark we read or see was made to bear witness to brief life and briefer designs. Every text, then, is a testimony, not necessarily of truth, but illuminating of time, ideas, of the facts and falsities of place and moment.
The ghost and the darkness
Loss of mythos, of knowledge of the natural, of the cosmological, ‘voidness’ and imagined worlds. to speak of nature beyond the physical and precarious, not ascribing to it a neo-spiritualist mysticism. We once thought of nature in the realm of imagination, idiosyncrasy, and idiom.120 Finding meaning, significance, purpose, and place of oneself in a life amongst the animated, non-animate, intimated, and intuited. Soft appearances of well-intentioned apparitions, wisdom, navigation. Soft pools of darkness, unknowingness not to be feared.
Jane Wildgoose says to me that objects hold dead things that come back to life only when strangers encounter them. So, Steven van Impe finds Victor Hugo’s letters in a lost book. Jane again, speaking of books as tombs of the unread. But then Ilenia Maschietto shows me her favourite old books of prediction and fortune-telling, once banned, now cheerfully outliving their proscribers. Jane now channels Proust, reciting ‘all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile’121
120 First in 2007, then again in 2015, new editions of The Oxford Junior Dictionaryhave been removing words relating to the natural world, words like ‘acorn’, ‘cauliflower’, ‘dandelion’, ‘otter’, ‘magpie’, ‘leopard’, and ‘raven’, and replacing them with words of the virtual: ‘analogue’, ‘blog’, ‘chatroom’ (the last two already on their wayto being obsolete). See Alison Flood, ‘Oxford Junior Dictionary’s Replacement of “Natural” Words with 21st-Century Terms Sparks Outcry’, Guardian, 13 January 2015, https://www.theguardian. com/books/2015/jan/13/ oxford-junior-dictionary- replacement-natural-words.
121 Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way: Remembrance of Things Past, trans. C K Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, New York: Vintage International, 2015, 47.
The ultimate library of humankind must be a large, empty space, punctuated by pinpricks. Dots of book light, random dashes, broken lines in the long trajectories of human story. More void than Borges’s version. Lost, destroyed, or unrecorded, our libraries are paltry pickings, leftovers from the prolific output of millennia of writing.
When we think of the lack of community, of the lonely tightrope walk of our lives, we race to fill our unquietness with clamour, screens, and chatter. When we allude to the emptiness of disconnect, we rarely acknowledge that it is community that is missing. The banishment and vanishing of community, the deliberate and specific nuclearization of social units, have reduced our social voices to relationships of transaction. That are always, always measured in productivity and outcomes. As our actual circles shrink, so do the stories we hear, now viral, not varied. As our economic and social systems continue to bias towards corporation over community, nonurban voices are silenced by the suppression of grassroots struggle and intellectual activism. Disappeared journalists, students, and Indigenous and environmental activists, targeted by paramilitary forces or subjected to extrajudicial torture, imprisonment, and execution. The people of press, publishing, academia, activism. Silencing, erasing, vanishing, banishing.
We humans are pack-rats when it comes to information, we squirrel away as much as we can, willy-nilly, sometimes haphazardly, employing a system or discipline of mind or order that is of our devising. We are also as destructive as the vermin. Natural entropy and rot take their toll of course, as do flood, fire, pest and pestilence. Still, the biggest enemies of books en masse are less the poor bookworm and more our wilful actions.
We are impoverished. We are a fraction of ourselves. We know a millionth of that fraction. And still we burn. The concept of a hell as afterlife is a redundancy, a pathetically weak imagining. Neither our heavens (in their teeth-aching tedium of never-ending sweetness, a ghastly fate) nor our hells, can hold a candle to what we can make, and what we can destroy here, in our time. Burning herbals and witches,260 books and people alive for perceived blasphemies or heresies, for speaking in another tongue, or belonging to another ethnic or faith-group, still has currency. Some see the conflagration of culture as the birth of their own, from Savonarola’s bonfire of the vanities, the Nazis swearing fire-oaths around bonfires of books, or the extremists who burn libraries (even those of their own culture and religion), but some like the Inquisition and IS burn their hostages. The auto-da-fé doesn’t seem to be consigned to the ethical infancy of our species, and till it is, language, oral, print or online, will continue to be contested fields.
And so this is a poor list, a paltry polemic about circular time, the trundling wheel rising, falling, turning, crushing, grinding, all in the same wretched ruts of hate, mistrust, power and greed, driven by Bronze-age superstition and medieval thinking – the hemoclysm,261 and modern demagoguery of ideological horror- utopias. This list should end here, but it will not. It does not belong to our past, it is present, it is continuous, it is the charred carbon on which we continue to write our similar histories.
260 As I write this, ISIS has began executing women suspected of witchcraft.
261 Coined by Matthew White, the term is used in the context of the violent and bloody era of both World Wars in the twentieth-century. An era that, as White put it, will be considered by ‘future historians ... to be mere episodes of a single massive upheaval that took the lives of some 155 million people.’ This single hemoclysm includes the duration from the fall of the Manchu regime in 1911, to the events of the Cultural Revolution (second only to WWII in terms of casualties, China losing some 75 million lives over 65 years), Stalin’s tyranny, the horrors of the Belgian genocide in the Congo, the Partition of the Indian sub-continent, right up to the continuing extinction of the Amazonian Indians. See Matthew White, Atrocities: The 100 deadliest episodes in human history, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2013
The only sure knowledge I seem to have is of being constantly aware of the perilousness of our futures, and more importantly, the future of this planet. But this is not a fearful or lonely way to live, because after all, so many of us share this knowledge. To me, this provides us with the necessary kick in the pants, it is the urgency behind pushing for necessary change — for more parity between people and communities, and an end to the rapaciousness we have allowed to dominate our interactions with each other and with the planet. This knowledge is vital, this knowledge is a call to action, and yet it is so easily absented from our daily existences, from the media, from governance, and from our stories. We are the book, this is the banishment, and we know what we must do.
Wouldn’t it be thrilling
for all of this to be useful —
confetti at a fascist parade,
Ashes of books Flying up
from the conflagration
Muzzle the dissidents,
tear down the Tower of Ivory
whip incontinent history into shape
Get with the pogrom
Kill the Elephant again,
And the bookworm,
who will turn like the worm
in your apple
Your apple-cheeked patriotic pride
The open, the air
The library is open, the library is air. This is not a facile, vacuous attempt at quasi-poetics. The open/air is where our young find self-determinism and freedom. There is a reason Snowden (who found his intellectual and moral self online) became its champion. It is also where we can be as easily rendered unfree. There is a reason that the only safe transaction of information can happen in the gaps. The printed page, the codex, the samizdat — these remain the most effective air-gaps, as they have throughout history. In a post-Snowden and post-WikiLeaks world, the book quietly holds its own, and it holds in secret its conversation with the reader.95
Open access is the clarion call of every library that can afford it, and as they rush to digitize, we find the physical collection vanishing. The book, digitized, is only information. Closed, it is an artefact, a historical and personal document, a hushed tomb, yes, but of breathless promise that comes alive when opened. Open and online, it is worthless. To scan a book effectively, you must slice its spine, break its back, unpick its binding, unmake it into separate pulpable sheets, and flatten its text into a poor image, a pale shadow.
95 Thanks in no small part, in 2005 and 2006, to the refusal of US librarians to turn over borrower records under the Patriot Act. See Eric Lichtblau, ‘F.B.I., Using Patriot Act, Demands Library’s Records’, New York Times, 26 August 2005, https://www. nytimes.com/2005/08/26/ politics/fbi-using-patriotact-demands-librarys-records.html.
Drug them then, with the opiate of your choosing
The thrall of the horde
From singular means
Towards a singular extinction
Burn all the books
No phoenix can rise
from these ashes
when these fictions serve us better
Get some land, some people
or, get some land from some people
Some laws, some guns
to teach the people the importance of obeying
the laws and the guns
Then sweep the Stables,
Kill the Behemoth
of tiresome historicity
the Elephant in the room
Every library is unlimited, in that the movement of information between texts (in books and in heads) is triggered with every encounter. The infinite textual sea of Borges’s Library may perhaps be best appreciated in the online encounters of rapidly and incessantly moving information and meaning. It is here (or there) that we find (lose) meaning (non-meaning), preserve (erase), clarify (confound), liberate (control), and (or) render (randomize) information (junk) as patterns, networks, and symbolic meaning-generation. This wonder (madness) can be glimpsed on Wikipedia, for instance. More than an archive or repository, it is the perfect (perpetually incomplete) encyclopaedia,88 and by its very constant state of flux, it is the anti-encyclopaedia. There are 120 edits per minute,89 and thus it constantly whittles even as it propagates. As I write this, the English Wikipedia90 stands at the equivalent of 3018 print volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.91 This has been seen as a provocation by some, who have wanted to print and bind it all, in an exercise that would be stunning in its profligacy of material and redundancy of vision. But every encyclopaedia is marginalia, always instantly obsolete, and when it is mutable and idealistic (like Wikipedia), it loses rigour and academic authority, and so is no longer an encyclopaedia
If you still wish to wander the impossibility of Borges’s Library, it is in this92 (non-)world that you can find it, where it has been (is being) built in all its hexagonal, insane glory. And when you find yourself ‘constantly thwarted looking for meaning among the library’s babble’, you are advised to see your navigation as ‘a form of meditation’. Eventually, the site offers, ‘your mind learns no longer to search for or expect significance’.93 This is the true library, where we are to be unhooked from our favourite drug94 and float free.
89 Wikipedia, s.v. “Wikipedia:Statistics,” last modified 24 January 2022, 20:02, https:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Wikipedia:Statistics
91 Wikipedia, s.v. “Wikipedia:Size in volumes,” last modified 16 January 2022, 01:05, https://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Wikipedia: Size_in_volumes
92 Jonathan Basile, Library of Babel (website), accessed 9 June 2015, https:// libraryofbabel.info.
93 Jonathan Basile, ‘Reference Hex’, Library of Babel (website), accessed 9 June 2015, https://libraryofbabel. info/reference hex.html.
Borges spoke of his blindness as a ‘luminous mist’ that obfuscated and rendered opaque the distractions and trivialities of sighted life, and allowed a grateful retreat into the true singular eye of the mind.119 This sharpening of the intellectual lens is evident in his method — which can be argued was more nineteenth than twentieth century — and in the way he pared down his characters. They exist as texts and fictionalities, not personalities. Ireneo Funes is the Library, the archive, the repository, and being singular, is also the Tower. He is all this but he is not a man. We know this even as we marvel, envy, and ultimately pity him.
119 Albin Krebs and Robert McG Thomas, ‘Notes on People; Borges Visits South, Fulfillinga Dream’, New York Times, 22 January 1982, https://www.nytimes.com/1982/01/22/nyregion/notes-on-people-borges-visits-so uth-fulfilling- a-dream.html.
Every vast library, public, private, lost, or extant, is full of the unread. There are books printed en masse now for window dressing and display, or as a plinth, and then they are pulped. Giant warehouses are built to accommodate the unread, the undead matter of our disregard. A salt mine114 in Cheshire, giant facilities in Swindon and West Yorkshire — these industrial spaces, enormous storehouses of unread, unasked-for books115 — are far removed from the warm wood of the Bodleian and the bustle of the British Library.116 Even the more modest stacks of a library are homes to the lost. In the Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library in Antwerp, curator Steven van Impe stands between shelves of over a million117 uniformly jacketed books,118 almost all unread. He tells me how if one were to be mis-shelved, it would be effectively lost, untraceable. Sometimes these ghosts shout at him to be picked up, despite the danger. Here, it is the read book that is at greater risk of disappearing.
115 See Maev Kennedy, ‘Solution or Disaster? Bodleian’s Plan For £29M Store Divides Oxford’, Guardian, 17 September 2007, https:// www.theguardian. com/uk/2007/sep/17/ highereducation.books, and ‘Bodleian’s Book Storage Facility Celebrates 5th Anniversary and 1 Millionth Book Request’, Bodleian Libraries (website), 19 October 2015, https://www2. bodleian.ox.ac.uk/oua/ news/2015/oct-19.
116 From 2010 to 2011, the latter added 3 million items, or an estimate of almost 10 linear kilometres of shelf space.
117 See ‘Collection’, Erfgoed Hendrik Conscience (website), accessed 12 February 2022, https:// consciencebibliotheek. be/index.php/en/page/ collection-0.
118 Most libraries now encase their rare and old books in acid-free paper boxes and jackets.
Tom Stoppard suggests that when we forget a book we’ve read, it is no better than an unread one. That would be true if reading a book and remembering or recalling the information is the only desired objective. It may be that the diffusion is secondary, important but nevertheless secondary, simply because books do a pretty poor job as complete transmitters and would certainly not have the power they do, partly because the blandly obvious in simply uninteresting. Our brains would rather imaginatively fill in the blanks, inaccurately populate the gaps. Still, even as a bare text, a book will have an effect on us, whether incremental or cascading, unconscious or revelatory — the degree of this is, again, secondary. What is disregarded here is what reading a book does. As a physical object, it bears the marks of our indiscretions with it — dog-ears, a cracked spine, roughening around the edges ... and so do we. We are shaped objects, filed down to certainties; sometimes we have preexisting certainties eroded, or buried under accumulated word-fall, sometimes our strata are eroded and our bedrock is laid bare. And then we must reread, rethink, and reinvent new illusions/delusions. Sometimes we resist, shore up our defences; sometimes we allow the words of another to make landfall, to take that beachhead and make rapid inroads into our delighting minds and sensibilities.
What, then, is the future of the library, or any such storehouse of knowledge? I venture that the survival and robustness of the archive will come as we understand the critical value of the decentred library, one that may be physical, digital, memorial, activist, or arena- or community-centred, but alive and activated.87 I retain the conviction that it is only through the inclusion of the nonhuman, and the decolonizing and decentring of the catalogue that we can imagine the library as a future commons, and one that begins from the communities it serves, not held hostage by conditional budgets and nationalist concerns. The future of the library lies not in calcification of collections, but in recognizing the vastness of diverse linguistic heritages, legacies, and contemporary work, and in becoming a powerful device to resist the treacherous rhetoric of purity and supremacy. The library, then, is non-eternal, but it is plural, and Everywhere.
... or revisiting ideas, this chapter being one such example. From revisiting positions, declarations of unanimity that should be reappraised, to re-entering locations, spots of sorrow, poking a painful tooth, expunging the ghosts of sites of trauma, revisiting sites of joy.
Sometimes it is the old made new, again, (self-)referential texts, self-plagiarism, internal monologues, circular dialogues, rehashed arguments, and decontextualized, weaponized quoted passages, press-ganged into service to admonish, diminish, dismiss, and then appropriate what survives from the ridiculed and disdained. questions of appropriation, the reinvented, the stolen, the homage, legacy, and the craven fawning over those anointed, canonized, perpetual, prickly points of comparison.
Drink deep, the dregs. An auction of a bankrupted estate, sold for parts, scrap, Jasper Fforde’s textual sea. Unmade, unpicked, picked over, scrapped-heaped, discards, conversational dandruff falling about our ears.