05 August 2011


"If there is a counterpart to the confusion of a library, it is the order of its catalogue."--Walter Benjamin

Books upon books upon books: books in quantities more elemental than phenomenal.  I'm halfway through cataloguing my books, a weary, Augean business, especially if you remember that one definition of dirt is "matter out of its proper place."  Picking up books up, one by one, I'm reminded of when I read them--if I've read them yet--and where they came from.  My copy of Milan Kundera's The Joke, for example, was rescued over thirty years ago on East Colfax Ave. in Denver, from the long-defunct Book Scout's Den (fondly called Avalanche Books), a gloomy storefront whose every bookshelf was baulked and buttressed by tottering heaps of bound paper--much too much like the room I'm in.

This hypervoluminosity evokes ancient and horrifying images of Alexandrine doom familiar to every bibliophile--bibliomane, bibliopath, call us what you will--although I wonder if the half-wishful valence of those images is derived purely from the fantasy of being free of this stable I'm mucking out.  No, probably not.  Anyway, by way of exorcism, on the magical principle that any possibility I let myself contemplate can't actually happen, here are four visions of that horror from among the books in this room.

At the end of Elias Canetti's novel The Tower of Babel--also called Auto-da-Fé--the eminent sinologist Peter Kien, appalled into madness by the unaccustomed world and by the violence it releases in him, has fled back into his library.  Accused of murder and haunted by images of burning libraries, he has set fire to his library carpet in an effort to expunge the red in the pattern, which he fears will be taken for bloodstains.  The books attack him: first, individual letters strike him, then footnotes, lines, whole pages.  His library has turned against him too?  Earlier they burnt a man's possessions with him, a will was nowhere to be found and there was nothing left, nothing but bones.  Then he hears shouting and fists pounding at the iron door he has locked upon himself, and comes to a resolution:

     The books cascade off the shelves on to the floor.  He takes them up in his long arms.  Very quietly, so that they can't hear them outside, he carries pile after pile into the hall.  He builds them up high against the iron door.  And while the frantic din tears his brain to fragments, he builds a mighty bulwark out of books.  The hall is filled with volume upon volume.  He fetches the ladder to help him.  Soon he has reached the ceiling... In front of the writing desk the carpet is ablaze... He pulls [newspapers] apart, and crumples them, he rolls them into balls, and throws them into all the corners.  He places the ladder in the middle of the room where it stood before.  He climbs up to the sixth step, looks down on the fire and waits.
     When the flames reached him at last, he laughed out loud...

And this is from Mervyn Peake's incomparable Titus Groan:

     ...The room was lit up with a tongue of flame that sprang into the air among the books on the right of the unused door.  It died almost at once, withdrawing itself like the tongue of an adder, but a moment later it shot forth again and climbed in a crimson spiral, curling from left to right as it licked its way across the gilded and studded spines of Sepulchrave's volumes.  This time it did not die away, but gripped the leather with its myriad flickering tentacles while the names of the books shone out in ephemeral glory.  They were never forgotten by Fuchsia, those first few vivid titles that seemed to be advertising their own deaths... 
     The night which had so dreadful a birth continued to heave and sweat until the slow dawn opened like an icy flower in the east, and showed the smoking shell of Sepulchrave's only home.  The shelves that still stood were wrinkled charcoal, and the books were standing side by side upon them, black, grey, and ash-white, the corpses of thought.  In the centre of the room the discoloured marble table still stood among a heap of charred timber and ashes, and upon the table was the skeleton of Sourdust.  The flesh was gone, with all its wrinkles.  The coughing had ceased forever.

As you might have guessed, Peake was in London during the Blitz--come to think of it, so was Canetti.  I wonder if they compare notes at night when I'm not here... And I expect Umberto Eco chimes in too.  In The Name of the Rose he writes, "[The books] spoke among themselves... [The library] was the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another."  Eco's avatar of the Librarian of Babel, Jorge of Burgos, who believes that man and God should be protected from certain books, eventually sets his library alight and dies in it:

The lamp fell right on the pile of books... the fire immediately seized a fragile parchment, which blazed up like a bundle of dry twigs.  Everything happened in a few moments, as if for centuries those ancient pages had been yearning for arson and were rejoicing in the sudden satisfaction of an immemorial thirst for ecpyrosis... In no time the place was a brazier, a burning bush... an immense sacrificial pyre...The whole library [became] a single smoking brazier as the fire raced from room to room, spreading rapidly among the thousands of dry pages.

In their voluptuous burning, these libraries also consume the people charged with their care.  It's a kind of Liebestod.  Of course librarians fear fire, but they desire it too, and their libraries are inextricable from their being.  The image of a burning library is a precise expression of my ambivalent enslavement by this beloved and burdensome accumulation of books, my version of what Benjamin calls "the dialectical tension between the poles of order and disorder" which inhabits the life of every collector.

And to complete this Alexandria quartet of exorcism?  Eliot, of course:

                         Burning burning burning burning...
                         Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
                         Vienna London

That has the right incantatory cadence, I believe.  And now, to paraphrase Candide, I must get back to my catalogue.

Hold on a moment.  Is that just the lamp I smell?  Or is it smoke?