Amongst the competing visions of heaven offered by the various prophets and saints, my favourite remains the one conjured by St. Alberto Manguel. For him, heaven is a place where you can read all the books that you did not finish. It would be difficult for me – proud member of the tribe of bibliophiles- to imagine a better idea of paradise than this. I would even hazard a bet that many of you fellow tribe members would probably imagine yourself in this other world (with enough time) curled up in a comfortable sofa, opening a copy of Joyce’s Ulysses for the 28th time – saying finally this time.
But even within the order of the saints, one must respect the subtle rules of hierarchy and pecking order, and by that count St. Manguel would have to make way for the highest ordained of them all- the blind seer who saw everything- Jorge Luis Borges, who had much earlier been granted a vision of paradise and he declared that it was shaped like a library.
A young Alberto Manguel found himself chosen to read aloud to an already blind Borges, and in the course of one of the reading sessions, Borges confessed to him that as a young boy he would accompany his father to the national library, and being too timid to ask for books, he would simply take out one of the volumes of the Encyclopedia Brittanica from the shelves and read whatever article opened itself to his eyes and in this way learnt about Druids, Druzes and Dryden.
In 1950 when he was nominated as the director of the national library of Argentina, the irony was not lost on him and he captured his own paradox saying
No one should read self pity or reproach
Into the statement of the majesty
Of God, who with such splendor and irony
Granted me books and blindness at one touch
Earlier this week, a website library.nu which had become second home on the internet for many of us was shut down on the grounds of copyright infringement, and it seemed amongst other things like a rude intrusion into a collective paradise that we had discovered. And those who discovered it recently understood Borges’s irony only too well.
The reasons given for shutting it down are the same tired ones that we have heard for many years now- huge loss of revenue for publishers, theft of private property etc. One could of course provide counter arguments based on numbers and statistics, or even appeals to counter normative grounds such as access v. pirvacy, but it’s a bit too early for that. For those of us who experienced the shutting down of library.nu first and foremost as a visceral experience of loss, the time of mourning is not yet over. We will eventually move to anger and action, but for now, grant us our private and collective grief.
Writing about the loss of public spaces in cities, John Xiros Cooper writes “And with the disappearance of a favorite building, or space, or the place where you once saw an angel loitering among the living dead, a small part of your memory vanishes. Don’t get me wrong, when the familiar vanishes, there isn’t some dramatic alteration in your well being. It isn’t one more piece of theatrical distress in a life of sustained self-display. It’s just a bit of an empty feeling, merely a private awkwardness, no more.”
But if it is a library that is destroyed, the emptiness just seems more amplified. W.G.Sebald captures this quite poignantly in Austerlitz where he says
The old library in the rue Richelieu has been closed, as I saw for myself not long ago, said Austerlitz, the domed hall with its green porcelain lampshades which cast such a soothing, pleasant light is deserted, the books have been taken off the shelves, and the readers, who once sat at the desks numbered with little enamel plates, in close contact with their neighbors and silent harmony with those who had gone before them, might have vanished from the face of the earth.
And yet I find myself refusing to fall into absolute despair, after all hope is what one maintains against all evidence to the contrary. I return often enough to library.nu and find my browser opening a page that says “the site could be temporarily unavailable or too busy. Try again in a few moments”. Indeed I shall, and in the meantime I will keep myself busy with all the books that I have borrowed from the library so far, and in one of them I find the words of Borges again, reflecting on the coincidence that the man who ordered the construction of the nearly infinite Wall of China, the First Emperor, Shih Huang Ti, also ordered the burning of all the books before him. At the end of the essay he says “Music, state of happiness, mythology, faces shaped by time, certain twilights and certain places, try to tell us something, or they told us something that we should not have lost…