Libraries in Literature

In this Pollak Library blog article, Richard Cho (instruction/reference librarian) delves into literature that features libraries as both its main setting and impetus for the main conflict in the storyline. The space of universal human knowledge and history, libraries symbolize order, chaos, chance and much more. Richard introduces different genres of fiction (short story, literary fiction, illustrated novel, thriller, and children’s book), so take your pick and ready yourself to be amazed by the stories of the library!


The Library of Babel

By Jorge Luis Borges

Genre: Short story

Type of library: The entire universe

Approximate time required to finish the book: 45 minutes

Many writers unanimously agree: Jorge Luis Borges is the master of human imagination and its reification as literature, his influence permeating through the veins of the postmodern posterity, and in this short story, he dares to conceive the universe as a library. He engages readers with what can be deemed as “paradoxical intellectual possibilities.” All the books in the Library of Babel (e.g. things in this world) signify something, but are we not totally lost vis-à-vis such abundance of signification? This library contains: “All that is given to express, in all languages. Everything: the minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels’ autobiographies, the faithful catalog of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogs, the demonstration of the fallacy of those catalogs, the demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalog, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary on that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books.”

The old narrator of the story recounts his life as an unending toil to find the “Book of books” (also called the Vindication). There are official searchers, called inquisitors. As far as he knows, no one has found it, and the quest to find the Book has incurred great unrest in civilization for centuries.

This allegorical tale is also about our innate yearning for the Absolute, about our humble existence in this vast world, about the grand scheme of things that elude our comprehension. Borges renders a library as a perfect metaphor for the universe.

Call #: PQ7797.B635 L3 1964


The Name of the Rose

By Umberto Eco

Genre: Literary Fiction

Type of Library: The abbey library at an Italian Monastery

Approximate time required to finish the book: 16 – 18 hours

A masterpiece by the late Italian Professor of Semiology Umberto Eco (who sadly passed away just last year), The Name of the Rose is an epic scale murder-mystery that takes place in 1327 at a foreboding monastery that houses the greatest library in Christendom. According to our protagonist, William of Baskerville, the library has “more books than any other Christian library. I know that the six thousand codices that were the boast of Novalesa a hundred or more years ago are few compared to yours, and perhaps many of those are now here. I know your abbey is the only light that Christianity can oppose to the thirty-six libraries of Baghdad, to the ten thousand codices of the Vizir Ibn al-Alkami, that the number of your Bibles equals the two thousand four hundred Korans that are the pride of Cairo.”

Unlike our common expectations of a library, many books in this library are forbidden to use because some monks believe that some knowledge are not for all. To guard certain books from exposure, a series of crimes are committed, ominously in sync with the havocs as revealed in the Book of Revelation. The novel occasions, among many things, a fascinating theological debate (legitimacy of poverty, licitness of laughter, etc.), the nature of what we deem as capital ‘T’ Truth, and, of course, the labyrinthine library that is pivotal to the whole story line.

The Name of the Rose was also adapted to film in 1986, starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater. I end this entry with a quote that sums up the theme of this novel. “Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth.”

Call #:  PQ4865.C6 N613 2006


The Strange Library

By Haruki Murakami

Genre: Illustrated novel

Type of library: Public library in Japan

Approximate time to finish the story: 1 to 1 ½  hours.

Written by the author who popularized Eastern Literature in the Western world, The Strange Library is a slim book accompanied by lots of abstract illustrations. A boy on his way back from school enters the public library to return and borrow some books. At the circulation desk, he is seized by the curiosity about tax collection in the Ottoman Empire and asks for books about it. He is shown to a room in the basement where an old man brings him three books: 1) The Ottoman Tax System, 2) The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector, and 3) Tax Revolts and Their Suppression in the Ottoman-Turkish Empire. Unexpectedly, the old man requests the boy to follow him to an unknown room in order to read these books, and thus begins the fantastical adventure (Murakami’s signature style) of the boy’s escape from his imprisonment. During his travail, he forms a new friendship with a girl who speaks with her hands (not sign language) and a man who always dresses in a sheep skin.

The entire plot can be read as a metaphor; an experience of entering a library and reading a book is like entering a newfound world in which you can be enticed and enraptured by the new concept and knowledge. The boy says at one point, “As I flipped the pages, I became the Turkish tax collector Ibn Armut Hasir, who walked the streets of Istanbul with a scimitar at his waist, collecting taxes.”

Every library indeed offers a unique and strange yet pleasing experience of entering a new world.

Call #: PL856.U673 F8813 2014


The Shadow of the Wind

By Carlos Luis Zafon

Genre: Thriller

Type of Library: The catacumbal library called ‘The Cemetery of Forgotten Books’ that keeps books that the world has forgotten.

Approximate time to finish the story: 12 – 14 hours

The novel that has the sales record surpassed only by that of Don Quixote in Spain, the Shadow of the Wind not only features the coolest library depicted in literature but also a doomed love story on par with Romeo & Juliet.

It is early summer in Barcelona in 1945, and our young hero, Daniel Sempere, wakes up to realize that he can no longer remember his mother’s face, who died six years ago. In order to console him, his father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where the tradition dictates that anyone who gets his first book in this library must protect it for life. Daniel picks up a book titled The Shadow of the Window by the author enigmatically named Julian Carax. He loves the book, tries to find more books by this author only to ascertain that someone has been systematically burning all the books written by Carax. Daniel might be holding the very last book by this author.

Daniel’s search for truth spans ten years, and the past he digs up turns out to be more devastating and heartrending than he could have ever expected. The novel has many stories within a story, and it is a testimony to how powerful and mystical a reading experience can be. “Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a place in our memory to which, sooner or later—no matter how many books we read, how many words we discover, or how much we learn or forget—we will return.”

Call #: PQ6668.U49 S6613 2004


The Library Lion

By Michelle Knudsen

Genre: Picture book

The type of library: Public library in U.S.A.

Approximate time to finish the story: 10 – 15 minutes.

From the author who says that libraries “are special, magical places, where everyone is welcome and anything seems possible,” The Library Lion is a beautiful fable that expresses how libraries advocate all kinds of diversity. Here’s one scene from the book.

“But there’s a lion!” said Mr. McBee. “In the Library!”

“Is he breaking any rules?” asked Miss Merriweather. She was very particular about rule breaking.

“Well, no,” said Mr. McBee. “Not really.”

“Then leave him be.”

The lion becomes not only a hearty and eager patron but a library assistant. He dusts the encyclopedias with his puffy tail, licks all the envelopes for the overdue notices, and provides backrests for children during the reading hours. Then, a day comes when he has to break a certain rule.

A must-read story for any parent, child, and book lover alike, The Library Lion portrays a library as an exemplary institution that values acceptance and understanding. If you’re as sentimental as I am, you may find your eyes misting a bit in the end.

Call #: PZ7.K7835 Lib 2006


Do you guys know any literature that features a great library? Let us know by leaving a comment!

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