Skip to content

Libraries in Literature (Part 2)

Posted in Arts & Humanities, Faculty, General News, Staff & Administrators, and Students

“In one way or another, we’re all anchored to the book. A library is a metaphor for human beings or what’s best about human beings, the same way a concentration camp can be a metaphor for what is worst about them. A library is total generosity.”  – Roberto Bolano –

The beloved classic film It’s a Wonderful Life has a scene in which its main character George Bailey (James Stewart) is brusquely heading toward the library on the night he has learned that his lifelong wanderlust should be dashed. He seems to have visited the library every time an unforeseen misfortune has prevented him from leaving his small town and exploring the world.

Another scene depicts Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) closing the library on a cold night, looking astray. In the life-that-might-have-been, she’s an old maid, never married, all her dreams broken. It’s telling that she works in a library, the place where the fantasy of other, better lives is available to anyone who still yearns.

It’s fascinating to see the media depiction of various symbolic representations of the library.  In this second installment of the “Libraries in Literature” blog series, Reference & Instruction Librarian Richard Cho introduces another five literature  that feature libraries.

Packing My Library

Book jacket for Packing My Library

  • Author: Alberto Manguel
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Library: A personal library
  • Approximate Reading Time: 5-6 hours

Written by Director of the National Library of Argentina, Packing My Library is an elegy to his huge collection of books, how they have accompanied him as he relocated from one country to another, what they have meant to him and how they have inspired him.

Just like his predecessor’s books (Borges was once the director of the National Library, and is mentioned quite often in this book), the book is full of erudition and enigma. He says, “I think ‘library,’ and I’m immediately struck by the paradox that a library undermines whatever order it might possess…my subject would become no longer the library but the joyful chaos of the world the library intends to put in order.”

However, what truly makes this work a gem is its so-called “ten digressions,” interspersed throughout the main text, his musings on esoterica related to libraries. The narration progresses as it digresses, ironically. Anyone who reads this book will be better equipped to be a reader and/or a librarian.

The Librarian Who Measured the Earth

Book jacket for The Librarian Who Measured the Earth

  • Author: Kathryn Lasky
  • Genre: Children’s Book
  • Library: The Library of Alexandria
  • Approximate Reading Time: 20 minutes

The book is a story about Eratosthenes, a librarian at the Library of Alexandria, the greatest library in the ancient world. However, he is better known as the first person ever to measure the circumference of the earth, two thousand years prior to any modern science, and his measurement was within 1% margin.

What’s emphasized more than once is that Eratosthenes nurtured his curiosity all throughout his life, and it was thanks to the library that he came to be known for his achievements. He never stopped asking questions, and the library and his passion for knowledge provided what he needed. One part of the book narrates his method for research:

“Eratosthenes began his research, unrolling scroll upon scroll, looking for bits and pieces of information that would help him answer his questions. He soon realized that the information he was looking for was scattered all over the place–in math scrolls, scrolls about people, and scrolls about history. In the richest library on earth, there was no single scroll that combined even a few of the answers. For someone like Eratosthenes, who liked to organize information, it was clear that before he could find any answers, the facts must be brought together and rolled up in one single scroll.”

Although it is children’s book with colorful pictures on all pages, the narrative will fascinate adults as well for its accurate telling on historical and scientific events. (The book even has a bibliography at the end.)

Camino Island

Book jacket for Camino Island

  • Author: John Grisham
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Library: Princeton University Library
  • Approximate Reading Time: 10 – 12 hours

Deep in its vault, the Firestone library of the Princeton University safeguards the original manuscripts by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Four thieves plan a heist and remove them, and the chase to retrieve begins.

The book also delves into the world of rare books and manuscript trading, some illegal, prices often astronomical, and it predicts the value of those rare physical books will continue to soar due to the omnipresent digital encroachment on the medium.

Grisham mentioned in an interview that the book is “entirely fictional,” and although his depiction of the library was credible, that of the librarian was not, as he mentions that a career junior librarian’s several tasks are “monotonous ones.” (As an academic librarian myself, I might be biased, but I can’t conceive of a task of mine that I’d describe as “monotonous.”)

The book is only modestly enjoyable. However, the tales of rare books and manuscripts are still gripping.

The Library Book

Book jacket for The Library Book

  • Author: Susan Orlean
  • Genre: Non-fiction
  • Library: Los Angeles Public Library
  • Approximate Reading Time: 8 – 10 hours

On April 29th, 1986, fire ravaged the Los Angeles Public Library Main Branch, destroying half a million books and damaged another 700,000 more. Susan Orlean’s The Library Book is ostensibly an investigative report on this catastrophic event and its cultural context. In its essence, however, the book is a treatise on the value of our public libraries, the most democratic spaces in our country. It is a call to protect these sacred places of collective memory.

Comprised of 32 short chapters, Orlean’s book parallels how memory works: chapters are brief, associative, and disorderly, yet not without specific details. They are neither chronologically nor thematically linear. Some chapters read dramatically (e.g., the day of the fire), others like a biography (e.g., on eccentric Charles Lummis, the past head of the LAPL main branch), yet others like a love letter (supposedly to our libraries). Each chapter begins with Dewey Decimal System descriptions of four materials that can be found in LAPL, previewing the content of that chapter. This ingenious format, while allowing the readers to easily stroll along the multifaceted narrative paths circling the main subject that is LAPL, evokes the nature of the library, the disorder in the guise of order.

Orlean’s book encourages us to make necessary trouble in order to keep our public libraries alive, and ends with a bit of lasting wisdom: “All the things that are wrong in the world seem conquered by a library’s simple unspoken promise: Here is my story, please listen; here I am, please tell me your story.”

Link to the full review at Los Angeles Review of Books can be found at Los Angeles Review of Books.

Ex Libris: New York Public Library

Book jacket for Ex Libris

  • Author: Frederick Wiseman
  • Genre: Documentary movie
  • Library: New York Public Library
  • Approximate Reading Time: 3 hours and 20 minutes

Running more than 3 hours, Ex-Libris portrays varied vignettes of daily activities of New York Public Library. If anyone had thought that a library is merely a repository of books, he will have learned a thing or two after watching this movie. The role of a public library in a community, especially in a city of diverse population like New York and Los Angeles, is integral to the principles of democracy. The movie says the library is an “anchor institution.”

Guest Speakers include Patty Smith and Richard Dawkins; a book club, mainly made up of mature readers, talks about Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera; administrators discuss on library planning; a scholar scrutinizes over the original manuscript of Vladimir Nabokov;

and tutors help small children complete their homework. The library truly is all inclusive, and as if to prove this, the camera often focuses on the patrons. Young, old, black, white, tall, short, nerdy, etc: the diversity is astonishing.

This visual poetry could work better if it is shorter (3 hours and 20 minutes is a bit too long), but it is a documentary we need at this juncture in history, when unconscionable politicians run the country and threaten to cut funding for libraries, when the tenets of democracy are tested daily by both left and right. As Tony Morrison has said, “libraries are the pillars of our democracy.”

View Trailer