Saturday, May 31, 2014

In fantasy novels

My favorite, traditional, straight up, post Tolkien and pre Tolkien, but not counting Tolkien, fantasy series is the one that Patrick Rothfuss is currently engaged in writing. It starts with The Name of the Wind and so far runs through a second book that I am just finishing rereading, Wise Man's Fear. I love these charming, inventive and endlessly entertaining and even occasionally wise books. I don't recommend much on this blog, or, er, well, actually, I do every once in awhile recommend an occasional, uh, hmm, well, no, I recommend things pretty much all the time on this blog. But I am not here to recommend anything. I am setting the stage to talk about libraries.

The Name of the Wind (and its sequel) has a library in it. It is a fabulous, fantasy novel, Great University Library, a confection of a library. It is a maze with its own rules, an elaborate feeling of history, and a nice strong sense of reality to it. People in charge of the library, over time, have tried to establish a grand organizational system for this deep, rich library, but the reinvention of the wheel, organizational factionalism, and the sheer number of volumes have left great chunks of the library functionally lost. It is a library where much can be intentionally found, it is organized, but it is also a library where many things can only be dug up by deep searching, chance, perseverance, and luck.

It is not much like my library.

My library is neat, strongly organized by a coherent and mostly consistent set of organizational rules, and not terribly big, particularly when it comes to book storage. The rows are neat and plain, and we weed, all the time. A few years ago we had a great expansion at my library, but we expanded our space for everything but books. We were a bit skeptical about the future of books. And so now it is pretty much the case that for what we get new, some old must go. Uncirculating materials are the low hanging fruit here. We pick those and sell them off. And our collection is lean and popular and neat and everything is wanted and findable.

So it is the strangest thing that even though my bright, popular, public library is nothing like Patrick Rothfuss's great, clever, thousands year old library, it is, nevertheless, amazingly like it. Despite not being much more than 50 years old, in my library strange old things resist purges and cling like marvelous barnacles to deep parts of the stacks. Books one cannot begin to imagine surviving one weeding purge, let alone dozens over the years, appear from the thin air to taunt prospective readers. Five year old novels emblazoned with the praise of the most significant purveyors of a mighty culture rest profoundly forgotten on the shelves. The stacks are lit and even, the books cataloged and vetted, and yet if one ventures into them the density can become almost immediately overwhelming, the most willful purpose can be lost, and the strange and unexpected will dizzy you.

The fashion of the modern library involves cleanness and clarity, well lit spaces, openness. The feel of a sophisticated technology is in the air. Knowledge is at everyone's fingertips, on screens, and clearly marked. But a library is a library is a library. And a library is a warren, a looking glass world, darkness and illumination. Patrick Rothfuss made a lovely one in his books, and I am fond of my own in the real world as well. But there is, in the end, just one library, a great deep, dark ocean of a thing, an unending cavern, the night sky. And wherever enough books gather together that dark and horrible and magical and wonderful library is tapped into, deeper than everything we have ever done, black, mad with visions, and studded with stars.


  1. You got a bit ethereal or something there at the end. Prior to that I was going to say that I never made the connection between the lack of stacks and the idea that the future of books might be considered iffy. Consider Billings, MT, where their new library has shelves to house double the collection they had in their old building. And Minneapolis Central continues to be my local favorite, with its extensive shelves, backed by the compressed stacks, backed further by offsite storage. When I request a book and read that it is in offsite storage and may take five weeks to retrieve, I feel as if I've found a treasure.

  2. Well you sound out two fine examples (and why wouldn't you as you are fast becoming one of the most traveled library visitors there is!), and I am glad to hear them.

    As for the rest, that was the ethereal part. It's a match!


If you were wondering, yes, you should comment. Not only does it remind me that I must write in intelligible English because someone is actually reading what I write, but it is also a pleasure for me since I am interested in anything you have to say.

I respond to pretty much every comment. It's like a free personalized blog post!

One last detail: If you are commenting on a post more than two weeks old I have to go in and approve it. It's sort of a spam protection device. Also, rarely, a comment will go to spam on its own. Give either of those a day or two and your comment will show up on the blog.