I love libraries.
When the pandemic has passed, I am going to spend so much time at the library.
Many moments that have stayed with me from stories I’ve loved are scenes about fictional libraries. There is, for example, the library of Bastian Balthazar Bux in Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, that the child Bastian visits, where he finds the collected volumes of all the stories and dreams he has ever imagined but hasn’t written down – “and the walls were lined with tiers upon tiers of books.”
And there is Ultan’s Library, in Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun:
“We have books here bound in the hides of echidnes, krakens, and beasts so long extinct that those whose studies they are, are for the most part of the opinion that no trace of them survives unfossilized. We have books bound wholly in metals of unknown alloy, and books whose bindings are covered with thickset gems. We have books cased in perfumed woods shipped across the inconceivable gulf between creations – books doubly precious because no one on Urth can read them. We have books whose papers are matted of plants from which spring curious alkaloids, so that the reader, in turning their pages, is taken unaware by bizarre fantasies and chimeric dreams. Books whose pages are not paper at all, but delicate wafers of white jade, ivory, and shell; books too whose leaves are the desiccated leaves of unknown plants. Books we have also that are not books at all to the eye: scrolls and tablets and recordings on a hundred different substances. There is a cube of crystal here – though I can no longer tell you where – no larger than the ball of your thumb that contains more books than the library itself does. Though a harlot might dangle it from one ear for an ornament, there are not volumes enough in the world to counterweight the other. All these I came to know, and I made safeguarding them my life’s devotion… In the library is a room reserved for children. In it are kept bright picture books such as children delight in, and a few simple tales of wonder and adventure. Many children come to this room, and as long as they remain within its confines, no interest is taken in them. From time to time, however, a librarian remarks a solitary child, still of tender years, who wanders from the children’s room … and at last deserts it entirely. Such a child eventually discovers, on some low but obscure shelf, The Book of Gold. Unless my memory betrays me, the cover is of black buckram, considerably faded at the spine. Several of the signatures are coming out, and certain of the plates have been taken. But it is a remarkably lovely book. I wish that I might find it again… The child, as I said, in time discovers The Book of Gold. Then the librarians come – like vampires, some say, though others say like fairy godparents at a christening. They speak to the child, and the child joins them. Henceforth he is in the library whenever he may be, and soon his parents know him no more.”
When I wrote Ansible: A Thousand Faces, I resolved to add a library of my own to the list of fictional, imagined archives. So I added the Memory Blossom. It is humanity’s last library, at the end of time, and as humanity is at risk of dying, those who battle for our descendants’ survival battle also to defend the library. Those words – DEFEND THE LIBRARY – are written in Arabic over the entrance. And the reader first encounters the library during a battle just inside the door:
“Two sentinels run up the steps, one passing me on my left, one on the right. One black and one white with a shock of red hair. A woman’s language or continent of origin does not matter to Lucia, only her willingness to defend humanity’s children. They take up positions at either side of the door, Saws ready. I climb to meet them, wiping blood from my brow, a thunder-beat of fury in my heart. Every tome in my library has a digital sister, written invisibly into the archives that live in the walls and cannot be burned or broken, but those books that died behind us in a blaze of bullets were crafted with great labor by human hands, by hands whose owners will never again speak or make, whose names may not even be remembered. And the books are but the smaller part of humanity’s memory. A glance back as I climb, and I see some of the bullets have passed across the rotunda into the Memory Blossom, long, stacked cases of bioglass that—when gazed into from the level above us—together resemble the shape of an unfolding rose, of memory unfolding at the touch of the love of the living, the way a rose unfolds at the touch of sunlight. The cases hold and preserve not books but other artifacts rescued from a dying earth, objects brought here by the wives and husbands and brothers and mothers of the beloved dead because these were objects the dead cherished—the dolls and pocketwatches and earmusic implants and squares of colorful fabric orphaned from lost quilts, thimbles and photographs and crucifixes and scraps of paper with Daoishi spells inked on them, and even a long-dead artificial heart. Bioglass does not shatter, but I can see the perfect circular punctures where the bullets penetrated. Inside one of the cases, a tiny sculpture of blown glass that someone—perhaps the craftsman’s child—carried lovingly across the forests of Persia or the deserts of the Sudan, all the way here, has shattered. Its shape, which was that of an elephant, is fragmented; it can’t ever be put back together. Leaning half against the violated case, a young woman lies dead, her face shattered as completely as the elephant. A death that should not have happened today.”
What is your favorite fictional library?
The Memory Blossom was a concept my readers and I developed together on Patreon, which I often treat as a workshop to cook up and test ideas that then work their way into the stories – because storytelling is a communal act. The idea was how might our descendants, after devastating global crisis and near extinction, preserve the memory and knowledge of their pasts – how might they do this as they grieve? And when one of my readers (the thoughtful and lovely Genevieve Bergman) reminded us that refugees carry memories of the past that are encoded in objects and relics and photographs of the lost, not only in texts, the Memory Blossom was planted. I like how it grew.That is the kind of conversation my readers and I have on Patreon, as each book takes shape. Come join us there – get all the ebooks, fun the books, and help me create a fictional library or a bizarre device or a dangerous new creature. You never know what delicious mischief we might get up to, together. You can join here:
I hope you will.
Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!