Written by Luis De La Cruz
“Where else in all of America are we so symbolized / As in this hall?”
–“The Congressional Library,” Amy Lowell
Sometimes, when I walk through the Perry-Castañeda Library, I’m reminded of some literary works that center on libraries and illuminate the library’s relationship to its faithful patrons. Charles Simic begins his poem “In the Library” with a reflection upon the old and unread books that live within a library: “There’s a book called / ‘A Dictionary of Angels.’ / No one has opened it in fifty years, / I know, because when I did, / The covers creaked, the pages / Crumbled.” (I’ve actually encountered a book entitled the Dictionary of Angels in the PCL—I don’t know if it was the same one as Simic’s—and I can attest that the book was quite old and had “angels and gods huddled” in it.) These books, which hold “great secrets,” go decades without use, gathering dust “on some shelf Miss Jones / Passes everyday on her rounds.” This representation of the library as a repository of arcane and esoteric knowledge isn’t necessarily incorrect; I certainly have had the experience of looking through the PCL stacks and wondering when the last time anyone has read a particular book—especially ones that look as though their knowledge might be outdated, or those that haven’t aged well. But despite their disuse, these books still inspire and inform today’s scholars and thinkers. Randall Jarrell, in his poem “A Girl in the Library,” imagines the library as a sacred space:
Here in this enclave there are centuries
For you to waste: The short and narrow stream
Of Life meanders into a thousand valleys
Of all that was, or might have been, or is to be.
The books, just leafed through, whisper endlessly…
The library, through the narrator’s eyes, is the continuation of life, enticing readers through its whispering tomes. Jarrell taps into the inert liveliness and vigor found between the books of a library, elevating them to signify the brightness and curiosity that accompany human experience—the possibility held in these books is life affirming.
When I wander through our hallowed stacks of the PCL—and I often do wander, as PCL’s layout can at times seem rather labyrinthine due to my poor spatial reasoning skills—I sometimes consider that our library is not unlike that titular and infinite library of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, “The Library of Babel”:
[T]he Library is total…its shelves register all the possible combinations of the twenty-odd orthographical symbols (a number which, though extremely vast, is not infinite)…Everything: the minutely detailed history of the future, the archangel’s biographies, the faithful catalogue of the library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, 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. (54)
Of course, the Library of Babel is much more massive than the PCL: our store of 3.2 million volumes and 70 miles of shelves pales indefinitely in comparison to the 251,312,000 volumes in Borges’s Library of Babel (for contrast, it’s estimated that there are about 1080 atoms in the universe). But despite this disparity in size, even just walking through the PCL stacks, imagining all of the things written and contained in these books, it’s hard to repudiate the thought that “[t]o speak is to fall into tautology”
(Borges 57). Even in our (comparatively) paltry library, the sheer number of books it contains seems like it could possibly encompass everything that could be said about anything. To make matters worse, if “[t]he certitude that everything has been written” Borges notes, “negates us or turns us into phantoms” (58), then how do we resist our inevitable evaporation? And how do we reconcile the infinitesimality of a single person’s imagination with the history of all intellectual thought?
I don’t have an answer to this question—I often get discouraged and afraid that I have nothing to say that hasn’t been said before. But I am being overly melodramatic here: of course there’s still intellectual and creative freshness in our lives. There are still things to be studied, stories to be written—this is a certainty which is comforting in itself. “The Library of Babel” might put forth a hyperbolized and humbling representation of the insignificance of the self, but the bleak and cynical situation of all possible things being already discovered and documented seems not the only thing to be taken away from the story. Perhaps we should take into account the peculiar moment of uplift Borges provides at the end of his short story:
The Library is cyclical and infinite. If an eternal traveler were to cross it in any general direction, after centuries he would see that the same volumes were repeated in the same disorder (which, thus repeated, would be an order: the Order). My solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope.” (58)
There is an ineffable, reassuring quality to be found in the store and stories of the library—countless readers and writers have found (and will find) refuge and comfort and kindred thinkers in these walls and shelves, too. And perhaps, too, in our cyclical and infinite libraries, we might discover, as Charles Simic does in his visit to the library, that “The angels were once as plentiful / as species of flies. / The sky at dusk / used to be thick / with them. / You had to wave both arms / just to keep them away,”—or another still-unearthed secret just as stunning.