The Stories We Craft in Darkness

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Quote: Darkness promotes speech. Light is silent.

—Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

Blackouts before smartphones left people to entertain themselves without relying on sight. Night before electricity, too. Sure, we’ve had fire in some form for a million years, but as a communal means of subduing the elements, encouraged by need, not by fancy. In darkness, we talked to battle fear, to commune with the dead, to exchange information, and to tell stories. We talked to others, to ward off loneliness; failing that, we talked aloud to ourselves.

It’s only recently that we’ve found ways to communicate in silence, from darkened rooms, and at a distance, but even then we are reduced to two options: written word or spoken word. Only speech requires not a ray of light.

Vision is the sole sense we can extinguish at will, outside of sleep. But when the eyelids do come down, our consciousness doesn’t vanish, we continue to think, to be with ourselves, within ourselves. If anything, the temporary blindness cements us within the bastion of ourselves, drives us deeper, allows us to contemplate because our primary input source is unavailable to disturb or distract us.

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Books as Libraries

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Quote: No page is the first page; no page is the last.

— Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Sand

Traditionally libraries contained books; later they expanded to hold film and music; later still, computer files and programs. Metaphorically, they are repositories of vast knowledge.

How vast does vast have to be before we call a collection of items a library?

Any public or private institution that has densely populated bookstacks is unmistakably a library. A child’s shelf containing twenty-thirty books is that child’s library—small, but present. What of a physical handful that fits thumb-to-little-finger and the weight of which you can hold up in your palm? I suspect most people would say: no, that’s hardly a library. Surely, the answer should be: it depends.

Consider three moderately-sized books you could just about fit in your hand: a dictionary, an encyclopaedia, an atlas. Right there you’d have more facts than you could possibly learn, and more thought-seeds than you could possibly nurture in a lifetime. What if you added a single Joyce, a single Tolstoy, and a single Plato?

Library is a sliding term that involves defining a minimum of some quantity (word count, page count, size, weight, space, influence) that inevitably leaves out a certain immeasurable aspect of knowledge, because no matter how cunning your index of choice, what knowledge means is in itself a personal matter. A bit like intelligence, or wisdom, or savvy. Any test you set is couched in terms of perceived excellence versus failure—often societally defined, but privately disputed.

The finiteness of a personal library is both its greatest weakness (it biases its owner) and its greatest strength (that bias supports the uniqueness of its owner). Indeed, a writer’s creativity springs from the kinds of books they have around them, like flowers or trees from a particular patch of soil. One may wonder: what of the roots?

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Siloed in a Writer’s Library

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Every reader is also a writer, if writer is taken to mean author to mean originator of one’s own actions. Books, like people and circumstances, influence our actions; the more we tease out those influences and knead them into useful, applicable tools, the more we are aware of our partnership with the written word.

Quote: The rooms in which writers (that subspecies of readers) surround themselves with the materials they need for their work acquire an animal quality, like that of a den or a nest, holding the shape of their bodies and offering a container to their thoughts. Here the writer can make his own bed among the books, be as monogamous or polygamous a reader as he wishes, choose an approved classic or an ignored newcomer, leave arguments unfinished, start on any page opened by chance, spend the night reading out loud so as to hear his own voice read back to him, in Virgil’s famous words, under “the friendly silence of the soundless moon.”

—Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night.

A den may invoke a tight, dark, mystical space, dense with gases, metamorphosing thoughts, and halusogenic phantasmagoria, but it could also be spacious, light, littered with post-it notes and gewgaws and candy wrappers, or spotless with perfectly aligned rows of books like lines on a page ready for inscription. Whatever its physical manifestation, the library is both an extension of a writer’s identity and a container for it.

To unite these two seemingly clashing metaphors—extension and container—I prefer the idea of a silo from the top of which it is possible to see lands, seas, skies, as well as, communicated with other silos.

Few writers have a complete, perfect library. Better-personalised probably encompasses most desires for improvement (change in arrangement and content), but even if a snap of the fingers brought about an envisaged ideal, there remains the issue of finiteness: the library is of limited size.

This limit is one cause of reader’s angst. But we do have a choice of what to put in our library and that choice, every time it’s made, influences us.

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Reader’s Angst

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Quote: I have no feeling of guilt regarding the books I have not read and perhaps will never read; I know that my books have unlimited patience.

—Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night,

The Library at Night is an “uneven” experience: a passing familiarity with the frequent citations is necessary, yet, if you possess such familiarity the connecting exposition sounds oddly bland and loose in places. It’s almost as if this were an expert draft ready to be tightened. Or as if the writing were deliberately left colloquial to “balance out” the  dense forest of references. What Manguel excels at, however, are the dashes of insight, like in the Quote—some of them developed, some less so—that he inserts between the obvious and the obscure in his chapters.

Perhaps calling the Quote an insight a misleading overstatement, for what he says sounds neither novel nor enlightening, but it does touch on a relevant, persistent gripe of many people: there’s never enough time to keep up with the to-read list. Whether feigned or genuine, hyped or deep-seated, I call it reader’s angst.

There are at least two types of reader’s angst: one plagues people who would like to read this or that, in an abstract, diet-and-fitness-goals sense (these are the casual readers); the other plagues people who would like to read an impossibly large number of books, in a concrete, obsessive, catalogue-and-notes sense (the compulsive readers).

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Bookscapes, Real and Imaginary

Around us may be windowless walls of brick and rebar, but give us a story and immediately an arc of the horizon appears. What if we had many stories?

Magnificent arrangements of books inspire awe in most bibliophiles. Awe—the feeling of solemn and reverential wonder, tinged with latent fear, inspired by what is terribly sublime and majestic in nature (OED)—really is the right word. Public libraries, bookshops, private collections, even a carefully positioned mess of tattered paperbacks on a stack of plastic shelves in a café: they are magical vistas of possibility.

By Diliff (Own work)

Library of Trinity College Dublin, by Diliff (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, the grander the bookscape, the more likely it will overawe any visitor with sheer Olympian attitude, for where does one begin?

Occasionally, even if we were to just dip into a book, then into a another, and so on, it would take years before we wormed our pathetic way through all the covers. (For example, it would take approximately 35 years in the case of the library of Trinity College Dublin, if we were to spend a minute a book, eight hours a day, every day of the year.) The thought makes me go hot and cold and shaky—the potential knowledge, the tales, the imagination, the human ingenuity waiting within the pages, the Diderot-Deridda-Dostoevsky, and only a finite amount of time before my hands will no longer be able to reach beyond the inside walls of an ash-filled urn, let alone hold a book. The desperation!

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Book Sequences: Quirks and Perks

Paul Signac used sequences of brushstrokes to create meaning in Place des Lices.

 

Quote: Books are transformed by the sequence in which they are read.

— Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

Start simple: the meaning of words is transformed by the sequence in which the words are read.

  • I grabbed the bottle, poured myself a glassful and took a swig.
  • I grabbed the bottle, took a swig and poured myself a glassful.

In the first the swig was likely from the glass, in the second from the bottle. The basis of such inferences is twofold: we assume that preceding events cause succeeding events, and we use sequences of words to indicate relationships between them. The former is post hoc ergo propter hoc, sequence implies causality—usually a fallacy, yet linguistically indispensable. The latter is a generalisation of how we interpret pronoun antecedents.

I held out the bottle, ready to pour the drink. As I reached for the glass, she knocked it to the floor.

She knocked the glass, right, not the bottle? Without any further information that’s the reasonable assumption because it is closer to glass than to bottle. A combination of the two principles also means that you assume the swig (in the original example) was taken either from the bottle or from the glass, and not from a nearby jar mentioned earlier in the scene.

So spacial arrangement and causality yield coherent events yield meaning.

Which brings us to books.

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To Quote: Quirks and Perks

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Quote: During the student revolts that shook the world in the late 1960s, one of the slogans shouted at the lecturers at the University of Heidelberg was Hier wird nicht zitiert!, “No quoting here!” The students were demanding original thought; they were forgetting that to quote is to continue a conversation from the past in order to give context to the present. To quote is to make use of the Library of Babel; to quote is to reflect on what has been said before, and unless we do that, we speak in a vacuum where no human voice can make a sound.

— Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

The Quote illustrates part of the reason I chose to blog about quotes. As Alberto Manguel says, to quote is to continue a conversation from the past in order to give context to the present.

Context determines meaning; without it we are doomed.

She stomped down hard and everyone applauded means one thing if she stomped as part of a flamenco dance, another if she stomped on a snail, yet another if she stomped on the fingers of her opponent in a fight to the death.

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