Comments, EdgeNotes, In Focus

Libraries of Babel

I love libraries. When I was little, my dad took me, each week, to the local library in our tiny northern industrial town. No doubt, actually quite small, the library seemed huge to me.


Steve Latham


While he perused the adult shelves, I borrowed books of classic boy’s stories: “Billy Bunter”, “Jennings”, “Just William”; progressing finally to science fiction, a love of which has followed me all my life.

Eventually, I began to go on my own, on Saturdays, reading hard-to-come-by comics (like “The Eagle” ), and exploring the Reference section for ‘facts’.

Then my father lent me his ticket, and I graduated to the adult section, reading history, and authors who I later learned formed the classic age of science fiction: Brian Aldiss, Isaac Asimov, James Blish.

While I was doing my A-levels, I got hold of my dad’s library card for the big town where he worked, and on Saturdays I would cycle over.

Feeling very grown-up, I roamed its dark wooden shelves and wooden floors, all smelling redolently of polish; and picked tomes on politics, religion and philosophy – I was a weird teenager!

At university, I wandered the remote stacks, in search of abstruse, erudite, works, way outside my subject area, which I could devour.

This was a whole world, in which my mind was stretched into new ways of thinking. I needed no drugs to expand my consciousness.

Later, when married, and having kids, we in turn took them to the children’s section of the local library, where they developed their own pet interests: which thankfully also include Sci-Fi.

But I realised that the selection in our high street library did not satisfy my arcane intellectual needs, and acquired a desire to grow my own library.

This has been much helped by the invention of the Internet, and a certain online bookstore, although I now try to shop using its more ethical rivals.

The problem is that my collection has constantly expanded. So, like Alberto Manguel, in his “Packing my library”, discerning what to keep and what to leave behind, each time we move, is an agony.

My archive may not be infinite, containing every single book, as in Jorge Luis Borges’ “The library of Babel”; but it has overflowed into our living room, my study, and my work office.

I aspire to the condition of Umberto Eco, whose online video guiding us round his personal library is a joy.

Likewise, the Twitter feed, “Bookcase credibility”, reveals the reading habits, or their absence, among our leading politicians.

Certainly, little is more interesting than examining the book cases of people who you are visiting (in the days when we could enter other people’s houses), to discover their hidden motivations.

One enjoyment of the book owner is even gazing fondly at one’s own lines of books, and remembering what each volume contains.

Today, however, we must also be careful our video calls, posed before our book shelves, to demonstrate our mental acuity, don’t also expose us as middle class snobs.

(Photos: Pixabay)

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