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The Books Slept

By Susan Bassnett

The great argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges, takes us often in his stories and novels into great terrifying libraries of one kind and another, places where knowledge is hidden and organised in ways we cannot properly understand. For Borges, libraries and labyrinths are interconnected, places of corridors and passageways that can confuse and mislead. His short story, The Library of Babel, conceives of the universe metaphorically as a great Library, and he suggests that even though the human species may be extinguished, ‘the Library will endure: illuminated, solitary, infinite, perfectly motionless, equipped with precious volumes, useless, incorruptible, secret.’

With his typical irony, Borges constructs an unimaginably vast structure that at first seems enticing and excites a desire to explore the hermeneutic mysteries. But as the story progresses, so we come to see that the Library is controlled somehow, somewhere, by secret, inaccessible authorities. We may think we have the power to use the Library, but it is the Library that is using us.

We are sucked into the Library, we conform to its rules, we follow its labyrinthine structures in our quest for knowledge, we obey its laws without realising we are doing so. These days, I think of Borges often when I use the internet, when whole new websites unroll before me, when I follow winding or forking paths in pursuit of some piece of knowledge or information that, however reluctantly, I find I am compelled to pursue if I want to reach my goal.

Borges would, I think, have loved the internet, for in many respects he foresaw it: he almost imagined its vastness and its complexity over half a century ago through his fantastical constructions of libraries. He would have loved it because he would have seen how it forces us to confront the fluidity of knowledge. It denies us the right that we scholars thought we had, to call ourselves experts, for there at the touch of a button are yet more sites, yet more pathways, yet more unexplored references, yet more possibilities. Every time we click on, we are reminded of all that we do not know and will never know. Yet if we step back slightly from admiring this electronic marvel, the internet can be seen as just another kind of library, a seething virtual library, with knowledge stored in the ether and the paths to that knowledge often baffling or misleading, but a library in the broadest sense nevertheless.

It might, at first glance, seem incongruous to connect Borges’ Library of Babel, with its ‘indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between’ with a library created by one of the world’s best-selling popular writers, Terry Pratchett, but nevertheless there is indeed a link. For both men conceive of libraries as places of great, mysterious power, sites of unknown and unknowable knowledge. One of Pratchett’s stock characters is the Librarian of his Unseen University, who has been transformed into an orang-utan:

‘A magical library is a dangerous place to work… he’d been a quite inoffensive human… but with the change had come the key to a whole bundle of senses and racial memories. And one of the deepest, most fundamental, most borne-in-the-bone of all of them was to do with shapes. It went back to the dawn of sapience.'

With his metamorphosis, the Librarian has acquired ancient knowledge that is built into the DNA of a different species, that conditions his behaviour and gives him new levels of insight, levels, of course, that he cannot communicate since he is now an orang-utan and has lost the faculty of speech.

Pratchett’s fascination with libraries as strange, magical and frightening places recurs in his novels through his depictions of the library belonging to Death, where all human lives are stored. Death’s Library consists of millions of hour glasses, referred to as ‘life-timers’. In Mort, Death’s inexperienced apprentice goes into the Library in search of a life. The Library is full of floating specks of dust, and as the apprentice listens intently he can hear ‘the insect-like scritching’ of the stored lives writing themselves. The shelves tower up into an infinity of darkness, and down below, in the Stacks, the shelves are filled with the lives of the dead encased in books:

‘There were no more lives to write; the books slept. But Mort felt that they slept like cats, with one eye open. They were aware.’

The greatest difference between the internet as library and the buildings where libraries are housed is one of physicality. To access the internet we sit at a desk and gaze at a screen, but to gain access to a traditional library we have to enter a building, negotiate how to get through security, learn the ways in which books can be found, borrowed and returned. Libraries, as Borges and Pratchett in their different ways show, can be places of great anxiety, since to an outsider who does not understand the rules of a certain library, who might be using that library for the first time, the complexity of the usage system can appear daunting.

Some libraries have books on open stacks, where readers can wander at will, while others require you to file a request and wait. Free access means that you have to rely on your own initiative to find a volume, while waiting for books means that you have to put all your trust in those who can deliver the books to you. Often as a student in Italy I would wait for hours at the Biblioteca Nazionale in Rome, only to be told that the book I needed had been lost, or couldn’t be found, or else the library would close for lunch and readers would be evicted into the midday heat. In the Strahov library in Prague, I found a rare seventeenth century text that I was fortunately able to photocopy; not long afterwards another scholar tried in vain to find the same text, and became so frustrated that she contacted me to check that the reference was accurate. It was indeed correct, she had not made a mistake, but the text itself had vanished, cut out of the volume, presumably by some unscrupulous trader in antiquities. My photocopy had become the last trace of its existence. So much for trust, which is, after all a modern indulgence. Visit the library in Hereford Cathedral and you will see an example of a medieval chained library, where books were deemed so valuable and readers so corruptible that each volume was secured with a heavy metal chain.

As a reader in a library, you sense that there is a vast machinery working silently around you, a machinery that you only vaguely understand but which controls your use of the books you require.

I confess to being intimidated by libraries, even by ancient, beautiful ones like the Bodleian. The sense of intimidation comes not just from the centuries of knowledge stored on the shelves, but from the very physical dynamic of the library itself, from my awareness that I have placed myself for a short time into a system that I can only dimly comprehend and which rolls on inexorably around me, just out of my grasp. Borges captures the anxiety I feel about the sense of secrecy that prevails in libraries, while Pratchett goes a step further and endows the very shelves and their contents with a life of their own. Walk down a stack in a big, well-established library late on a winter’s afternoon, when the lights are dim and outside the world is in darkness and you can almost feel the books watching you as they rest in their hermeneutic rows. You feel the urgency of silence, your footsteps resound, a dropped book or pair of glasses booms like an explosion in the stillness.

In a university library, as examinations approach, libraries are less silent, but so full of tension that they provoke a different kind of uneasiness. A library just before Finals may be full of students, but those students exude a fear that is almost palpable, a fear you can smell the moment you enter the building, the fear that comes from the possibility of failure, despite the millions of learned words towering above their desks.

The library and the internet are wonderful and frightening in different, yet not dissimilar ways. As the internet grows in power and status, the library will surely diminish, but for my lifetime and my children’s at least, both will endure. Used wisely, the internet is an incomparable resource, and my grandson in his first year at school is already learning how to use it. Perhaps when he is my age, libraries will have become curiosities, places that inspire not reverence or fear but simply a mild historical interest, and all knowledge will be available at the click of a mouse on a screen.

Perhaps. Or perhaps not; perhaps the fascination that libraries exercise in the imagination as sites of infinite knowledge, as metaphors for the universe will ensure their survival. Let Borges have the last word:

‘Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the product of chance or of malevolent demiurgi; the universe, with its elegant endowment of shelves, of enigmatical volumes, of inexhaustible stairways for the traveller and latrines for the seated librarian, can only be the work of a god.’


‘We are living in the age of the world wide web, which grows and changes every day, a vast organic, seething network of information, opinions, contacts, facts and lies. It can provide knowledge, entertainment, escape from routine banality, it can take us into dark worlds of pornography and pain, it is a learning tool for students that previous generations could never have imagined being able to access. It is compulsive for some – it can take over their lives and become a substitute for reality. For those of us trained to do our research in libraries, the internet is both exciting and at the same time slightly unnerving, for it opens up all kinds of avenues that we might never have been tempted previously to explore. Our students are more at home with it than we are, scholars of my generation who have come belatedly into this brave new technologically complex world.’

Susan Bassnett FRSL is a former Professor of Comparative Literature in the Department of English & Comparative Literary Studies and a former Pro-Vice-Chancellor. She began her academic career in Italy, moving via the United States to the University of Warwick, where she set up and directed the postgraduate Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies. She is author of over 20 books, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a council member of the Academia Europaea.

Professor Susan Bassnett

Professor Susan Bassnett FRSL

Department of English & Comparative Literary Studies