Gonzalo Torné

A Library in Transit

«Libraries may be a disastrous investment but they are the physical expression of our solitary mental life. They are the prop and what tangibly remains of hours and hours of silent intellectual adventure»


A Library in Transit
Foto: @glennoble| Unsplash

One might well think that anybody who has a library has a treasure in his or her possession. But, what kind of a treasure? From the implacable (and unwelcome) perspective of price, it is a disastrous financial investment. It doesn´t matter whether we have spent ten, twenty or fifty euros on a book, the mere fact that it has passed through our hands (and been extracted from the commercial chain) results in its price being reduced to less than an euro (provided we haven´t underlined it or increase it a great deal). The only good thing a library says about our financial health is that we have money to pay for the space in which to store such a thing. So many shelves, so many metres of wallspace, and considering what the price is for a metre of wall space!

The news we hear about a library’s worth is better. Libraries may be a disastrous investment but they are the physical expression of our solitary mental life. They are the prop and what tangibly remains of hours and hours of silent intellectual adventure. A kind of mirror reflecting back to us what the features of our profile as a reader are.  What genre do we prefer? In what century do we feel most at ease?  What is our language? Do we skip from one author to another or  if an author fascinates us, do we devote ourselves to a close survey of  their work? The balance between books read and books yet to be read also reveals whether we are impulsive or conscientious. Libraries have a lot to say, oh, if only somebody took the time to listen to them!

Libraries are also like woods: even if the forest mass is constantly changing in composition (trees never stop putting forth shoots and withering) its form remains almost identical to our eyes. The rhythm of human reading is also like plant growth; it is constant but it takes us a long time to realize that the woods have already stretched nearly as far as the river, almost as long as it takes us to convince ourselves that we could do with another set of shelves. A library is very good at convincing us that it is one of our most static possessions (less so than a house, I’ll grant you that, but, who can afford a house?), but it is a trick, a scam, an invitation to a sedentary life… It’s enough to face the prospect of moving house for it to become obvious that personal libraries are mobile, except that all the effort to move falls to us!

Dismantling it: taking it down from the shelves, putting all of its minimal units (also known as “books”) into boxes…makes us conscious of the fact that a library is an articulated body. That the way it is ordered obeys apparently rational criteria and considerably arbitrary ones (besides numerous exceptions and whims, not to mention crazes. (Why, pray tell, are the Greek philosophers placed among the Greeks and not among the philosophers? Why are the essays written by poets and novelists sitting beside their poems and novels and not with the rest of the poems and essays? Why is Eckermann’s book on Goethe placed alongside the books written by Goethe?

The sight of empty shelves and filled boxes (some madman might be capable of counting and numbering them and associating them with a particular shelf and unit, and I don´t rule out being one of those people), that sight, as I say, may heighten the sensation that something has been stolen  from us: it is the sensation that often accompanies us on longer trips. But now it is bigger than before, it feels almost like an amputation. The same fear hovers over both eventualities (trips and moving house): the idea that in the middle of a professional or spiritual emergency we might not be able to access information that will shortly prove to be important, The difference is that even though travel takes us farther from libraries than boxes, one always returns from a trip, while the situation with books is unusual and uncertain, and is in the hands of so-called professional movers. But there’s more: as far as we may be from our home on the move, somebody with a key can trace our books and find the longed-for piece of information, the sentence, the quotation, the association, the idea. While with the library in boxes we suffer the dual punishment of isolation and dismantlement. And let nobody come to me with the argument that we can always look for a copy of the same book in a bookshop or in a library. How on earth can I know where what I am looking for is in a new volume! A reader is guided by the marks he leaves in the book, by what he underlines in it, which is the trace he leaves of the attention he has paid a subject, like compasses in a labyrinth.

And how utterly defenseless we are without access to a library. To take inspiration, to consult, to provoke, conceive, modify, quarrel with, confront… We know all of this, it´s been said, and it sounds a little corny, so affected (I realise, this is the kind of phrase nobody wants to see himself in), but it’s true. What can I say? And for us to begin to recognize a new flat as our own (I´m talking about the right to enter and leave at will, not a legal deed), it’s also a necessary condition (though not a sufficient one, how I wish) that the boxes be opened and that segments of the library go up onto the shelves to take shape once again in the simulation of  static life that goes along with this event.

Of course… ¿Can innocence ever be regained? Once the artifice of classification, with its scandalous arbitrariness, has been revealed, can we persevere in putting together the library just as we did before, or do we endow it with a Vita Nuova? Shouldn´t Aristotle resume his place at the head of Western philosophy? Shouldn´t we detach Kundera’s essays from his novels?  Bring together all of the eighteenth century, clearing the hurdle of language, to allow Voltaire and Dr. Johnson to meet in a supreme embrace of esperanto?

These are complex, almost anguishing problems. So I prefer to sit down among the opened boxes and to avoid automatically occurring metaphors such as the snake shedding its skin or the damned cocoon that butterflies leave behind. And I ask, which of all these books will be the last one to leave its cardboard jail? It turns out to be a book by Alejandro Zambra, an author I admire greatly, bearing the title Mudanza (Moving House), which  seems to have been put there to remind us that the cosmos (or chance) never loses even half an opportunity to laugh at us.


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