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Nunc Dimittis

Labyrinth of the World

On Little Free Libraries.


Ken Liu tells a story in the first pages of The Paper Menagerie about a race of aliens he calls the Caru’ee, who only stand as tall as the smallest piece of punctuation and who build their cities and live their lives in the pages of books discarded or abandoned by civilizations which are normal size. They “seek only to use the old books, now devoid of meaning, as a blank space upon which to construct their sophisticated, baroque cities.” These miniscules’ civilization, then, is a library of unwanted, incomprehensible books.

I only read about them in Liu’s book because I found it in a Little Free Library which I pass every day on the way home from work and which, if I am on foot, I always stop and check for anything new. Really, I do this everywhere. I cross the street to avoid missing a Little Free Library; I make friends wait and balance stacks of John Grisham novels and defunct travel guides while I dig around the back of these wooden sidewalk boxes; I convince myself I won’t mind carrying a volume of mediocre science fiction stories the few miles back home. I don’t think this is so unusual.

Anyone who really lives his or her life in and around books knows what this can do to your neck. The crick I’m thinking of is the one you get when you spend days canted to the right, surveying shelves and looking for something to catch your eye, a posture I assume in bookshops and libraries and in the homes of acquaintances of whom I am trying to take the measure—if you really live through books you know how much information you can get from a quick scan of the spines. It promises a little click of connection or a private moment of bemusement, the moment you grab down an obscure title and exclaim, “Really, you too?” or notice an inexplicable collection of self-help books. Everyone knows what Walter Benjamin suggests: speaking about your books is always, on some level, just another way of speaking about your own life.

Little Free Libraries can be reliable and particular guides to the literary character of a region in the same way as thrift or bookstores (Typical Goodwill finds tell you a lot. In rural areas: The Purpose Driven Life; in the D.C. Metro Area: cash-grab political memoir shlock). People decorate them: a library can be a railway car, or a kitsch robot, or (I think most tellingly) a cartoon of the house it’s posted in front of.

The entire tiny edifice is built on a great misnomer. It’s ridiculous to call these wooden boxes of books “libraries,” as if they had any stable collection circulating, as if they served any consistent public good or could be called on as a resource for work or pleasure. “Free” is also a redundant advertisement: what library isn’t? But it’s “little” that I think is most misleading. What are all these boxes but outposts of a far more ambitious dream—an entire civilization made up of books, the world itself as a library? Borges imagined it as an early-modern nightmare, pure extension and geometry and the madness of incomprehension. These libraries, though, don’t contain endless hexagons and the abyss of language. It’s just English Grammar for Dummies.

It’s a mystical insight voiced in Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose: “The library is a great labyrinth, sign of the labyrinth of the world.” Walking through our neighborhoods surrounded by these libraries, we live in books in the most literal sense; our daily walks and chores are punctuated by the castoffs of our neighbors’ homes and the detritus of our fellow citizens’ own lives with books. Like Liu’s little monsters, we don’t read these books, at least not commonly. They just suggest for us that great dream behind every library, the wish a step beyond the library which contains everything in the world: a library which is itself the world, which is our world. Eco’s old man continues: “You enter and you do not know whether you will come out.” If you look up to your shelves and murmur with me, “If only!” then the dream in the book box is for you.

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