Library books

Two books about libraries have delighted me.

Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr

I’ve just finished Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land. The author of All the Light We Cannot See has crafted a delightfully complex novel that spans the centuries and features three very different libraries: the ancient, the contemporary, and the virtual. Three main characters: Anna, Zeno, and Konstance are united by the text of an ancient Greek manuscript which translates as the title of the novel.

Constantinople

Anna is a young orphan who discovers the original text in a monastery immediately before the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. The ancient, abandoned library where she finds the treasure is a “round room, partially open to the sky, that smells of mud and moss and time…on the walls of this little chamber, scarcely visible in the moonlight fog, doorless cupboards run from floor to ceiling. Some are filled with debris and moss. But others are full of books.”

Lakeport, Idaho

Fast forward to a small town in Idaho (Doerr’s home state) in 2020 and Korean war vet, Zeno Ninis–who learned Greek in a POW camp–is rehearsing five children in a play based on the Cloud Cuckoo text he has translated. They are scheduled to perform in the town library which has been his refuge since he was a child. It’s “a light-blue two-story Victorian on the corner of Lake and Park.” A confused eco-terrorist who loves owls (which feature in the Greek text) is planning to blow the library up. Like Constantinople, this library is in a state of siege.

Interstellar space

Meanwhile, some decades in the future, Konstance is a young girl living with her family as they voyage light years across time and space to an earth-like planet, leaving behind a world devastated by climate change. Zuckerberg’s “metaverse” is fully instantiated and the few dozen adults and children on the voyage live in a sealed, windowless, spaceship. They are entertained by donning VR headsets and perambulating around the sum of human knowledge hosted by the AI known as “Sybil” (as opposed to, say, HAL or Alexa). On her tenth birthday she celebrates her “Library Day” when she’s allowed, for the first time, to don a Vizer and enter the virtual world:

She stands in a vast atrium. Three tiers of bookshelves, each fifteen feet tall, served by hundreds of ladders, run for what appear to be miles down either side. Above the third tier, twin arcades of marble columns support a barrel-vaulted ceiling cut through its center by a rectangular aperture, above which fluffy clouds float through a cobalt sky…through the air, for as far as she can see, books–some as small as her hand, some as big as the mattress on which she sleeps–are flying, lifting off shelves, returning to them, some flitting like songbirds, some lumbering along like big ungainly storks.

The secrets the library on the spaceship hold are key to the eventual resolution of the various strands in the book which Doerr unlocks in a grand finale. To say more would spoil the readers enjoyment.

The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig

I reviewed award-winning author Matt Haig’s How To Stop Time in 2018. His blockbuster The Midnight Library is a New York Times bestselling phenomenon, the Winner of the Goodreads Choice Award for Fiction, The October 2020 Good Morning America Book Club Pick, and one of the Independent (London) Ten Best Books of the Year.

Other Lives

Similar to the virtual library in Cloud Cuckoo Land, Haig has written about a library that contains an infinite number of books, each one the story of another reality. One tells the story of your life as it is, along with another book for the other life you could have lived if you had made a different choice at any point in your life.

The protagonist, Nora Seed, finds herself faced with the possibility of changing her current life for a new one, following a different career, undoing old breakups, realizing her dreams of becoming a glaciologist. She must search within herself as she travels through the Midnight Library to decide what is truly fulfilling in life, and what makes it worth living in the first place.

While the virtual library in Cuckoo Land plays with the idea of a metaverse, Haig teases out the implications of a multiverse:

Between life and death there is a library…and within that library the shelves go on forever…Every life contains many millions of decisions. Some big, some small. But every time one decision is taken over another, the outcomes differ. An irreversible variation occurs, which in turn leads to further variations. These books are portals to all the lives you could be living.

Like the autonomous books in Cuckoo Land, the library Nora visits is animated:

The shelves on either side of Nora began to move. The shelves didn’t change angles, they just kept on sliding horizontally. It was possible that the shelves weren’t moving at all, but the books were, and it wasn’t obvious why or even how. There was no visible mechanism making it happen, and no sound or sight of books falling off the end – or rather the start – of the shelf. The books slid by at varying degrees of slowness, depending on the shelf they were on, but none moved fast.

The Midnight Library consoles Nora, who gradually learns to live without regret. Reviewers have noted that it gives a needed perspective at this difficult time in the world, teaches that the little things matter, and helps us learn to love being ourselves and not be influenced or concerned by how others see us.

Those who love libraries will appreciate these wonderful novels for the environments they explore and the vistas they reveal.

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