A Few of My Favorite Libraries by Django Wexler
When I was thirteen or fourteen, I got my first job, as a page at my local library. The work was just a few hours of shelving books every week, but simply being in the library a lot left quite an impression on me. I was already an avid reader, but up to that point I’d mostly used the school library, which had a relatively circumscribed collection. The public library, however, had an excellent science fiction and fantasy shelf, which I dove into with gusto. (One of the perks of being a page was being able to take out more books at once than an ordinary patron!)
Whatever else it left me with (I still keep the many bookshelves in my house neatly alphabetized by subject), working at the library left me with an attraction to the atmosphere of libraries. Quite apart from how fun and useful they are, there’s something magical about the space itself. They have the silence I associate with cathedrals, and the rows of bookshelves block off small, intimate spaces and seem to offer endless possibilities. It’s as though you can never be quite sure what’s around the next corner. I think they’ve always felt a little bit like mazes to me (something else I adore). Here are a few of the fictional libraries that have stuck with me—mysterious, maze-like, and strange.
The grandfather of them all is probably “The Library of Babel” from the Jorge Luis Borges story. The story describes a library of hexagonal rooms, stretching out in all directions forever. Its shelves contain every possible book, in the very technical sense that every possible combination of letters and punctuation is somewhere represented on its shelves. I love the wonderful paradox of this story—the library is simultaneously all-knowing (every book, including the book that tells the location of all other useful books, is in there somewhere!) and completely useless (because the enormous majority of the books are gibberish). Another of my favorite examples of the library-as-world comes from Kelly Link’s novella “Magic for Beginners.” The characters watch a TV show, which may or may not be real, featuring a library filled with strange creatures, magic, and odd environments, like seas and forests.
I watch a lot of anime, and there are some great libraries there. One odd show that left an impression on me is Yami to Boushi to Hon no Tabibito, which, translated literally, means something like “Travelers of Darkness, Hat, and Book.” In it, the protagonist pursues her love interest into the Great Library of Worlds, a library beyond time and space. Each of its books contains a world, and can transport the reader inside it. The library as a whole contains all the worlds that ever were or will be, which makes it an easy place to lose someone in! I love this idea because being transported somewhere by a book always felt like a real possibility to me, so it’s only a small step into fantasy to find somewhere that can really happen.
Probably my favorite of all, though, is the Great Library of Unseen University, from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. Watched over by an orangutan Librarian, its shelves go on forever, winding through strange dimensions and across space and time. (Pratchett explains: Knowledge is power. Power is energy. Energy is matter. Matter has mass. And mass distorts space. Sufficient books distort the fabric of space-time.) Its aisles connect to libraries throughout the universe, and even allow time travel, although disturbing the nature of causality is forbidden by library rules. Its books can fly, and have been known to devour the occasional incautious student. Of all the fictional libraries, Pratchett best captures that sense of mystery and possibility that makes them such special places for me.
I was inspired by all these elements and more when the time came to create my own fictional library. In the world of The Forbidden Library, libraries are mazes, created by magic-using Readers and a race of demons called “labyrinthine.” The magical books these libraries contain can do almost anything, transporting those capable of reading them to other worlds, imprisoning strange creatures, or unleashing terrible sorcery. And the books leak, so some parts of the library can be very strange indeed! It was a setting in which I knew I wanted to write a story, long before the other parts of my novel fell into place. I hope that through my books, young readers will discover the magic and mystery of libraries, just as I first did as a page all those years ago.
Django Wexler is a self-proclaimed computer/fantasy/sci-fi geek. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with degrees in creative writing and computer science, worked in artificial intelligence research and as a programmer/writer for Microsoft, and is now a full-time fantasy writer. Django is the author of The Forbidden Library series, as well as the adult fantasy series The Shadow Campaigns. He lives near Seattle, Washington. Follow him on Twitter at @DjangoWexler.