8 Magical Libraries in Literature


I suspect many writers spend hours and hours at their local library and, if they’re anything like me, they can often feel like they’re swallowed up in a grandiose, if not downright mythological reservoir of knowledge. I remember living in Los Angeles, going to the Los Angeles Public Library, sitting at long tables and reading books about the arctic for a story I was writing. Later, I was reading books about the desert for another story. Later, it was something else. 

When I moved to Cleveland, I soon found myself in the immense Cleveland Public Library, researching something new there. Research is a rabbit hole. Once you start, it takes a herculean effort to stop. If you’re at all the curious type, it’s a downright addiction. I find I research far, far more than I need, but it’s compulsive and fun. Of all the addictions I could be plagued with, research seems a pretty genial one. When a friend mentioned a job opening at the Cleveland Public Library, I thought to myself, “Well, I spend so much time there already, I might as well get paid for it.” 

There’s no question I left the Cleveland Public Library more knowledgeable and more literate about the world than when I entered. When you’re not sneaking peeks at the various books that cross your desk on a daily basis, it’s almost as if you’re learning by osmosis. It occurred to me during this time, that even though I was gobbling up books and articles on a daily basis, that there was no way any person on earth could ever read everything in the library in their lifetime, not even a fraction of it. For all intents and purposes, it might as well be infinite.

Do all writers and researchers have this same thought at some point? If so, then it’s no wonder libraries end up in stories so often. How else to explain the existence of these eight selections below, which are only the smallest sample of the breadth and variety of ideas writers have mined from libraries. I’m not sure there is anything on earth, not the grand palaces, or the deep dungeons, or the hardy mountaintop retreats, that measure up to the mystique and intellectual heft of a library, big or small. 

“The Library of Babel” in Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

Let’s start with the obvious—“The Library of Babel”, a short story by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. Borges’ story is so famous, virtually every labyrinthine library in any recent book can be considered an homage. “The Library of Babel” describes a near infinite library of books written in a language no one can understand. Clearly, the library is organized somehow, but people go insane trying to understand its system, which implies a God that can’t be deciphered or understood either. And if that sounds interesting to you, Borges’ stories are full of these elegant paradoxes. Try The Book of Sand about an infinite book with infinite pages, or The Aleph about a sphere in the basement of a poet’s house where one can view the universe from every conceivable angle at once.

A Short Stay in Hell by Stephen L. Peck

People are waking up in a most unexpected afterlife—an infinite library where no one can proceed to heaven until they find the book that perfectly describes their life. It’s a stunningly effective description of tedium and monotony, spending a meaningless eternity reading book after book made up of random assortments of letters, hoping that the next book, against all odds, spells out your life—and if you think that sounds tedious in itself, it’s not. It’s as edge-of-your-seat as any thriller can be. 

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Much of this tale of two dueling magicians concerns the collection and curation of books. The library Mr. Norrell keeps is full of rare magic books, containing spells and incantations, a history of magic, and other rare and forbidden knowledge. Mr. Norrell is quite stingy about whom he shares his library with, which is one of the themes of the book, the attempt by these two magicians to control the magic around them. The climatic moment, when magic finally rebels, takes place in the library and it is a stunner.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

To call this a murder mystery is a gross oversimplification. True, it’s about a seven-day investigation of a murder that takes place in a monastery in the 1300s, but it’s also about Christian theology, linguistics, medieval studies, and a vast library cared for by a blind librarian (Jorge Luis Borges was blind, by the way). The library serves as a battleground of ideas, where the Franciscan and Dominican monks argue about the knowledge contained within and the interpretation of that knowledge. A dense and dazzling read, a book about books for all the nerds, sleuths, and armchair philosophers out there.

The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami, translated by Ted Goossen

When Murakami writes about libraries, you can be sure it will be the most surreal library ever. Imagine a young boy wandering into a library full of bizarre books, volumes on obscure taxidermy or the digestive systems of whales, only to be imprisoned by the librarian who will eat his brains if he doesn’t memorize three books on Ottoman tax collection. It’s ostensibly a children’s book, albeit, a very creepy one with illustrations. Typically Murakami, this novel is a descent into our subconscious, a place that operates on dream logic, populated by a bird-boy and a talking sheep. 

Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavic

Speaking of books about books, Dictionary of the Khazars is structured as an encyclopedia, almost a library if you will, about the Khazars, who had established an empire along the Silk Road and disappeared without a trace in the 10th century. Today, little is known about them but, despite this, Milorad Pavic has written a comprehensive history of their people and places, their politics and religions. His novel is told in a series of encyclopedic entries, in alphabetical order of course, that describe prophetic dreams, dragons and sprites, a Book of Shadows, and the continuing story of Princess Ateh and Saracen the Moor. Not a typical novel—perhaps not a novel at all, technically speaking—but an extraordinary feat of imagination nonetheless, with a brilliant conceit. 

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury 

The circus has come to town, and with it unspeakable evil. When two young boys discover the soul-stealing ways of Mr. Dark, the carnival-owner, they immediately seek answers in the town’s library. Here, the library is a sanctuary for the boys and, with a typically light poetic touch, Bradbury imparts upon it a mystical feel. Later, it becomes the front lines between good and evil. The scene that is forever seared into my memory is the  scene where Mr. Dark confronts the librarian and burns the pages of a book, one by one, in his naked hands. 

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

A boy walks into a library to find a book about… himself. His desire to get to the bottom of this mystery leads him to a fabulous underworld library. Embedded inside this tale are a nesting doll of stories—about three girls who each inherit a sword from their father, a sculptress who fashions stories out of wax, metal and wood, to name a few.

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