by Charles Tan
One of my few stories that was workshopped heavily, The Librarian was influenced by Jorge Luis Borges's short stories. It's still my opinion that it was my best work of fiction while I was still pursuing my undergraduate degree. For quite some time, it was the only story I had produced, and my batchmate EJ even teased me about it, calling my name and then saying "librarian", and then laughing afterwards. Admittedly it's not a story that appeals to everyone because of the lack of character sympathy, but hopefully it's just not me that enjoyed this story. Last revised in May of 2003.
Years of research and not even a hint. The closest historical record I could find alludes to the Library of Alexandria, but even that is just a mere shadow. No, the library I am interested in is not limited to any structure built by man.
I do not remember how I had stumbled upon it. I was not even looking for it at the time. Perhaps I was dreaming. Or suffering the effects of hallucinogens. Had I crossed a rift in reality? Or attained the state of nirvana while meditating? Whatever the case, my entry into The Library has been clouded by memory and attempts to re-enter had failed.
I am sure though that at one point, I was in The Library. It cannot be classified as a place in the fullest sense of the word for it does not occupy any space, or time, for that matter. The Library exists outside of our world yet is still accessible to some. One of my theories is that it lies in the nexus between temporality and eternity, still a part of reality yet ignoring its limitations.
The Library is vast. It has no center and all around are endless corridors of bookshelves, each twice the size of any man. At first, I thought it was an optical illusion. Maybe something out of Borges. But there were no mirrors, just shelves and the books they contained. I do not know how long it took me, perhaps the equivalent of an hour in the real world, to verify that. I passed several dozen bookcases only to find that I still had further to go in either direction.
The shelves seemed to be made of wood, dark and thick. There was nothing distinguishing about them, except for the fact that they all looked identical and one could not tell one bookshelf from another. Even the books they stored all looked bland and uniform, each sharing the same size, cover, and paper. I wondered how one files the books.
I tried scratching the shelves to leave a mark, my trail of breadcrumbs in this wooden wilderness. But the shelf resisted and looked no different from the one beside it. I fumbled my pockets for a knife or even a pen but they were empty. Strange, considering I never leave home without a pen.
I was about to grab a book, using the shelf with an empty slot as a reference when I heard a voice. This voice was not something my ears heard but rather something that echoed in my mind, an idea that does not seem to leave your memory. One could mistake it for one’s own thoughts but there was something that separated me from "it". I knew that what I was "hearing" wasn’t my idea for I was determined in navigating this labyrinth through any means possible.
And then it occurred to me. What if this library that seemed to have no end contained all the books in the world? Not just the books that have been written but are being written and have yet to be written. If that was so, what place could hold such an infinite collection?
I realized that I was beyond space and beyond time. Even more mysterious than the place I was in was the source of these thoughts. Who could be here aside from me? But every library has its librarian, the caretaker of knowledge, the guide of souls.
Was it a him or a her? I do not know. As far as I was concerned, the librarian was a voice in my mind, a presence that defied all logic. Not all logic, just my logic. There are scientific journals that explore the possibility of telepathy. And one of the debates of philosophy is the ability of man to communicate directly with the other without requiring a medium.
At this point, the distinction between my thoughts and the librarian’s thoughts became blurred.
Lost histories, forgotten tomes, sacred scriptures, unfound journals, burned books, banned manuscripts, apocrypha, encyclopedias, compendiums, anthologies, best-sellers, short stories, vignettes, novels, classics, sonnets, free verse, litanies, essays, plays, scripts, tragedies, comedies, translations, myths, legends, epics, codices, literature of unborn civilizations – all these were available. I knew where each book was, its subject matter, and which shelf it lay. I merely had to choose. One.
Why one? Such a small number compared to the thousands of books published every year, such a small number compared to the authors born in my lifetime, such a small number compared to the translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey.
Tick. Tock. No clock was ticking for I exist out of time. But my heart was pounding, my brain racing for answers. Breath deeply. Again. Yes, things are becoming clearer now. Which book to read?
Surely not history for even the accounts of what happened on November 22, 1963 are too numerous to be contained in merely one book. And an account is only as truthful as its author. The Library, after all, does not discriminate. There is a twinge of curiosity about the future but this library is not limited by the physical laws of the world. A text written in the future I might read but who can say that what it contains will actually occur? All the possible futures, as well as all the possible pasts, are documented.
How about books on empirical data? Somewhere in this library is the formula that will convert lead into gold. But would I really care to know what that formula is? Would I even remember it once I leave this place? Would I risk the answer to one of the many questions that plague my life for something as trivial as this?
I think The Library is playing a cruel game on me. I could spend the equivalent of years in this place and still not decide. I am Althea and Meleager both at once, holding my fate before me. Choose and I regain my mortality. Not choose and I will be trapped in despair. I envy the All-father who was able to exchange one of his eyes for a draught in the Well of Wisdom.
Wait! This place is a library, even if it is the result of some cosmic machination. There is one person who would be able to read all the books in The Library for that person is as much a part of The Library as its books.
Who art thou, librarian? You have neither name nor gender, merely is. You know where all the books lie, what each one contains. Surely one must have been tempted? Ah, I see. Every treasure has its own safeguards against its caretakers. Did the Egyptians not bury the architects of the pyramids with the structures they themselves designed? Yours is a harsh existence. You know where all the books are but you are blind. You cannot read the very works you guard. The irony. I wonder what kind of life you live.
Perhaps it is actually possible to know. A biography of the librarian. That is the book I want to read. Unfortunately that is the one book that does not exist. There is no one to write about the librarian, no soul to narrate your existence.
What if I write a book about the librarian? But the nature of The Library is to have all the books, including that which has not yet been written. All the books except one is a contradiction. Would I create a paradox? There is a book on paradoxes.
A book I have written. Yes, that is a more plausible request.
Immediately, I knew the exact location of the book I was interested in. I passed a few shelves, turned a few corners, and then passed several more shelves. There was this book that looked plain and no different from the rest but I knew its pages contained my name. I held its leather covering and started turning the pages. I saw the title and I saw my name. It was indeed the book I had written, or rather will write.
In my hand was a book about The Library and its librarian. A paradox it seems. I wonder what would happen next. I turned the pages. And turned. And turned—