Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Beginning at the Beginning

Once upon a time, there was a library that held all the books in the world. No, really. It was called the Library of Alexandria and it was so large that young boys were employed to scurry up ladders and fetch papyri for the scholars and readers below. The publishing industry hadn't quite hit its stride, most people in the world were part of largely oral cultures, and there was no way of getting anything written outside of Europe, Asia, and Africa - but who's complaining? Classical scholars, for one, because the Library burned down, destroying complete texts by Sappho, Euripides, and other ancient authors whose names we don't even know. So great excitement ensues when 100 words are recovered on a fragment of mummy shroud and turn out to be a "lost" Sappho poem.
Anyone who has moved house, or returned an essay's worth of late library books, knows that books are hardly insubstantial. Paper weighs you down. It makes Ikea bookcases sag, it gathers dust, gives you wee cuts, and generally has physical presence in the world. For thousands of years - in Western culture, at least - paper has been the stuff of literature, the material of stories and poems, and books have been possessions, things to pile, stack, arrange alphabetically or by colour or on coffee tables. Change is in the air, and most librarians are worried, as the internet turns books into bits and bytes, even books that were once the province of academics with library cards.
Delirium's Librarian is not worried, though. She was there at the burning of Alexandria (and has the scars to prove it). She was there when the Nazis burned Jewish books in Berlin. She was in London recently when Queen Mary's University weeded its collection and dumped books in a skip. Scraps, broken-backed texts, books no-one has ever checked out, pamphlets, anything with a 50% off sticker that isn't a self-help book... these all make it into her capacious book bag, and come home to form part of the library she guards.
Until now, it's just been a storehouse, gathering that aforementioned dust - but, prompted by the charming historian Alberto Manguel and brilliant writer and scholar of the lost culture of Edil-Amarandh, Alison Croggon, I have decided to put the library online.
Not literally, you understand (only Google has those resources, and that arrogance), but as a story in itself - of reading, of remembering how books came to be in my possession, of seeing where working through them takes me, making connections, hopefully hearing from other readers (best comment on each reading gets the book! How's that for a library?)... And in remembering and connecting, an archive will form of lost texts, writers, bookstores. Does anyone remember Compendium in Camden, London? Does anyone know what happened to its fabulous collection of Beat, Modernist and experimental books? I have this plan to make an installation one day... But for now the blog will have to stand, virtual monument to the passing of paper, people and places.
"Men and bits of paper / Blown by the cold wind," as that old curmudgeon T.S. Eliot put it when he was busy shoring up culture's ruins the last time everything seemed to be falling to pieces and into place. And who wouldn't feel curmudgeonly when discovering that the splendid Books Etc. at the Royal Festival Hall is closing because evil conglomerate Borders is refusing to pay the rent (how much more expensive than Oxford Street can it be???). But then, who wouldn't feel uncurmudgeonly at discovering the splendid half-price sale on small press, consignment, and generally weird books with which they didn't go gently into the good night? Having hauled my haul clear across London, and now back to Toronto (much to Air Canada's disapproval), Delirium's Library has a groaning new shelf - which is where I intend to start my monumental project of reading every book that I own but have yet to read, logging it here. I don't think this means an end to book-buying - I work at an independent bookstore after all! So my voraciousness - I once read Finnegan's Wake in a day for a dare - will be put to the test. Watch this space for the delirium to set in...


Anonymous said...

Dear Delirium:

I hope you have Walter Benjamin's essay "Unpacking my Library" in your unread book collection. I would like to hear you riff on it and on your current, delirious, project.


Delirium's Librarian said...

Weirdly psychic post there, WNW. I was just thinking about how I never finished Illuminations, the Benjamin collection that has that essay, in the shower this morning (TMI?). I almost bought his collected vol. 2 in London... and just remembered now that there's this collection lingering on my shelf, so it was gonna be first up. In fact, I've had it for (gulp) 8 years, since I worked at... well, you'll have to check out the next post and see.

Anonymous said...

I always love to find others who share my strange compulsion for buying books much, much faster than I can read them. Like deciding this is the year I am going to lose weight, I am constintly pledging to stop buying books I know I will not, can not, get to for years. There is something about the actual paper, the ink, the cover art, the smell, that I crave. Together the books of my library are like this (slightly mad) family or neighbourhood or something. I imagine them communicating, having street fights and love affairs.

Recently I actually tried to seperate the contence of my library into two catagories, those I have read and those I have not. I was shocked to discover that the not read pile consisted mostly of books I have been told I should like, or love, that are essential to my identity as a "serious" reader. In the other pile were dog-eared, worn out copies of books I would blush to admit I own. Hmmm???

Anonymous said...

Hi, I was wondering if you could answer my question. I own the Pellinor series and at the beginnings and ends of the books it talks about different writings and such that helped the author. There are also histories of
Edil-Amarandh (about it being a lost civilization) and I was just wondering if this is fact or just the author's way of making there story seem real. So, my question is this: Was there ever a civilization of Edil-Amarandh and is the Treesong real? I would really appreciate it if you could answer my question but, of course if you don't know the answer I understand.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering about Edil-Amarandh, too. Do you know if it's real?

Anonymous said...


I've just finished reading The Riddle, and I was just flicking through it when I noticed in tiny print at the beggining of the book it said something along the lines of, 'This is a work of fiction, anything that happens in it is the imagination of the author and if it is real has been used fictitiously.' I tried typing one of the quoted books into google but the only link that came up was Alison Croggon's home page.

Anonymous said...

I, too, wondered about the pellinor books by alison croggon. Was there actually texts found on a lost world?

Anonymous said...

Do you happen to have a copy of Bouvard et P├ęcuchet? If so, you might find it useful to read (or reread)as it might give you some inspiration for your New Year resolutions.

BTW, completely unconnected, but a friend of mine tells me you may also enjoy some of Laura Nyro's oeuvre (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laura_Nyro). I said that I was sure you knew her body, but they were fairly insistant I check with you. Does your library include musical works (even lyrics and the like)?

best wishes

Anonymous said...

If it answers everyone's questions, Alison Croggon did indeed create the world of Edil-Amarandh. I've read it a few times on different websites. There is even something about how you can tell if any of her sources are real or not.