I think that, if you spend enough time around books and libraries, you are exposed to the liveliness of stories so much that it’s hard not to imagine that the books have lives of their own once the covers close and the lights go down. I wonder if this feeling is part of what inspired Cyrille Martinez’s The Dark Library (excellently translated by Joseph Patrick Stancil). After a brief history of the Grand Library—from its origins as a monk’s collection of books to four monumental glass and steel towers—a reader picks up a book that literally calls out to them. This book takes the reader on a wild ride through a blitz of tales and realities that left me wondering about the lives of books more than ever.
The main action of The Dark Library begins when a reader, searching for something to read, enters the Tower of Novels. They compete with other readers to find just the right spot to light in the vast library. After a brief but polite skirmish, the reader sits down in their spot and, by chance, picks up The Angry Young Book. The Book pitches itself straight to the reader. The reader isn’t sure. They don’t know what they read and they’re not sure The Angry Young Book is right for them. I know that feeling well. If I don’t have my to-read pile and its deadlines pushing books into my hands, it can be hard to take a chance on a new book. Will the plot engage? Will the characters make us care? Will the ending leave us satisfied.
The reader decides to read The Angry Young Book and the wild rumpus begins. The plot races along with a strange story of a historian who uncovers a conspiracy before disappearing, possibly into texts themselves. Underneath this narrative is a subtext that I saw as if in neon because I’m a librarian. I daresay authors and dedicated readers will see it, too. This subtext spoke to me loudly of the tension between publishers that want to monetize reading to the absolute last cent while readers who don’t always have that last cent want to cram every story they can get their hands on into their head. The subtext references the struggle libraries have to stay relevant in a world that is always looking for a benefit for every cost. I rejoiced to see that the joy of reading won out in the end, albeit in a new form of great library.
Even though The Dark Library is a very unique story, I was strongly reminded of If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino (one of my very favorite literary books). Like If On a Winter’s Night, The Dark Library is highly metafictional. It rushes through genres to deliver an experience that satisfies—at least for a while—the question of what books get up to when we’re not looking.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.