I first stumbled across La Bibliothèque non Écrite behind a bodega in an East Side alley that respectable people avoid. The entrance moves from one day to the next—today on the busiest street downtown, perhaps tomorrow in the shadow of a small-town church steeple, next month adjacent to a soup kitchen on a forgotten street littered with rags, shoes, winos and their empty bottles (a place where those most in need will never wander). Patrons discover it looking for a shortcut during a storm, by taking the wrong turn when their GPS fails them, or by stepping from their bus at the wrong stop.
Be sure to leave through the entrance by which you entered. Enter by the western doors and exit the northeast and you might stumble onto the streets of Moscow during a blizzard dressed only in the short sleeve Western shirt you chose to escape Texas’ blistering summer sun.
Those who wander through its doors pause to catch their breaths and experience a moment of vertigo. The aisles spiral from the center, one after another, as though reaching toward the outer arms of the galaxy. Step into the lobby and you’ll experience a moment of familiarity—not so much déjà vu as a moment from a cherished childhood dream, a neighborhood you imagined during a reverie on a spring afternoon when the teacher droned about adverbs and algorithms.
You’d be correct, but the dream you experience won’t be yours. Rather, you’ll have uncovered the pages of a story that was never written—a story much like Kubla Khan, written in a dream and forgotten upon waking, or composed on the way home and lost in the thousand distractions of children, spouses, television news, phone calls from creditors or local candidates in an upcoming election, light bulbs burned out in the hallway.
Those words, words surrendered to the mundane, find a home in the library, captured, catalogued, and shelved in one of a million galleries waiting for you to discover, and, perhaps, become their only reader.
Most people pass the library and never see it, or if they do, they pause for an instant and remember an errand too urgent to ignore. They don’t see the library; they see a used dress shop or a coffee shop clinging to the handful of customers not rushing to the Starbucks further down the block. A few, however (perhaps you) notice the anomaly and think, “Why not? Just for a moment to see what’s inside?”
When they step back onto the street, they discover days—if not years—passed in their absence.
I, for instance, returned thirty years after I left. A bodega had replaced the corner delicatessen, street carts had proliferated—offering café Cubano, Cajitas and cardboard trays of ham and eggs topped with steaming Maduros. Developers had replaced my apartment building with a condo, my wife remarried, and my son had moved to Chicago to teach graduate seminars in semiology.
Let that serve as a warning. Should you find the library and step through its doors, don’t doze while reading Percy Fawcett’s two-thousand-page account of discovering the Lost City Z, or the rough draft of Tolstoy’s sequel to War and Peace. Don’t let the new exhibit of postmodern surrealist poetry distract you. Stop for a coffee, browse a few pages in the nearest stack, and leave.
Should you have no family waiting, at least no family you wish to see again, or should you wish for any future beyond another day at your terrible job, don’t hesitate to explore.
Every entrance to La Bibliothèque non Écrite leads past the gift shop. It doesn’t matter whether you discovered the entrance behind the Union Station card shop in Kansas City, Julio’s Bodega in East Harlem, or the glass shop near La Closerie des Lilas in Paris’ Montparnasse quarter. Immediately to your right you will find Cadouri de Pretutindeni și Timp (1), which is little more than a dusty counter with a few trinkets on display.
The souvenirs change at random. This morning a clay doll with button eyes and ten-inch pens (used in Vodun rituals perhaps?), a brass dining car with chipped paint, a miniature vintage typewriter with working keys (providing you have toothpicks with which to press them), and a white stein from the 2000 Jagerfest (available for half as much on Amazon). Yesterday it might have been an angel with one and a half lace wings, a sewing kit with a broken zipper, a signed photograph of Ptolemy, and a plastic souvenir soda glass from the 1968 Hemisfair.
Whatever the items on display, they’re never for sale. The proprietor will reel you in—don’t even try to flee. Once she calls your name, and she will, you will gravitate to her counter—and she will ask, “ce iti doresti?” (2) It doesn’t matter that you don’t speak Romani, you will understand.
You will suspect she’s the crone from a dozen folk tales, her scarf covers most of her face but a few white curls dangle from underneath, and her nose (more like a beak, vast and imperious) lunges into space like a broadsword preparing to impale you with her demands. A half dozen hoop earrings jangle with each jerk of her neck. Her fingers can’t bend for the rings that cover them—signet rings, birthstone rings, braided and stacking rings, cigar rings, mosaic glass rings, baguette and motif rings, mood rings, heart rings, cocktail and crown rings. Five on one finger, a dozen on another, accented by three-inch nails painted blood red.
Her red pleated dress drapes to the ankle of her red leather boots and the applique on her blouse is a bouquet of orchids.
Whatever answer you give to her question, she will reach underneath the counter and present it to you in a gift box with the library’s logo. And with that gift will be a gallery and shelf number to lead you to the books you most want to explore. The price you pay serves as donation and entry fee to the library, good for your lifetime and that of your family.
You check the reference, and step toward the library directory to locate your destination, but then remember to thank her. Only when you turn to acknowledge her kindness, she will have vanished, leaving the counter and shelves empty—making her the first enigma you will encounter at the institute.
Despite the hundreds of maps scattered throughout the library’s wings, even seasoned patrons lose their way as they chase leads to their grails—love letters Freud composed to his mother, the Apostle Paul’s journal of doubts, Jack the Ripper’s letters of apology to his victims (composed as he fled the scenes of their murders and forgotten as soon as he spotted his next temptation). A note in a volume’s index that references the preface to Joyce’s Finnegan’s Iliad—a preface that mentions the Shiv ka Geet in the lost epic of India’s collapse, The Chyavanti—might inspire a voyage through the classics, geography, history, mythology, comparative and religious literature wings, not to mention philology, semantics, and semiology.
During their quests patrons might become sidetracked by a copy of the Goldstein’s complete Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, Quain’s The Book of Sand, Wittgenstein’s Yellow Notebook rejecting language games and theorizing the existence of language labyrinths (3), not to mention all 60 magnetos of Vestrand’s Unabridged Extelopedia.
Rumors circulate of patrons tripping over bodies collapsed in the aisles with a tome open in their laps and notepads at their fingertips (4). I can verify at least one such body, a skeleton I passed in the wing for Basque Epic Fiction. The bones were already breaking down, and the tiles stained with evaporated adipose.
“A sad case,” the Curator told me (a Victorian who never greeted guests without his morning coat and purple vest sporting a gold watch in its pocket). “The poor fellow spent his life searching for the book he hadn’t written. An epic, and, he imagined, a best seller, which he didn’t want to start until he’d seen how it turned out. I imagine he never found it, or, worse, did and died of grief when he discovered how bad a writer he would become.”
I asked why they didn’t clear away the bones, but he hesitated to send his maintenance people to find it lest they become lost themselves. “Besides,” he added, “what’s a library without a few skeletons or cautionary tales for their visitors?”
Which was warning enough to avoid tracking down the many books I have imagined writing, one of which would be a history of La Bibliotheque non Écrite.
Patrons rarely encounter staff—clerks, shelvers, custodians. (I, for instance, have never done so.) Perhaps the library’s founders wish to protect them from frivolous requests and interrogations about the library’s operations. Nor does the library offer information about its history or operational details, a practice which leads to endless speculation (not to mention the thousands of volumes of conjecture stored in the library history annex(5)).
Patrons can question the curator, but we are never sure who they might be from one day to the next. For instance, in addition to the formal Victorian curator, I’ve encountered one with wild eyes and dressed as a 19th century explorer (resembling, I imagine, Sir Richard Francis Burton), an elderly gentleman wearing a ruffled collar with doublet, codpiece, and breeches—his arms filled with folios and quartos, and Hypatia of Alexandra.
The library’s medallion bears the image of the lotus and papyrus, suggesting a correspondence between writing and rebirth (knowledge and metamorphosis?). Beneath the emblem is inscribed the name Hermes Trismegistus, which has led to speculation that the ancient scribe served as the library’s founder and first curator. Personally, I find the idea specious.
A Discussion of Lighting
While most patrons admit the lighting throughout the galleries is—without question or dissent—bad, most will attest that the fluorescent lighting (like the lighting of Borges’ library of Babel) never ceases, never flickers, but diffuses (however poorly) through the stacks and carrels 24 hours daily, accompanied by a distant hum so annoying that frequent visitors bring plugs for their ears to avoid distraction, anxiety, and even occasional bursts of outrage.
A fellow patron shared an anecdote about the lights shutting off for the better part of an hour, at least according to his watch. He added that it might also have been 25 or 49 hours, certainly not more than a week. Since then, however, he has traded his old watch for one with a calendar. When the light returned and he lifted his head and noticed someone had replaced every book in that section, including the one upon which his head was resting.
Casual patrons, those who drop by only on depressing winter days or whose plans were postponed and find themselves in the neighborhood, assume every work in the library is complete. Regular patrons take amusement from such naivety.
In truth, the volumes represented in the library reflect the intent and dispositions of their authors. Whimsical and distracted writers, the kind who can finish a thought no more than they can remain for long at any occupation (or with any romantic partner), frequently leave works of little more than a page or two, occasionally even a scrap that would fit on a Post-It. The library binds and shelves each work, even spring inspired rhapsodies such as: (6)
“His eyes, his smile, the way his chest ripples under his shirt, the way he blushes when I pass with my sandalwood perfume.”
“Her eyes, her breasts, her smile, her breasts.”
Consider the following story, one whose author has shared in dozens of variations with friends in bars, at parties, and while passing joints in parks, insisting each time that he will “write this story, you can count on it.” Alas, he never proceeds past the premise, which is:
A man looks out his window and sees someone on the peak of a distant hill. Sunlight reflects from what he takes to the observer’s binoculars. He waves but the man on the hill doesn’t wave back.
Later in the day, he grabs his binoculars and ascends the hill, hoping to discover what the morning’s spectator had been looking for. He spots someone with binoculars, waving from a window. When he adjusts the focus, he realizes he’s staring into his apartment.
In one version of the story, the hero watches a landmark through his binoculars and sees a man watching him with binoculars too. Later he spots the same man with binoculars from another part of town. He goes to the landmark but the man with binoculars is no longer there, but when he looks back and forth through his binoculars to the two locations from which he’d been watching, he spots two men, one in each location, spying on him. In one version he’s an ornithologist, in another a voyeur, in another someone who just purchased binoculars. In one his name is Gerald, in another his name Gerard, in others his name is the author’s (perhaps thinking to emulate metafiction).
Other writers have attempted to finish where the original writer failed, most often exploring the theme of parallel worlds where the voyeur trades places with his other self. A feminist writer asserts the doppelgänger is the master character’s repressed feminine side, trying to reassert her control. (This would be my favorite.) A religious thinker (one assumes) postulates the voyeur spies his guardian angels, a cynic (again one assumes) runs with the multiple doppelgänger variant and depicts them as reapers coming to collect our protagonist at the moment of his death. This last variation collapses in the middle of a clumsy scene where the protagonist debates his options with (not surprisingly) himself.
Perhaps the oddest depicts two protagonists, the voyeur and a scholar, describing the variations of the voyeur’s story which he discovered in this library. And, as with all the others, neither has an idea how the story should end.
The library has collected every iteration, none with success. It’s as though the story sparks readers’ creative imaginations but lacks the muscle to push them to the story’s end.
As we conclude the first half century of what many label the Digital Age, younger patrons—not those called Boomers but the generations that followed (7) —frequently ask why no one digitizes the volumes to make access easier and storage more permanent.
As to access, patrons raised to expect that such information would appear at the push of a button have never understood that the mysterious founders of the library never intended for the general public to have access. Otherwise, the entrances would forever be on display in the most public spaces.
The more pertinent question is storage, and those patrons who would see the entire contents of the library digitized don’t realize how fluid the library is. Unwritten volumes are created within a second of thought, during a series of dreams or across a lifetime. Furthermore, not a single floppy disk is readable with today’s technology. Tape breaks, hard drives die after 25 years, the library remains.
Including the new wing, which features stories by writers imagining they created their content digitally, and whose work patrons can access on the library’s e-readers.
But not online.
The Author’s Quest
There is a rumor circling among the library patrons about a man who found the book he never wrote. They say his tears washed the ink from the page and he died of grief.
- Gifts from Anywherese and Time
- What do you wish for?
- Rumored to have inspired both Post and Post Post-Modernist philosophy.
- Even though the library forbids note taking, perhaps still adhering to the Classical Greek prejudice preferring memory to text.
- Rarely visited because perusing the contents only leads to more frustration and confusion. During my own (and only) visit, for instance, I spent more time wiping away inches-thick layers of dust with my shirt sleeve than reading.
- Few of us speculate about the process. Such efforts inevitably produce results similar to the grandparent paradox in time travel, or Zeno’s pseudo-paradox about motion (always compelling even though we know it’s flawed).
- Generations X, Y, and Z, a choice of labels that, having ended the alphabet, leaves little hope of identity for the generations yet to appear without resorting to numbers, or perhaps factors (such as Gen Zx1).
Phillip T. Stephens
Phillip T. Stephens attended the Michigan State writers’ workshop. He taught writing and design at Austin Community College for 20 years. Phillip’s writing and art appear in anthologies, literary and peer-reviewed academic journals. His work most recently appeared in Lit Up, Literally Literary, Maintenant and Duende. He and Carol live in Oak Hill, Texas where they built a habitat in the shade of their oaks to house foster cats for austinsiameserescue.org. They found new homes for more than three hundred abandoned pets. You can find his work at https://medium.com/wind-eggs