From "The Book on Fire"

Excerpt: The Library of Alexandria

In tremendous caverns, bookshelves lifted tier upon tier into the gloom. Long ladders were affixed to the shelves, which I climbed, up to the ceiling. I perched there at the edge of a cliff of books, and looked across the canyon. It was as if a river, in carving its valley, had exposed strata of titles. Other rooms were mere nooks, no bigger than a cupboard, with space enough for a single bookcase.

I read impossibly gorgeous scripts. Scripts in which each hieroglyph filled a page and took a day to write, but could express an entire philosophy. Scripts in which each letter stood for a notion, so the writing dictated thought patterns rather than words. Scripts that had no meaning at all, or that started out meaningfully but then, as the author was caught up in the physical act of writing, became relationships of lines and shapes on paper, beautiful and abstract. Private scripts, the authors long dead, so the script stood isolated, unreadable, precious nonetheless. Rainforest scripts of samara and turaco crest. Marine scripts of shark tooth and sand dollar. I passed through rooms of books the size of doors, each cover the death of an eland, and rooms of books dainty as ladybirds. Books written on communion wafers, grains of rice, sheets of ice.

Books are hiding places. I found books grangerized to twice their normal thickness by pressed flowers, letters, panties, snapshots. And of course books are palimpsests. Some books had been read by so many scholars they were entirely underlined, in blue pencil, ballpoint, fountain pen. Some ancient pages were black with notes scribbled in a hundred hands around the margins, between the lines, across the print itself, the text subsumed beneath a lichen of commentary.

I passed through caverns of drifting paper that fell like rectangular snowflakes. Caverns of dark pools, where books swam like fish, all gills and fins. Empty caverns of dream books, the beautiful books imagined by authors who died too young to write them. Many rooms had sofas or plump chairs or cushions piled on carpets, many were provided with thermoses of coffee and cocoa, bottles of wine, bowls of fruit and nuts and baked goods. It was the most wonderful place in the world.

In the Library of Alexandria, time lay between leather bindings. Drinking cocoa, eating fruit and cookies, I wandered through the fabulous chambers. Several times, I saw a librarian’s candle and swiftly snuffed my own and moved farther in. Though occasionally I was forced to plunge into a book, I struggled to remain on the surface, skimming titles, trying to gather the layout of the place. When I first entered it, saw the books scattered around the room and read the titles ranged in no alphabetical order, I thought there was no pattern, that the library was just a big dustbin for books, and this both pleased and alarmed me, but as I moved farther in, I began to sense a different paradigm at work. The library was vast, and in those initial days I entered only a smattering of the rooms, but even so I began to feel my way into its order.

When you are unable to remember a name, some character in a book, say, you can nevertheless smell it, taste it, as if words have auras. So you know it begins with an S or a Z, is scented like cinnamon, colored like lapis lazuli, chimes with sheen or serene. You know how long the word is, its curly shape, whether it was recto or verso, and its placement on the page, but the sound will not trip off the tongue. Just so, slipping through those rooms, I began to sense the books I might discover next, as if the halos about them were other books. I could not have stated precisely my reasons but, holding a volume in a chamber, I could have said that the surrounding books had to do with dreams of flying, and that if I entered the chamber ahead of me I might find books on angels, and the chamber to my right might contain books on the phoenix and quetzalcoatl.

Thus, as I moved through the library, I had the sensation that I was encountering the books of my childhood, books forgotten for decades, titles on the tip of my tongue. And indeed I did encounter, from time to time, books I’d read so long ago they seemed myths, and books I’d been searching for my whole life, upon which I pounced like an urchin upon coconut candy, and books that had been rumors in other books, their very existence putative, like sightings of basilisks or unicorns. But most of the books were strange and new. When I moved through the libraries and collections and bookstores of the world above, I seldom encountered books unfamiliar to me, and most I had seen dozens or hundreds of times, but here were rooms filled with volumes that might have been written on another planet, so odd were they.

And slowly I arrived at a realization so startling I was almost afraid to believe it. I found, as I moved through this subterranean forest, that I could imagine a book, known or unknown, read or unread, and be certain of the path I would have to take to find it. I tested it, over and over, and could not fail, as if my mind had been somehow prepared for this library, or as if the library had been modeled on the patterns of my mind. And when I realized this, I knew I could follow the patterns back through the caverns to the room where I had entered the library, to the book I’d read when I’d first arrived. I could not be lost, and this seemed right. Was Adam lost in Eden? Only cast into the eastern thorns did he lose himself, but in the garden of the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, where God strolled in the afternoon, he could name every flower, every bird and beast. There was something so heady about this, I felt I was under the influence of a drug. We all have titles, questions swept like sodden leaves into the corners of our minds, that we have little hope will ever be answered or solved, but that we cannot get rid of.

Suddenly, I found myself in the orchard of answers. Any title, any question I could think of, was waiting to be plucked. Greedily, I dashed through the library, finding this volume and that, seizing on ideas, and what I encountered of course engendered new branches.

But with this realization came the knowledge of the precarious nature of the library. In the above-ground collections, a book here or there might never be missed, but this library, so carefully tended, was in a delicate balance. A theft, I thought, might create havoc.

For a time, I wondered if I would simply stay here forever, reading, sampling the delicacies, hiding from the librarians -- the ghost of the Library of Alexandria, a reformed thief in paradise. And I wondered what would become of my soul if I chose that path. Even in the world above I was reclusive and solitary, often sunk in a book or in my thoughts. But if I eschewed human contact altogether, my only companions fictional characters, my only landscapes those manufactured of ink and imagination, what would I become? Would I start to resemble a book myself? I imagined the process: a male Daphne, spine curing to leather, ribs ironed to leaves, fingers and toes and tongue flattening, elongating, blood darkened to ink, veins strung like boustrophedon across the pages. My pressed heart would beat out iambic pentameter, hendecasyllabics, and some day I’d simply lean in a corner with my companions, waiting for a female hand to pick me up, lift my cover. And what book would she read then?

Ah, that is the book we step toward, you and I. Can you see it? Can you feel the texture of those pages?

About the Author

Keith Miller

Keith Miller graduated from Goshen College in 1991. He has spent most of his life in East and North Africa, and now lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, with his wife, Sofia Samatar, and their two children. He is the author of the novels The Book of Flying, The Book on Fire, and The Sins of Angels, as well as a translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s The Illuminations.