‘This is a place of mystery, Daniel, a sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.’ – Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The shadow of the wind
For a time I worked in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Founded between the wars, it was housed in a skylit attic room of a central library in one of this country’s smaller cities. From the outside, with its sheer cliffs of ashlar and aggressively jutting bow-oriels, the building was one which managed the trick of looking both ancient and modern. Its interior was more a mix of the ancient and the institutional.
There were no books in this part of the library, this Cemetery of Forgotten Books, at least not in the traditional sense. Just shelves and shelves of ancient, fat, stubby folders containing reams of bibliographic detail, together with the numerically coded location (or ‘loc’ in the verbal shorthand used by the cemetery’s staff) of where the book recorded on each slip was held in the region. We put readers in touch with the rare or obscure or forgotten books of previous centuries, and the unsuccessful novels and esoteric researches of the 20th. Like the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The shadow of the wind, it was exactly the kind of repository which might have had – or at least have led you to – the single extant copy of each of Julián Carax’s lost novels.
The chief librarian was a tall, elegant woman who may secretly have felt that the attic in which she had ended up was a career cul-de-sac; both a metaphorical and a literal glass ceiling. With her feather-cut hair and tailored jackets in light or pastel shades, she certainly seemed out of place, never quite right for the role. The other librarians were more suited to the Cemetery, more in keeping with my notion that this clearing house for books ought actually to be presided over by some kind of patron saint of lost causes. One was a giggly sort of stoic, always making a joke (if not the best) of what she felt was a perennially bad lot. Another was bird-like, a wizened old raven with a pecking motion to her head and deep black rings around her eyes from a lack of sleep. I was little more than a boy and she took me under her wing, guiding me through the bibliographic and procedural maze that was the Cemetery. Perhaps she recognised something of herself in me; perhaps, undeclared, she was a writer too, dedicated to puncturing life’s absurdities, and the rings around her eyes came from late nights or early mornings trying to forge a work which would itself one day make its way into the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.
It seemed to me that a book had a life outside of itself, if it was recorded in one of those ancient folders, that it could be pulled back from shelved obscurity or even extinction, to be given into the hands of its next reader. I was one of the mediums who brought the soul of the book and the psyche of the reader together. I wish I could have just one of the old folders in my hands again, so that I could quote at random a few of the titles of those forgotten books, but I feel certain that filed under ‘Bo-’ would have been this work, printed for W. Strahan and T. Cadell in the Strand, 1778: The Travels Of Hildebrand Bowman, Esquire, Into Carnovirria, Taupiniera, Olfactaria, And Audinante, In New-Zealand; And In The Powerful Kingdom Of Luxo-Voluptot. Written By Himself; Who Went On Shore In The Adventure’s Large Cutter; And Escaped Being Cut Off, And Devoured, With The Rest Of The Boat’s Crew, By Happening To Be A-Shooting In The Woods; Where He Was Afterwards, Unfortunately Left Behind By The Adventure.
Or perhaps a reader might have been after The life and adventures of Harvey Teasdale, the converted clown and man monkey. With his remarkable conversion in Wakefield prison published in Sheffield by the General Printing and Publishing Company, Limited, 1875.
Most likely it was more serious fare that was required, the encapsulation in book form of a lifetime’s study, the foundations of knowledge in a certain narrow corner of the Dewey Decimal classification, upon which all developments and adjustments in that field would subsequently be built. A book wanted sufficiently by a reader that he or she was prepared to fill out a form and pay a small fee to request it. And when we found the details of that very book printed upon one of the slithers of paper waiting for us in the folders, with a loc or locs pencilled at the foot of the slip, there was a small but not insignificant feeling of satisfaction that we were doing a good thing in bringing reader and book together.
By now the typewritten relics which together made up the index of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books will long since have been digitised. Rendered obsolete by new technology, the ancient folders will surely have been thrown away and the wafer-thin slips of paper they housed recycled. I moved on well before the Cemetery got to the point that it was obliged to close its doors, but I like to think that the giggly stoic and the old raven – if not the chief librarian – will have smuggled out a folder each, which every now and again they take down in order to flick through its musty pages, the smell and the printed slips conjuring for a few moments the days of their working lives.
Perhaps I am guilty of judging a work by its cover, but no, the tall, elegant woman with the feather-cut hair was never quite right for the role of chief librarian in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Of late, thinking of Isaac Montfort, the aquiline custodian of the same in Zafón’s beautifully crafted novel, I’ve been imagining that it should have been someone rather like him; someone rather like the man I have since become.
Photograph of Shakespeare and Company – source unknown.