12 July, 2006


Every bookish household has such a place. It may be a spare bedroom, the garage, the attic, a dry cellar or the cupboard under the stairs. A place where dog-eared paperbacks and dusty hardbacks are stacked three deep and two high, where a vicus of collapsing cardboard boxes and teetering stacks sprawls out from the foot of the shelves, where the spiders have evolved into new life forms. Where books no longer in regular use go to spend a peaceful retirement doing the book equivalent of dozing in rocking chairs, reminiscing about the good old days and complaining that the comic books are rowdy and that paperbacks these days don’t know they’re born.

But life in the Overflow Library may not be as uneventful as it seems. When the owner - books are generous souls and will humour people with the title, if they are in a good mood - ventures in, in search of a book that she knows is in here somewhere and that is suddenly needed again, she is liable to find the place strangely unfamiliar. For a start, there are far more books than she remembers. Do they reproduce at night? Invite their friends to stay? For another, the book she is in search of is nowhere to be found, though she definitely remembers unpacking it the last time she moved house. And there are books that she cannot remember - or even imagine - ever buying. Twenty paranormal romances. The Ballybunion Railway. Croquet Tactics for the Mid- to High-Handicap Player. A History of Spoons Volume 1: Use in Warfare Through the Ages. Where did those come from? Do books have exceptionally labile genomes, with genes that fracture and mutate and jump species and produce sports and freaks with no discernible resemblance to either parent? Or perhaps the Overflow Library is so congenial a habitat that it’s experiencing an evolutionary explosion, like the fossils of the Burgess Shales, with strange new species colonising every available niche? (Literally). Or perhaps - and this may be the most likely explanation - these books have not been born and bred here at all but are merely passing through, travellers on the multidimensional pathways of L-space. Never heard of L-space? Let Terry Pratchett explain:

The truth is that big collections of ordinary books distort space, as can readily be proved by anyone who has been around a really old-fashioned secondhand bookshop, one of those that look as though they were designed by M. Escher on a bad day and has more staircases than storeys and those rows of shelves which end in little doors that are surely too small for a full-sized human to enter. The relevant equation is: Knowledge = power = energy = matter = mass; a good bookshop is just a genteel Black Hole that knows how to read.


Books bend space and time. One reason the owners of those aforesaid little rambling, poky secondhand bookshops always seem slightly unearthly is that many of them really are, having strayed into this world after taking wrong turnings in their own bookshops in worlds where it is considered commendable business practice to wear carpet slippers all the time and open your shop only when you feel like it. You stray into L-space at your peril. [...] All libraries everywhere are connected in L-space. All libraries. Everywhere. And the Librarian, navigating by booksign carved on shelves by past explorers, was heading purposely for one very special one.


The Librarian swung* on. It was slow progress, because there were things he wasn’t keen on meeting. Creatures evolve to fill every niche in the environment, and some of those in the dusty immensity of L-space were best avoided. They were much more unusual than ordinary unusual creatures.

Usually he could forewarn himself by keeping a careful eye on the kickstool crabs that grazed harmlessly on the dust. When they were spooked, it was time to hide. Several times he had to flatten himself against the shelves as a thesaurus thundered by. He waited patiently as a herd of Critters crawled past, grazing on the contents of the choicer books and leaving behind them piles of small slim volumes of literary criticism. And there were other things, things which he hurried away from and tried not to look hard at..... And you had to avoid cliches at all costs. [...] Ah. Now he knew where he was.

He was home. He was home a week ago.
--Guards! Guards!, by Terry Pratchett

* The Librarian of Unseen University is an orang-utan. It’s a long story.

It is not known how large a concentration of books is required to distort the fabric of space-time sufficiently to generate a connection into L-space. But your Overflow Library may well qualify. And that could explain a lot, couldn’t it?

(Talking of libraries, I was emailed yesterday by a researcher from the BBC wanting to know if I could help her find an illustration of the 10th-century manuscript The Leech Book of Bald. While answering her question, I came across this image. Note the library stamp on the front page. Analysis using cutting-edge image enhancement technology from NASA has revealed that the book was loaned to one Harold, who was due to return it some time in 1066....)


Bernita said...

Indeed it does.
Explains a lot.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Thanks for the post, Carla. It makes my garage situation a great deal more clear to me.

If Harold can wait for one of those fine amnesty days libraries offer from time to time, I'm sure he'll be OK.

Carla said...

Yes, I thought it explained a lot :-)
Poor Harold has all eternity to wait. Though I bet the owning library was a monastery, in which case it wouldn't have survived Henry VIII and there'll be nobody to pay the fine to.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I love the Terry Pratchett quote Carla and I've used it myself on several occasions. He is such a wonderful, clever author and Guards! Guards! is my favourite of his novels.
My own L-space is located in 2 keeper cupboards in my my wardrobe and I'm sure the books in there have embarked on a breeding programme. I know my TBR and reference books have, and they're in full view!

Carla said...

Sand Storm - we had exactly the same thing happen with a box of old university lecture notes. A nest of extremely over-educated mice. Chilling thought - are the creatures we call mice really Critters from L-space in disguise?

Elizabeth - snap! Guards! Guards! is my favourite too, if I have to choose. Any sign of your books evolving strange new species, or are they breeding true to type?

Sarah Cuthbertson said...

I always wondered why my Overflow Library is much, much bigger than my library proper. Now I know, thanks to you and Terry Pratchett (I really will have to read some of his books).

Occasionally I get ruthless and have a cull, donating to the charity shops. But when I subsequently visit a charity shop for a book-trawl and happen to see any of my forlorn little outcast waifs languishing there, they make the sort of heart-rending appeal that Paul Gallico describes in cats as The Silent Miaow -- and I simply have to buy them back. Is there any hope for me?

Then again, I might buy a book in a BOGOF or 3-for2 offer to read sometime in the future, then forget I've got it and buy it again. But that's probably due to my advanced age.

Carla said...

Sarah - hello, and long time no see! Yes, you must try some Terry Pratchett. You could do a lot worse than Guards! Guards!, which has a lot more about L-space.

I do that with books as well. In fact, I can't go into charity shops any more. Something in me hates seeing books neglected. I sympathise with the Librarian, who "picked up the lost book gently, as if it were a frightened child".

Bernita said...

"as a thesaurus thundered by..."
At times, it is a herd of encyclopoedias who stampede.Very noisy. Great clouds of dust.