Friday, November 16, 2007

The Illegible Library

Today, I found the Illegible Library. It's no wonder I missed it yesterday. Apparently, when it was built, the only space the builders could find for the front entrance was an alley between the massive Fiction and Entomology Libraries. It's about five feet wide. The front door (fifteen feet high and just wide enough to get through if I turned sideways) opens onto a magnificent entrance hall, floored with a single row of mosaic tiles, with a colonnade of marble half-pillars against each wall. They're offset from each other, so there's room to sort of zigzag between them.

Walking this way, ducking under the occasional lantern, I eventually reached the front desk. It's wedged between the walls six feet above the floor so that people can walk under it. I asked the receptionist, a large, white-furred samoval, how they got it through the door; she replied in a distracted voice, without taking her nose out of the volume of triptych semaphore she was reading, that it had been built there. A ten-foot-long pair of fireplace tongs hung on the wall by her seat. I assumed they were for picking up dropped papers.

The heart of the library, once you get past the entrance, is a much wider space, though it's not immediately obvious. The high-ceilinged rooms are only sporadically lit and have been divided up into labyrinths of bookcases.

In them, and surrounding them, are the books.

Most of the libraries in Sconth - and everything else in Sconth, for that matter - are kept rigidly organized at all times. The Illegible Library isn't. Books and scrolls and tablets are stacked and piled and crammed onto shelves with no organization whatsoever. There's no way to organize them when nothing in them makes sense. Bookshelves stand and lean at odd angles to each other, forming high, narrow passageways lined with incomprehensible titles and lit dimly by the occasional lantern in the gloom overhead.

I think the building may have been a cathedral at one point. In the thin trails between stacks and piles of books, it's just possible to glimpse the paths of an old cathedral floor labyrinth, twisting invisibly beneath the newer wood-and-paper labyrinth piled on top of it. The passages open out occasionally into open, irregular rooms, piled high with books and the occasional piece of furniture. Sofas and armchairs are the most common, but I also saw several papasan chairs, a hammock, and the leather-padded cockpit of an antique airship.

Theoretically, the purpose of the Illegible Library (besides providing a habitat for linguists and a Place To Dump All This Gibberish) is to keep the incomprehensible writing in a place where people can find it. The hope is that it will all eventually make the proud journey to the Library of Obscure and Extinct Languages, an old and dusty building that holds about three times as many books as it actually has. Each translated book is shelved with several more books explaining how to read the original.

Books don't actually make the journey very often, though. Only one or two get translated every year. Most of the ones that make any sense at all have already been translated. The few brave linguists who still frequent the Library build their own little dens down in the stacks (formerly the crypts?) and hoard the books they're attempting to translate. If someone moves a book before they decipher its language, they'll never find it again.

(Many thanks to the Library denizens who came at least halfway out of their books to explain things to me. I admire your ability to talk and read at the same time.)

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Blogger Ginaagain said...

Fantastic! How does one go about becoming a librarian in the Illegible Library? It sounds like a perfect job for me.

10:49 AM  
Blogger Nigel Tangelo said...

I'd imagine it would be fairly easy; you'd just have to get the receptionist's attention (which might not be all that easy, actually, come to think of it) and ask for a job. All you need is a working knowledge of the several hundred alphabets (living and dead) on Hamjamser. After all, you have to be able to at least recognize the books written in known languages - even if you can't read them - and tell which are truly unfamiliar and which just have bad handwriting. Once you can do that, all you need to do is find the place.

10:20 PM  

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