Libraries in Fiction

Libraries always give me what I can only describe as a pleasant sense of vertigo. Walking down long aisles, surrounded and overwhelmed by the centuries of ideas and stories, I feel delighted by the possibilities I might experience. If you’re looking for fiction set in the unique environment of the library, check out these titles all set in the stacks:

As if this post couldn’t get any more self-serving, my first recommendation is set in the Chicago Public Library. Chicago author Audrey Niffenegger’s graphic novel The Night Bookmobile delivers a sense of wonder and mystery as her heroine Alexandra encounters and attempts to track down a small mobile library that inexplicably contains every book she’s ever read.

In Umberto Eco’s premiere novel, The Name of the Rose, someone has been murdered in an Italian monastery’s library. It’s up to a pair of non-traditional monks to infiltrate the heavily cloistered abbey, cutting through religious silence and arcane architecture in order to solve the mystery. The book even contains a tribute to a Jorge Borges short story that describes an infinite library containing every word ever written.

Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Tom Sweterlitsch is a sci-fi novel that pushes the idea of cataloging and preservation to the next level. When a nuclear blast reduces the city of Pittsburgh to ashes, the government attempts to preserve its legacy in digital format, recreating the entire city in a virtual world visitors can explore through direct computer-to-mind interface. As Dominic, the book’s protagonist, begins to explore these archives, he notices glitches and inconsistencies that cause him to question who is controlling this reconstruction of the past, and what they might be hiding in the cold case murder files he begins to unravel.

Fans of historical fiction won’t want to miss The Paris Library, by Janet Skeslien Charles. The novel follows Odile Souchet, a librarian working in the American library of Paris during the Nazi occupation of WW2. As books and patrons get banned from the public library, Odile and her co-workers form a subversive squad of librarians dedicated to delivering books to those without access. Years later, we see Odile through the eyes of Lily, a despondent teenager growing up in rural Montana. The two are neighbors and quickly form a friendship despite their difference in age. Sharing an obsession for story, Lily attempts to get Odile to share the events of her past, as both women search for healing and a sense of belonging.

With his attention to detail and eye for the absurd, Haruki Murakami is the perfect writer to tackle the eccentricities of the library. While his novel Hard Boiled Wonderland also contains many references to public information centers, today I’ll be recommending his novella The Strange Library. While most fiction set in libraries celebrates the space, Murakami’s library is instead a nightmare - a terrible and dangerous labyrinth that must be escaped at all costs.

What are some of your favorite books about libraries? Please give some unbiased recommendations in the comments, as this blog is hopelessly partisan.