Monday, 14 January 2019

Reveries of libraries, the twenty-fifth : THE LIBRARY AT THE END OF THE WORLD

The End of the World Museum in Ushuaia, Argentina 

Alberto Manguel’s faux eulogy to his life of book-collecting, ‘Packing My Library’  makes reference on page 127 to “the collection of travellers’ accounts held in the Library of the End of the World in Tierra del Fuego.” We think of Ferdinand Magellan and Sir Francis Drake, we think of web surfers and global changes.  This library sounds like a library that is too good to be true, and online searches tend to confirm this first suspicion. Perhaps he means the End of the World Museum in Ushuaia at the southernmost end of Argentina. What is Alberto, an Argentine-Canadian, talking about? Answers start in the now and then go other places.

Perhaps the library at the end of the world is not in Patagonia, but closer to home. ‘The Library at the End of the World’ is the title of a book of natural history works in the Royal Society of Tasmania, including early Tasmanian flower illustrations. Leaves and petals, painted and stored away, reassure the colonial colourists this is not the end of the world. They dip the brush in watercolour to apply some future to their newfoundland. The lending library is not far away, the mechanics’ institute, and there are book parcels on the water from Charing Cross Road. They can start up their own library as if it were the first day of creation, a short walk down the passageway of their climate-controlled Hobart villa.

The sense of closure pervades the book, that finite object of infinite possibilities. The idea of an ending stops being an idea when we reach the last page. Finality has all the emotions we can imagine: surprise, despair, relief, envy, expectation. The ending provokes responses that imagine possibilities beyond the book, beyond its ending, and even beyond the idea of an ending. There must be something more than this, and when we find it we will place it in a book and there make an end of it. The index is but an exercise in retrospective appraisal; it too will come to an end. That is the way it was, the book seems to say. Or the way it is, says the library. Or the way it will be, as more are borrowed out, whatever the papers say. The author applied layers of finish to the text before sending it out into an unwitting world.

Though what it would look like, a library at the end of the world, is more a metaphysical provocation than it is a geographic conjecture. While our cosmologies keep changing, even as they describe the same thing as the ancients saw, our questions and their imports add new books to supersede the sturdy metaphysics currently on display. The library is an ever-expanding rare book collection, when even the book itself is a threatened species. Increasingly rare first editions are stand-offish. Rare titles, many reduced to a single copy, turn their backs on the unforgiving ocean and the sun’s severity. It all stacks up, as certain as the entries of a philosophe, as uncertain as you and I as we innocently read the works we have borrowed, our intention to know even more than ever. The reminder that all of this is only ever on loan rarely enters our heads, watchful as we are to avoid coming to our wit’s end.

And even though the library at the end of the world is a website of science fiction apocalypticism, we merely stop by this website through accident, there to pass some leisurely minutes. As we would at a roadside café, just passing through to more sensible places, to sites that avoid indulgent dystopias; that operate deliberately to feed us whole food. Yet we notice at this roadside café how each one of us contrives our own worst and best case scenario for the end of the world. How, given enough time and lined paper, we could contribute our own colourful addition to the library at the end of the world. Our tendency to think the worst, to play with the worst for hours as though it were an amusement, vies with our priority for survival, our trust that normal transmission will shortly resume.

The Book of Revelation intimates that such libraries are the future, whether in a monastic scriptorium or the bookmart of all Gotham bookmarts. There are not the libraries in the world to contain everything that could be written about the end of the world. Patagonians and Tasmanians will have to wait their turn to absorb the meaning of the end times, just like everyone else. The last book of the New Testament is kept open at the page that infers judgment to be a closed book. Carpenters and metalworkers have kept a roaring trade constructing more shelves for this kind of establishment. Translators burn the midnight oil inscribing the words of the Book of Revelation in multiple tongues. The book is here to stay, it seems to be saying, until a better metaphor comes along, or the end of the world, or both. Libraries tend to serve as positive proof of this saying.

However (or therefore, if you like), the library at the end of the world is one we just entered, or exited last week, and will return to again sometime soon. Our craving for more closure seems to know no end. Like our craving for possibilities, for the world to be one where tomorrow is sanctioned. There ought to be legislation to secure tomorrow in perpetuity. There should be international conferences to finalise tomorrow as a given. Recommended venues for such a conference include Ushuaia, Argentina and Hobart, Australia.


Alberto Manguel. ‘Packing My Library : an Elegy and Ten Digressions’’ (Yale University Press, 2018)

Anita Hansen and Margaret Davies (editors). ‘The Library at the End of the World : natural science and its illustrators’ (The Royal Society of Tasmania, 2014)


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