7 Mysterious Libraries in Literature
Peng Shepherd, author of ‘The Book of M,’ on the mystical libraries of fiction
Libraries have always been mysterious, almost mystical places to me. There’s something about the sheer vastness of them, the seemingly infinite number of books they protect and keep, that inspires a sense of wonder, making each visit feel like a quest for ancient secrets. Whenever I step into one, I always wander the stacks, choosing books by some invisible pull rather than by the author’s name or the catalog. It’s not efficient, but I can’t help it. It feels more magical this way.
This fascination even crept into my debut novel, The Book of M, in which humanity has been struck down by a phenomenon that is causing people’s shadows to disappear. Amid the devastation, one of the places the survivors gather in the hope of restoring the world is a library.
Looking back, where else would those characters have gone? No other place could have been more enduring, more full of secret power, than a library. Here are seven of my favorite books set in mysterious libraries:
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
This novel has everything a book lover could want: a hidden library called the “Cemetery of Lost Books” that admits only the most special readers, but they can take just one book, and must become its keeper forever; a young boy in love; a father who runs a charming, crumbling bookshop; a shady antique book appraiser; a lauded author who’s disappeared, and whose work is being methodically erased from the world; and a rescued novel that becomes a dangerous quest for truth. Set against the backdrop of Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, The Shadow of the Wind is at turns innocent, romantic, and breathlessly gripping.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami
In this library, the objects kept on the shelves to be read aren’t books — they’re unicorn skulls. The novel is a split between an almost recognizable modern world and a timeless fantastical one, in which one man unlocks hidden portions of his brain to transport classified information during a data war while another wakes up memory-less in a strange, idyllic town where unicorns roam the grass outside the gates and the people living inside diligently perform their assigned civil duties without knowing why. This library is the duty that falls to the second character — he must care for the skulls and also learn to read them, for each skull contains a dream. As both men struggle to understand the forces at work, their fates slowly weave together. Dreamy and beyond explanation, it’s a little like Johnny Mnemonic meets Kafka, but with a beautiful nightmarishness that only Murakami can pull off.
The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman
In this series, a massive library that exists outside of time employs a secret sect of librarians (spies, really) to enter all the parallel universes and collect their rare and important books. Sometimes the missions are straightforward, but sometimes the books are dangerous, or magical, or have become the only copy left of their kind — which makes the collecting much more difficult. Librarian Irene finds herself in over her head when she’s tasked with collecting a particularly powerful book in a universe where magic is commonplace and exists alongside industrial technology. In addition to surviving the chaos of the city in which her book is hidden, she must learn to work with her new assistant, a gifted young man named Kai with secrets of his own, navigate the spidery web of intra-library politics, and most of all, avoid the sinister Alberich, the only librarian to have turned against the library and survived — and who is after the very same book.
The Library of Shadows by Mikkel Birkegaard
After his estranged father passes away, Jon inherits his Copenhagen bookshop and although he knows nothing about books, he decides to continue the old man’s legacy. He soon discovers that the shop actually hides a secret society of people who have the ability to work psychic magic through books. These “lectors” can trace their power back to the ultimate library of them all, the Library of Alexandria, and are divided into two categories: transmitters, who are able to transmit intense emotions to a person listening to them read, and receivers, who are able to sense word for word what any person is reading, even if they’re not speaking out loud. For centuries, these lectors have used their magic for good, but some of the more ambitious members have broken off into a faction called the Shadow Organization, to use their power for personal gain — by manipulating the minds of public figures. When more murders occur, Jon realizes his father’s death was not as innocent as it first had seemed, and that there must be a reason the Shadow Organization is now after him.
The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
This might be the most mysterious of all the libraries on the list, because the novel’s library is also the universe. Or perhaps even more than that. The Library is ruled by a godlike figure called simply “Father,” who has divided all knowledge into twelve catalogs, which are intensely studied by one librarian each. But these librarians aren’t usual librarians — they were kidnapped as children by Father and bound to the Library — and these catalogs aren’t the usual subjects. Yes, there is one for math and engineering, but there’s also one for all possible futures, for mind control, for animal ambassadorship, and for death. One librarian can speak every language in the world, another can time travel, and yet another can create ghosts. It’s thrilling. The Library and its strange catalogs alone would have been enough to keep me reading, but when Father suddenly disappears, leaving the librarians and the world vulnerable to a plethora of divine enemies — that’s when things get really weird. Trust me when I say that this one cannot be missed.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
The title of this one would make you think it’s about a bookstore rather than a library (and it is) but there’s also a wonderful vault of secret books hidden in a medieval basement, the spines literally chained to their shelves so they can’t be stolen. Clay finds himself working at a bookstore that has two faces — by day, it’s unremarkable and almost never sells anything, but by night, it’s visited by a very specific set of patrons who ask only for books from the back room. Clay soon discovers by snooping around that those books are written in code, and that there’s a secret race to unlock their contents. When he cracks the first key faster than anyone else, he suddenly finds himself sneaking into that medieval basement library and getting caught in the middle of a secret society’s obsessive quest to decipher the ultimate text.
Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Tom Sweterlitsch
This is the most sci-fi library of the bunch, but it’s just as intriguing as its more fantastical shelf-mates. The story takes place in the near future, a decade after a terrorist bombing has destroyed Pittsburgh. As a memorial to those lost, the Archive is created: an immersive, 3-D virtual simulation of the entire city before the blast, cobbled together from CCTV cameras, people’s memories, and every scrap of recovered data. Mourners and tourists alike can wander the streets, enter buildings, and see ghostly reproductions of the victims. It’s a horrifying, addictive idea that I couldn’t get enough of. Neither can the main character, Dominic a detective, who lost his wife in the attack and spends most of his time grieving and visiting fragmented scenes of her inside of the Archive. But when he discovers an anomaly in the data, that every appearance of another woman who was murdered before the bombing is being systematically deleted from the simulation, he finds himself drawn even deeper into the Archive — and into danger — than he ever could have imagined.
About the Author
Peng Shepherd is the author of The Book of M. Her fiction has been published in the Weird Lies anthology, Litro Magazine, and broadcasted on BBC Radio 4, among other places. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from New York University, and was awarded an emerging writers grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation based on an early draft of her novel.