on Balzac, Borges, Breaking Bad, and libraries (2)

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This is the second part of a longer piece about reading, series and cycles, narrative and knowledge, and libraries. It started out as two things: a first post about libraries, and a second post about cyclical narrrative. Then when I saw that the two were connected, I stuck allthenotestogether. The result was a giant hairy indigestible horror, or maybe a horrid giant hairball, so it’s now been split into at least two.

Part the First looked at libraries.

Part the Second looks at cyclical narrative and its connection to libraries, in an attempt to show why burying books in storage silos is a terrible thing to do. There is a way in which it might not be a terrible thing, but this is a way which not yet, I think, been contemplated or created. Consider that post a contribution to my institution’s desire for us to help them with Innovation and Ideas.

It is possible that Part the Second might be split into further parts. We’ll see.

[EDIT: what follows is in note form. It may be tidied up, expanded, written up properly, and rewritten at a later date. I may add more actual Borges and Breaking Bad too, perhaps in summer 2016 when I next have some expansive space in the reading schedule.]

serials and cycles

featuring what should be the next great Arthurian / YA movie, from Gwyneth Jones

current reading and for why

TV series as not only the new episodic narrative, but the new grand cycles, and proving that attention (and attention to details. And simultaneous micro/macro, bigger picture, wood/trees) is far from dead.

Human narrative need. Quest, adventure, conversation, reverie, promenade, voyage. Movement. In circles, on winding paths, and along larger arcs. Often returning to where they started. Where the point is not a destination, but the journey. And the changes along the way. And insofar as there is a key point, it is the keystone, the capstone, that holds all the arcs and overarching a together at a midpoint: but you only see what that midpoint was once you are past (note, not “have passed”) it. Example: Breaking Bad and the “Fly” episode.

This is a slightly different thing from episodic regular weekly series that serve as a surrogate family / village for uprooted urban solitaries, whose life is dominated by work: Coronation Street, East Enders, Cheers, Friends, Frasier, Beverly Hills 90210, Daria, the Gilmore Girls, the Royle Family, Upstairs Downstairs, Ab Fab, Downton Abbey, Miranda, …; heck even Dallas, Dynasty, The Bold And The Beautiful, Santa Barbara, Seinfeld… And more recently, Third Rock from the Sun, Girls, The Big Bang Theory.
That 1990s lawyers one. Scripted pseudo-reality, like the Jersey Shore, Real Housewives, etc. Brazilian telenovela.

And series centred on a dysfunctional individual or group, though these flawed but optimistic anti-family dramas should be in the list: often (from he likes of Zed Cars and the Avengers onwards) focused on crime, detection, large police stations; hospitals. Wallander etc for individuals. Bones, House for groups. Star Trek, Red Dwarf.

Common traits: ensemble acting, highly individuated characters, people who look like people (hence why Dallas, 90210, and the like are parenthesised), time (and creative energy and acting work) devoted to dialogue, and the development and slow-motion tracking of character development and relationships.

Why Balzac, all of it, is worth reading, and worth reading at a mixture of slowly and at galloping pace, thoroughly immersed. Rather than, say, skim reading or doing “find next” searches for seemingly “more major” recurring characters.

Parallel between libraries and grand cyclical narrative:

  • roaming, wandering
  • room to roam, explore, including dead ends and loops and doubling-back returns on oneself. Both for the scriptwriter/author and for the library-user.
  • must leave open the possibility of continuation, in all directions: forwards, backwards, sideways. Also skew. And the possibility of getting lost: a danger; and a titillating exciting one–trapped there, forever, could be bad? or good?–and a joy, being outside time, not even a perpetual moment but a suspension in the magical non-time of total immersion. And enjoying that: exploratory wandering, just looking around yourself. Parallels here for research, as a search that involves a re- element when done well: returns, repetitions, movement in loops and labyrinths and knots rather than just plain straight lines.
  • a library (and a good literary work) must be big and convoluted enough for you to feel free and at large: an endless world. I know I get this form early childhood, small and short-sighted, not always wearing my specs. Imagine a small geeky child who reads a lot, and always has a book on them just in case. Up late at nights secretly reading. Sometimes found and returned to bed, when say my father would wake up (as per usual) early, see a light in the shower-room, and find me curled up asleep there with a book. This is someone for whom reading is important. Sometimes work and the stuff and nonsense that apparently constitute impoirtant things in grown-up life make it too easy to lose sight of that child. Who is still me.

And who loved to spend quality time in big good collections of books.

Parents and family being bookish people, having books at home was not only normal but meant having actual libraries. A more important part of life and household expense than technology: so, when I left home in 1991, we had two telephones from when we bought the house I think, so around 1980 vintage (both of the old-fashioned corded sort, one a relic from when we had au pairs years before and they had a phone in their room). We had two TVs by then, the first an old small black-and-white one from the late 1970s, the second a slightly larger (screen maybe even 15″ across) colour one from the late ’80s, and the same cable box that we first got in the early ’80s (so that parents could watch other European channels, ex. opera on German TV). Computers appeared later and were second-hand. When we started calculus at school, and were instructed to come to class with proper calculators, I appeared with a thing that belonged in a museum. That was embarrassing. Early adolescence is not a good time for such embarrassments. But I lived… mainly because I had books and a bookish life, unlike those who had fancier calculators and whose parents had different budgetary priorities.

Book repositories: Dunfermline Carnegie Library, one of the/the first such. Public libraries everywhere I lived; and I always feel like I now live in a place once I am the proud bearer of a local library card. The great bookshops of the UK: Thin’s, Blackwell’s, Heffer’s; later also Foyle’s. I later had the delight of working in Heffer’s: best job ever.

These are mitochondrially-complex folded places, on many floors. A good book place is identifiable as such because, well, it has lots of books; and it looks inviting and comforting, with cushy armchairs. It should also incite physical exercise: walking around, stretching up, bending down, to the left, to the right. Connected senses in remembering and learning.

For a child, treating bookshops like libraries. Any good bookshop should look indistinguishable from a library, with people sitting and lounging and, I hope, even lying around reading, in a leisurely fashion. UBC’s main arts/humanities wing does not. Not only is there less of that kind of immersed, fascinated, marvellous reading full stop; there’s less than you would see in a good bookshop. What is going on instead? People at tables and chairs, often “studying.” A mysterious activity that I often rail against (as it is not the same as “learning” and “becoming learned”, nor the same as “geeking out”). But which has, to be fair, some positives: intelligent interactions, explanation, discussion, commentary. It’s what UBC promotes, and an activity to which it dedicates increasing amounts of space (and money to spend on that space). As contrasted with silent solitary reading. I’m in two minds about this: I can understand how any kind of bookish activity is a good thing, and that doing things in groups with discussion is good intellectual activity. But I also feel this is only one of several kinds of bookish activity, and often a stage for people to work through before they can attain independence. Just as people often need to work through stages of guidance, and externally-imposed deadlines and planning, before they are capable of working completely independently. Most of us never get to that stage; I certainly have not.

I still do see that spellbound marvellousness in other places: people reading or watching or listening from electronic devices on the bus, plugged in, headphoned up, in another world. That is what literature is and what literary activity is about. Magic; enchantment; a marvel, at which you then marvel; miracles; a rapture and transport.

That is what I get from reading and why I have always loved it. In all shapes and forms. And why I frequently have crises about reading and how to keep it as a wonderful and precious thing, that makes life worth living: because when literature comes into life, life gets complicated, and you risk losing touch with that inner bookworm-child. I had such crises while a graduate student: this is partly why so much of my work was on very rich dense shorter lyric poetry, often like puzzles to be solved–even if that meant opening out what looked like a small flat 2D puzzle into a 3D mechanical toy–and that needed very slow reading, a different kind of reading, more contemplative, compared to the enraptured reading of Big Narrative. Lyric poetry and shorter verse narrative were safe. Even longer narratives were safe, provided that they were free-standing and only as intra-, inter-, con-, and trans-textually networked as any Medieval work is. But I avoided grand cycles. (OK, also because I admit to becoming very bored by some epic, and have been known to fall asleep while reading.) Because things like the matiere de Bretagne were what I read for pleasure, as the older end of a kind of writing that includes modern speculative fictions.

My current job has allowed me liberty to return to enjoying reading as reading, as an end in itself, rather than a means to a professional end. Allows me, that is, when my brain is not totally fried from umpteen hours a day engaged in correspondence with stultissimi and exhausted by the exercise of due patience and restraint. But. Reading as reading, for pleasure and enchantment. Now, on the literary criticism front, I admit that I had been thinking and making notes about what makes literature literature; and like anyone in the humanities, I’d been thinking about what makes literature worth while, and the humanities; what makes a liberal arts education valuable; and what makes educated people educated (or literate, or cultured) and a university a university. In the midst of the move and time we’ve all been in for at least the last two to three generations, of becoming post-human. A tricky time to be resolutely human, humane, humanist, and literate/literary.

I’d been reading other kinds of material, to try to keep up to date in various fields: medieval French and Occitan literature, French literature, other European literatures, poetry and poetics, literary theory and criticism. In short: academic literary studies. I also spend time reading up on areas directly associated with my main work, of teaching: there is some overlap, in reading about medieval and other early pedagogy and educational history and theory, early language-learning texts and exercise-books. Some of that is in education, psychology, linguistics; most of it is technically in history. That’s fun, as it’s all immediately relevant and applicable to what I do. Much of it is new to me, which is exciting and fun: because, let’s face it, learning new stuff is fun for the “did you know?” inner geek within the inner bookworm-child.

But. On the literary-critical front? I’ve been rather down about the whole thing. Some is good because it’s not really literary criticism, it’s actually literature. For example, new editions and translations of works; and some commentary, which like the great older commentaries, is a fine creative literary form in its own right. Some is still “secondary” literature, au second degré, criticism and studies. The best stuff is good because it’s also a joy to read. Or, as I think increasingly, just because it’s readable and enjoyable. No “also.”

I find myself jaded, cynical, bitter, and twisted about what gets published, and what counts as new scholarship worth publishing and, apparently, worth reading. Ideas are often stretched thin over the appropriate number of pages to count, I guess, for departmental annual reviews. Ideas themselves are thin. We are not talking dwarves on the shoulders of giants: but a flea on the dwarf. There is, as there has been for decades, an attempt to make literary scholarship “look more scholarly” (I quote a colleague, in to be fair a different and non-literary area): ad auctoritatem taken to extremes, with footnotes and name-dropping to show that one is competent to write on a certain topic. This clearly counts for more than an actual original idea, interpretation, reading. The post-Annales School science-envy continues, with attempts to seem “more scientific” by citing examples and data, not always backed up by any more that the sketchiest conception of statistics (or basic maths) or analytical methods; with rhetorical attempts to distance oneself, to appear “scientific” and objective. Repudiating, repressing, or even annihilating all that is subjective, human, and literary.

If only such writers also attempted to be rational and logically coherent and consistent too, I would be a happier bunny. As would the Great Medieval Scholarly Gods of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Much is dull and pedestrian; indigestible as it is itself undigested; poorly written and a poor read; aggravated by blind ovine following fashion.

Worst of all, this stuff is joyless.

I would rather never write a piece of literary criticism again, if I wrote something joyless. It would be embarrassing and shameful and awful. It would be even worse if no-one else noticed or cared, but I fear that is likely, given the quantification of academic production. If I do not care about what I write about, if I stop caring, I have killed it and am probably then myself–as a literary person–dead. It would not only be embarrassing, it would be mortifying. I probably like reading the supernatural strands of speculative fiction, mind you, precisely because they suggest alternatives: myth (including religions) offer possibilities of life after death, and other kinds of metaphysical and supernatural fiction offer alternatives to the life-then-death 2-stop linear scenario. While there’s other kinds of life and death and life after death, there’s hope…

Life’s too short to read bad books. Or even to skim-read their introductions and conclusions. This is an old piece of common knowledge; accompanied by the fact that the more and better stuff you read, the better you read and the better you write. It’s a glorious virtuous circle. I consider that, as a literary person and so as to remain a (living sentient sensitive) literary person, my time is wasted reading depressingly bad journal articles and (at least reviews of) umpteen forest-annihilating books whose main purpose is to tick a box on a form: quantifiably productive, points towards career progression, attempts to gain tenure.

My time is better spent reading Balzac and watching Breaking Bad.


What is wrong with the current UBC library plan, and similar plans at other university (and public) libraries: moving any of your books to a repository, leaving readers with only a brute catalogue, may preserve books but it destroys the library. From the point of view, I should stress, of a reader; the points of view of librarians, books, and indeed bookshelves and the library buildings themselves will of course differ.

going going gone: browsing. Rêveries du promeneur solitaire.

Look again at the UBC plans in part one. What is really at stake: space. Nice office spaces for administrators.

Nice enclosed spaces.

Lost: a floor’s worth of space for books and for bookish interactivity.

Lost: librarians who inhabit a central open panoptical space, from where they can see all and all can see them.

Lost: librarians wandering the library, like ghosts or Terry Pratchett’s librarian of the Unseen University. Otherworldy magical beings who are in perpetual movement, part of the library, who seem to drift not just around and across spaces, and along rows and aisles and corridors of books, but in and out of stacks and bookcases. And possibly, like Pratchett’s librarian, moving up and down in three dimensions, swinging across and around and through a library that to a librarian exists in a more fully three-dimensional space than it does to a flat-footed earth-bound mere library user. Librarians should have an aura of mystique. It should be easily imaginable that they also move through time and other dimensions. They should be magical and marvellous.

Now, that kind of librarian, the kind I grew up with, the kind I was in training to be when I was at Manchester and working as a lowest-of-the-low Trainee Librarian? This seems to be a mythical beast. Rarely sighted. Rare is a proper old-style librarian who patrols their territory and whose territory that is because they know it: most patrollers are lower drones and drudges. Rare is the librarian who is a proper, old-fashioned, erudite, encyclopaedically-knowledgeable, and subject-specialist librarian; UBC does have some and they seem fine, but they’re few and they’re not the people you see out on the floor. I have met few of the calibre of the Cambridge and Princeton subject librarians, who had PhDs in all their fields (yes, some of them had multiple PhDs; we’re talking an M.R. James-level of “old-style”).

Lost: the library’s essential character as a magical space inhabited by magical beings. A sacred space, temple of learning, with priests. In a university that is still a university, whose definition and sense and purpose is the preservation and pursuit of learning, librarians are academics just as much as faculty are. Here in UBC, all too many of them are not: they are not academics. While they may have ticked boxes on forms by having acquired the requisite qualifications on paper in librarianship and information studies, they are ill-read, ignorant, non-intellectual staff or administrators.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to help students to remember how EN “library” and FR “librairie” are false friends. Used to be, this was easy: the French word for library, “bibliothèque,” is of Greek origin. Older. Think Greek temples. Think of other “-thèques“: they’re ancient timeless holy repositories, treasuries, often with reliquaries and an inner sanctum (ex. rare books and special collections).

And as for the post-modern library as a repository and central hub for information? Well, the UBC catalogue is a disaster. I use the Princeton one to check bibliographical information then put that directly into the UBC one.


Some modest proposals.

  1. To move the books that were to be banished into the offices of the people moving in to occupy that liberated space. When a reader wishes to consult a volume, or simply to meander, they should be free to wander through book-bearing offices. It would be sensible for subject-librarians to keep appropriate materials in their lairs. Running through the lists of people who currently have offices in our main (Koerner) library, what would be fitting… This is going to be tricky, as many if them curiously don’t really fit with categories of books.
  2. As some colleagues have proposed, to move administrative staff into the new underground bunkers next to the nuclear physics centre (I kid Ye not) which is the intended new home for underused tomes. And return the library to the books.

To be fair, to the best of my knowledge, these administrators probably need things like light and air, and should not be buried alive in underground bunkers. This is of course assuming that they are human.

Curious to learn more? I would recommend having a look at the staff listing and wandering that top floor, to see which offices, officers, and nominal “jobs” would actually correspond to actual real live useful books.

  1. Someone needs to work on virtual libraries. Photographic and mapping right now. So that, even if books no longer even physically exist (but are called up in electronic form, or holograms, or you walk throug them or swim around in them), you can still locate them in three dimensions, and yourself mentally map them and know where they are on a shelf. In three dimensional space. Relative to other books with which they live, to whom they are related. Retaining the haptic memory not just of a book itself (and it’s associated weird but very humanly understandable fetishism), but of how you found it. The path you took to it. What is around it. Where these shelf-mates might lead you next.

On the medieval front, my own research covers quite a large acreage of physical shelf-space, and I still have a mental image a very real one, I can close my eyes and it comes back, of where all these books are located in the place where I first worked on them, and worked on them the most intensively, Princeton University’s Firestone Library. I have mental maps of other libraries took but in less detail: Cambridge UL, MML, Girton; and a strong one of Manchester UL, in part having worked there as a shelver.

This is how you “know” books, have a feel for them, and have a sense of a field; indeed, of fields of knowledge and how they relate to one another. It’s very physical, and as much in your feet walking and turning and bumping into things, sounds of your feet on changing surfaces, and you hands on different kinds of shelf. Plus the rest of you, stretching up or bending down, what’s behind you at the time, to left or right. And changing smells, lighting, humidity, temperature, general feel and environment. Book-learning is too often perceived as visual. And the physical aspects as extrinsic to a book’s content. On the contrary.



So. Libraries have lost, or are in danger of losing, their magic.

That magic involves mystique, mystery, and the sacred; and the imaginative and fantastical and fantasy; and fuzzy feelings; and love. Love of learning. Love of bookishness and books and book-collection-repositories. Love of the amourous erotic potential of libraries. Romantic love is potentiality.

Libraries are a physical spaces of physical interaction with books and with people and with yet more people through the books, through readers’ notes. Sight and sound can be replicated in online equivalents to libraries; touch, scent, and taste can’t as yet. This needs work.

Libraries are changing and need to change more.

That change could be in a direction and manner that brings back the magic: it could be influenced by magical labyrinthine librarial narrative structures. That is, “romance”: the medieval literary form, its 20th- and 21st-century continuum in science-fiction and fantasy and other speculative fictions, its formal translation into graphic novels and episodic television series, and the latter’s long-running complexly-structured gorgeous continuation into the glorious Present.

This is the Golden Age of narrative we are living right her right now: 45- to 60-minute episodes; 10, 12, or 13 episodes per season; the possibility of multiple seasons in a series; in an approximate mapping of one episode per chapter and one season per book. Most such series that I’ve seen recently have made the traditonal film look comparatively impoverished, weak, and brief. Film is no longer a long-form narrative: it is a short story or novella (or nouvelle/novella / novas) in comparison to the multiple-episode series that now corresponds to the novel and to novel cycles. Short films remain what they always have been, the equivalent of shorter lyric poems…



Bring romance back into the library: the way to do this is to use romance.



Why serialised cyclical romance is wonderful:

  1. ensemble acting, dialogue, relationships + intratextuality + multiple arcs across a whole work, across a series within it, across a single episode, and with lines connecting episodes and moments. A resulting visual model would not be a simple arch: it would be something between a High Gothic cathedral (or more likely, a very grand chapel with a whole monastery around it…) and 3D interlace.
  • mythic, or with mythic resonances. Echoes, foreshadowings, hints of allusions: another kind of inter textually, more subtle, often more poetic: for example, the use of of a proper name or of a simple but ambiguous (and culturally polysemic) symbol.
  • Some may also be mythopoetic: Chrétien de Troyes and Ursula K. Le Guin, for example.
  • Multi-media total art: sight and sound, narrative and dialogue and action, staging and performance, visual and aural texture, landscape, soundscape, music. All we need now are the three remaining senses: one day, when fiction moves from submersive reality to the fully immersive…
  • And that is what libraries should be aiming for: the submersive then, one day in the future, the immersive parallel world of information, knowledge, learning, imagination.



Older cycles: myth, Charlemagne, Lancelot, Perceval, Tristan, Pantagruel
17th c French multi-volume massive expansive novels
Balzac, Trollope, Borges
Douglas Adams
Octavia Butler
Chris Brookmyre
Neil Gaiman’s Sandman
Robert Holdstock’s “Mythago Wood” world
Gwyneth Jones, the “Bold as Love” cycle: Arthurian-ist speculative fiction that is CRYING OUT to be turned into a five-season series. YOU SAW THIS HERE FIRST.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s worlds, all of them
George R.R. Martin’ Game of Thrones (this will be the Medievalist-maker of the early 21st century, and I would predict that they will be comparatively, global Medievalists, not just European ones)
China Miéville’s New Crobuzon
Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom
Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld
Schuiten & Peeters, Cités obscures
Neal Stephenson’s worlds, all of them
Charles Stross


Star Trek

The Simpsons
Twin Peaks
The X-Files


Being Human (UK version)
Breaking Bad
The Fall
Game of Thrones
Hemlock Grove
The Marvelverse

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