The unseen libraries of our dreams

The wraparound cover of the November 1963 Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, one of the covers I remember from my grandfather's collection. The art by Hannes Bok illustrated "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" by Roger Zelazny.

I am a child visiting my grandfather’s house. He’s a skinny man whose ghost-white hair grins out a large bald spot. He’d been old as long as I’d known him so old is what he remains in my memories.

Every time I visit his house he sits in an easy chair reading science fiction novels. Several novels a week, all stacked on the end table next to his chair. Each visit is a map of his progress through these books, my eyes entranced by the book’s dazzling covers of imaginary worlds, far off starscapes and alien adventures. The books change week by week but my grandfather never changes.

Many of the novels my grandfather reads are from his small library of genre books and magazines collected over a lifetime. Pulp magazines from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. Decaying paperbacks from the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Bestselling hardcovers from the late 1970s and early ’80s. His library exists in a tiny room of his house, a room he claimed as his own and lined with book shelves, a desk and a small sofa.

My grandfather's a craftsman and built the shelves in his library. I often sneak into the room and stare at the pulp magazine covers with their bright primary-color screams of excitement and the unknown. I pull out the magazines and books and read through them, always careful to put them back in the same spot because otherwise my grandfather would know I’d been in his library.

He probably always knew I sneak in, but he never says a word.

My grandfather also reads novels from the town’s library and browses their new book collection every week. He takes me with him once and I’m amazed. I’d never seen so many books. To my young eyes the library’s bookshelves and stacks stretch onward into forever.

Decades later, when I’m grown, I return to the town’s library and realize how small and poorly stocked it actually is. By then I’ve seen much larger libraries and book collections. But none stand as tall in my dreams as my grandfather’s hand-built library or my original visit to the town’s library.

I now live in a small house with my wife and two teenage sons. Life in a small house is intimate and close-knit because you can’t wall yourself off from everyone else with closed doors and other rooms. I’m writing these words at our dinner table. My wife eats her breakfast across the table. My oldest son carries dirty clothes by the table, struggling under his load to the washing machine in the basement.

A small house is not only intimate. It restrains. You think, “Do I really need this object in my life? Do I really need to bring home another consumer wet dream electronic device or must-have promoted item to fill imaginary holes in my life?”

Almost always the answer is no. I don’t feel the need to purchase my way to materialistic transcendence. To satisfy my life by purchasing consumer goods from the altar of capitalism.

Except for books. They are my weakness.

I have a small library in my house. Not in one room like my grandfather. Our house is too small for a room devoted only to books. Instead, on the desk upstairs there are piles of books and magazines. Beside the desk sits two cheap plywood bookshelves on which my wife and I keep many books. I also have boxes and plastic containers full of books in storage around the house. Most of my grandfather’s library rests in plastic containers in the basement. I occasionally go downstairs and open the containers and flip through these ancient magazines and paperbacks.

They are no longer in the order my grandfather kept them in his library. I regret that.

The best bookshelf in our house is downstairs, only a few feet from the dinner table where I write these words. This bookcase is solid wood, hand crafted, about five feet tall with four shelves and two glass-panel doors. My wife and I bought it before our kids were born. It’s the nicest piece of furniture in our tiny house. The bookcase is filled with science fiction and fantasy novels and related books.

Some of these books are first editions, signed by authors I’ve met at conventions and gatherings. Others are cheap paperbacks and book club editions from my youth, a few with nibbled edges where mice had their ways with them years ago. Some are irreplaceable. Others could be easily thrown away.

The books and magazines on these bookcases and stored in boxes around my small house are the dreams which sustain and fulfill my life. At one time each of these books expanded my worldview in unique ways. Each book meant the universe to me at one time or another.

Without these books I'd never have made it this far through life.

Now, though, I wonder if actual physical libraries like these are already a thing of the past. I wonder if maybe I’ve attached too much fixation on the books themselves instead of the stories they tell.

After all, the stories in these books are what first resonated with me.

What is a book after its story enters someone’s life and mind? Is the book still its story, or is it merely an empty shell now that its story lives inside another?

I continually read new novels and stories and books. Without new stories our lives stagnate and harden. Because I live in a small house and have little room for new books, most of the new books I read are virtual. These virtual stories exist everywhere and nowhere.

I carry my virtual library wherever I go. One day in the near future I likely won’t even have to carry my library. It’ll simply appear whenever I wish to disappear into a story.

Even if I can’t touch my virtual library, the best stories still enter my mind and soul. The best stories remain within me.

But what happens to physical books when we no longer need them? Will printed books become merely another consumer dream to fill the empty spaces of our lives? Will actual books become nothing more than objects of art, sitting on shelves to visually amuse people who don’t care to know the stories within them?

I used to dream about having my own personal library like my grandfather’s. I imagined reading books on a sofa surrounded by rows and rows of books I’d already read or would soon read.

But now a major part of my library will never rest on any shelf.

What do our unseen libraries mean for humanity, especially when they can be everywhere and nowhere? What does it mean when we no longer need to physically touch the libraries which create our dreams?

Note: This essay was originally published in the Czech SF/F magazine XB-1.