“We are currently existing in an era of heightened fear.” – Hisham Matar discusses the importance of literature.
Around the ages of five, six, or seven, a shift occurs within us. Our perception of ourselves becomes more confined and we come to understand that in addition to being a member of a family and society, there is a unique part of us that solely belongs to us.
This for me happened in Tripoli, by the Libyan Mediterranean Sea. I remember how consoling and eventful living beside it was; how it changed, and how the companionship of its alterations accompanied me. Our city changed. People got married and divorced. But neither births nor deaths altered it. The sea was untouched. Constant in its variety. Decadent in its obliviousness.
Part of the wonder I felt was that the waters I swam in, that filled my ears and mouth and open eyes, were the same waters that touched distant shores, places such as Cyprus and Crete, Barcelona and Sanremo, Gaza and Marseille. Or nearby places, such as Alexandria, which, for my family, held mythical status. It was where my maternal grandmother was born and both sides of my family lived for a time when, after resisting Benito Mussolini’s occupation, they moved to neighbouring Egypt. Such proximities filled me with wonder, but also the practical knowledge that the world existed all at once: that then was now, and there was here, and that all divisions, both of time and space, were, perhaps like all declarations of belonging, approximate.
Books, no matter what they are about, often focus on connecting distances, diverse situations, differences, varying states of existence, and characters who are completely opposite. These characters include both men and women who, in their moments of solitude, are struggling with their own inner turmoil.
“What is the best course of action for Cordelia?” Cordelia ponders in Shakespeare’s King Lear. The answer that comes to her is as natural and effortless as any natural occurrence: “Love, and remain silent.” It is a simple yet complex decision. To love and be loved requires a deep well of confidence, almost bordering on faith. A belief in the unspoken connection between two people, without the need for verbal expression. In fact, this faith is wary of words and their potential for harm. However, how can we truly understand another person or reveal ourselves to them if words are not sufficient?
The fear and necessity of communication is a major concern in literature. Despite being composed of words, books often focus on what is left unspoken or unspeakable. Literature has a fondness for quietness and relies on subtle connections. The most compelling stories bring together seemingly unrelated elements and reveal their inherent connections. A library can be seen as a compilation of unexpected relationships and coincidental attachments, a fusion of seemingly unrelated points.
The unique combination of excitement and fear, sadness and happiness, boredom and awe that I experienced as a child at the beach is similar to the feeling I get when I enter a good library. Both offer the opportunity for exploration, unexpected encounters, aimlessness, and the risk of getting overwhelmed, as well as the temptation and fear of getting lost. This is why the act of banning books or censoring certain voices, such as what occurred in Frankfurt recently when an award ceremony for Palestinian author Adania Shibli was cancelled due to her nationality, goes against our essential human need for freedom.
The fear of books is prevalent in our society. There is concern about uncontrolled expression. People tend to confuse the author as the ultimate authority on their work, when in reality, the work itself is the true authority. Any writer who has written honestly understands this. In addition, there is an even older fear held by those in power towards books, as they have the potential to challenge the official narrative and bring attention to those who are deemed different from ourselves, making them seem just as real and important.
The reason for war, death, occupation, and displacement is reflected in the type of libraries that are created. War seeks to infuse its destructive influence into our book collections, whether they are public or private, tangible or within our minds.
During the early half of the 1900s, Albert Camus strived to establish a sense of ownership over his era and provide meaning to it. He stated, “The 17th century was dominated by mathematics, the 18th by physical sciences, and the 19th by biology. Our current era, the 20th century, is characterized by fear.”
If we were to attempt to update that statement, we might still call ours, the 21st, the century of fear, but also of fragmentation. Very few of us, even those who have lived where they were born, feel connected to a sense of community. But I also mean fragmentation in the wider sense, from being connected to universalist principles of justice and human rights, for example. To conduct ourselves as though we truly believed that human life, no matter where, was equally precious, and not to tailor our outrage depending on the nationality or race of the victim.
War is horrific for all the reasons that we know it to be, but it is also horrific because it is invested in such corruptions. The opposite of war is not peace – peace is merely its absence; the opposite of war is cooperation. And no work of literature can function without its cooperative parts.
Many people wonder about the beginning of a book, but few consider how it ends and how the author knows when it is complete. Poet Marianne Moore was concerned with this aspect and shared her doubts with her editor, TS Eliot, who was also the publisher at Faber. In a letter dated 31 January 1934, Eliot responded by saying that the quantity of poems is not the only determining factor for a book, but rather the feeling that certain poems are needed to complete the collection.
The interdependence among the different components of a piece of literature, allowing it to exist as its own entity, is also reflected on a larger scale in a library. In addition to its other functions, a library serves as a symbol for a cooperative society. A well-stocked library represents the vast and varied collection of human knowledge, welcoming opposing ideas and chance encounters, and exhibiting great curiosity and eagerness. It satisfies our thirst for knowledge while also showcasing the extent of our aspirations and curiosity.