At 6:42pm, the last book was checked out of the library for that day. It was a book about bumblebees. The book-borrower, a young girl, had noticed the bees beginning to appear in her yard and this had set her to wonder. Where do they live? Do they live in hives? She had read somewhere that they live alone in small holes in the ground. Do they envy the other bees who live in big hives, wagging their tails at each other all day?
She threw the book into her bag, hopped on to her bicycle and meandered across the small town. The town had a small square in the center where some people would gather in the evenings. Some people sat and read newspapers or read a book or played a friendly game of Chess with another inhabitant.
She arrived home and carefully placed her books on the table. There was the book about bees, a bit worn from use. It looked like an old edition. Did that mean the information was out of date? How much more have we learned about bees?
At 7pm, the librarian began the routine of closing down. Every night the routine was the same. First, a cursory check that any patrons were not still wandering around the bookcases. Then, lights dimming. And, finally, the turning keys to lock up all the doors for the night.
Today was an unusually busy day. Most days were quiet with only a few people stumbling in, paging slowly through the books, sometimes napping on the library chairs. She did notice something odd today. A man who had spent all day browsing the bookshelves. After seeing him wander around for a few hours, she had stepped forward and asked him if he needed any help. He had replied back that this was an interesting library and that we must see a lot of activity here. Well, no, she had responded. It was usually quite dull.
She had taken an odd liking to the man and when he had continued to browse the shelves she had decided to leave him alone.
Before getting ready to close the library, she picked up her own book – a book about Heian Japan. It had all started when she was reading the Tale of Genji and was intrigued by all the formalities and by the deep, intense emotions. The image of courtiers whose sleeves were wet with their own tears was one she could not shake.
After locking up the library, she realized that she had not noticed when the man had left. In fact, he had not left. He was still there, in the dark library, still browsing the bookshelves.
He had noticed the girl taking out the bumble bee book. He also knew about all the other books that had been removed that day from the library. That was the easy part. Much harder was to try and find out what books had been checked out yesterday or last week. The librarians were kind but he knew they wouldn’t tell him even if he had asked them. He had tried that before. So he had to discover this for himself.
He had been wandering the shelves all day looking for obvious gaps in the lineup of books. Inferring the subject of the missing book is a troublesome task but he had gotten much better at it. It was a game of knowledge and also of chance.
If there is a gap between two books by Robert Louis Stevenson, then the missing book is certainly by that same author. Easy enough But which title? Likely a popular one such as Treasure Island or Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Unlikely to be, for example, Prince Otto.
Similar tricks could be used to guess the book that filled a gap between two authors. A book is missing at the beginning of a row of Pushkins in the Russian Literature section. Could it be another Pushkin? Probably, although hard to discount that it was the library’s only copy of Pelevin or Pasternak. These were the challenging ones and also the most important ones for him. He put his best guess into his notebook
He also noted down of course the vast quantities of current, popular literature but these were less interesting because they were so prevalent and varied little from town to town. He was looking for the distinctive and obscure. And he was looking not for its presence in the library but for its absence which meant at once that the book was out in somebody’s hand and being read.
Once he was done identifying the missing Literature, he would head to Natural Sciences or Philosophy or History. There, he was looking for the same thing. The missing books. The gap in books about the Cambrian Explosion, or about Epistemology or about the Thirty Years War.
When he was finished, he had a list of books that, as he described it, were “alive” and not dead. The dead books were the books inside the library that were never consulted, never checked out. The real, the active library was not the library that sat at night within darkened rooms. The library was outside these walls right now, scattered among households, carried to parks and benches, bathing, along with their readers, in the spring sunlight.
His list furnished him with a view of the surrounding town that nobody else had. This was a town that still read Paul Bowles and where someone cared about German Romanticism. Where the Japanese Heian period was still worthy of study yet someone else was obsessed with the late Roman empire and yet still someone else, perhaps the same person, was consuming books on Cartesian Rationalism. Books on bees were in line with a town that also consumed books on insects and birds.
He had been engaged in this project for over a year now. He had been going from town to town, visiting and, yes, sleeping in their libraries. In each one he had continued work on his catalog of missing books. He called it the Negative Library or the Missing Library. Like a photographic negative, it showed the opposite of what was there.
When he had first arrived at this town, all he saw was a grimy, post-industrial landscape where gardens had given way to asphalt. He had headed to the library and had now spent several days here. His knowledge of the inhabitants was based not on what he saw or what they said, but on what they dreamed.