This is my 150th recommendation, and it also happens to be this website’s one-year anniversary. And you know what? It’s all gone by rather quickly. I’ve changed a few things since the beginning. I’m no longer on the ludicrously ambitious scheme of updating every weekday, but my recommendations are nowadays more detailed and, I like to think, better thought through. Here’s to the next year! As I type I’m eyeing the considerable stack of collections and anthologies still fat with hidden gems, so I don’t need to worry about running low on fodder anytime soon.
I’ve mentioned before about stories starring writers and the creative process, and how incestuous and self-congratulatory they can feel. Stories about how great reading and books are is in a similar, but slightly better, category; the story is still preaching to a choir, but at least the choir is readers rather than fellow writers.
That said, the transformative power of books is a potent fable and one well worth reiterating. Such is today’s example. It opens:
One day, in the illustrious nation of Panduria, a suspicion crept into the minds of top officials: that books contained opinions hostile to military prestige. In fact trials and enquiries had revealed that the tendency, now so widespread, of thinking of generals as people actually capable of making mistakes and causing catastrophes, and of wars as things that did not always amount to splendid cavalry charges towards a glorious destiny, was shared by a large number of books, ancient and modern, foreign and Pandurese.
To combat this, the generals set up a commission to investigate the contents of Panduria’s largest library. A general travels there and has his army surrounded and secure the building. His lieutenants are each given a different era of history to investigate, and are armed with stamps to mark whether a book is suitable for the general public or should be passed onto a military court.
And from here things continue all too well; for there are more books than the general appreciates, and each time someone finds an unworthy tome, a librarian is all too willing to recommend a range of similar books to investigate. And as these people read books day after day, they can’t help but let some of the diversity of opinion on the pages seep into them.
There’s not much more that I can say. It’s a simple but tautly told tale, a cheerful fable about the power of books to overcome and overwhelm any attempt at censorship and suppression. And that’s a valuable lesson in any era.
A General in the Library by Italo Calvino, translated by Timothy Parks
Availability: free online, print
Page count: 1,900
First published: unclear (if anyone knows, put it in the comments)
First translated: Numbers in the Dark and other stories, collection, 1996
Where to find it: It’s free online (and as far as I can discern, legally posted) at Epopteia here
In the Stacks: Short Stories about Libraries and Librarians, edited by Michael Cart, 2002, Overlook