The Library of Death

Or: When studying to be a librarian makes you take yourself too seriously and write meandering blog posts.

Recently I read a book by a young Austrian author, “Chucks”, by Cornelia Travnicek. It is part of a trend in (not only) German literature – novels by young authors, many featuring a wild or misspent youth, replete with sex (but not the sexy kind), drugs, alcohol, cutting, eating disorders, etc., sometimes in unnecessarily graphic detail (no, I don’t want to read about a rape that is just there for shock value).

My youth and young adulthood vastly differed from the mainstream, which is why I’m curious about the mainstream’s experience (sometimes, anway – someone please write a book about my nerdy youth). However, it’s the quality of the writing that keeps me from empathizing. The reliance on those “sensational” details rather than on explorations of the protagonist’s inner life or development and the bad style lead to boredom and much eyerolling. “Is that really what is happening with today’s (or the 90s or 00s) youth? And where is this story going?”, I found myself thinking more than once, reading “Feuchtgebiete” by Charlotte Roche, “Pink Hotel” by Anna Stothard, and “Hikikomori” by Kevin Kuhn.

But “Chucks” struck an eerie chord with me. On the whole, it is a well-written book about the slow death a beloved person and the accompanying grief. Furthermore, it takes place in Vienna and twice mentions a place very important to me that I used to pass at least once a week. The protagonist knits in the face of death – just like I did. And she must have read the same book of Robin Hood’s tales – Rosemary Sutcliffe’s version.

It became obvious that this book belonged in my Library of Death. During my father’s comparably short, yet seemingly interminable dying and for a while afterwards (in 2008/9, if you must know), there were a few pieces of media that helped me express and process what I was experiencing. They form a very special collection that has become part of the key to my personality. My Library of Death is unlike my collection of cookbooks, knitting books or romance, fantasy and other novels, and rather like my favorite childhood books and the small collection of books I love for their language, but even more significant (don’t scoff, I asked other people and some of them have Libraries of Death, too).

Two very important items I found at my local library: Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel “Fun Home” and Jiro Taniguchi’s manga “Vertraute Fremde” (“A Distant Neighborhood” in English – do read those two). Online I read Meghan O’Rourke’s essay series about grief on Slate.com (now also a book), which were helpful during the grief process. The movie version of “The English Patient” was often at the back of my mind, although I haven’t dared to watch it since then. There were a couple of songs that I listened to on repeat, which I found on youtube (Scottish/English/American folk songs, mostly). And now there is “Chucks” as well, the first book, borrowed from the University Library.

While “Chucks” had been recommended to me – without mention of the content – and “The English Patient” had been a favorite since 1996, the songs, comics, and the essay series I found completely by chance. There was no conscious seeking out of literature dealing with drawn out death or grief, so no deliberate collection development, but a strong argument for browsing – both online and in person at the library. I’m glad I had both options available to me.

Finding pieces of media online and at the library means, however, that I don’t own all of the works that helped me during that time. Until I started editing – not even writing! – this article, I didn’t really mind, since mostly I didn’t even need to read or see or listen to them after I had consumed them. The pictures, words, melodies and the feelings they evoked remained in my mind. Although there is a plan to slowly acquire them as funds allow, on the whole it was enough to know that they were there, my private collection, meant to conserve and jog my memory of that time. I thought that if somebody ever asked me: “How did it feel?”, along with telling them my own memories, I’d point to my library.

Thinking about it during the editing process, though, it struck me as funny that the issue of digital preservation would have such an impact on my Library of Death. How, after all, will future generations have access to online articles, DVDs and youtube videos? How do I solve the problem on a personal level besides buying books and cds? Do I make backups of backups of backups and arrange for storage in the cloud?

Obviously I am going to be so important that people will care about my Library of Death. Not. Who knows? If you don’t buy that, imagine an important person living and being active in the digital world today and think about what of the digital pieces of media they consume right now will remain in their estate. From the standpoint of a historian, maybe people should be encouraged to print out the internet ephemera that they find important at some time or other.

Do you have a Library of Death? Have you thought about conserving pieces of digital media that are important to you?

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