I usually become sexually aroused in libraries – no, really, I do. Moreover, I’m fairly certain I am not alone, and that plenty of others respond to the cloistral atmosphere, the tickle of dust in their nostrils and the murmurous voices in the same way. I think there are various reasons for the library/lust phenomenon: studious people just are sexier than jocks, and the idea of actually making love in the stacks is such a beautiful inversion of the intended use of these niches: instead of filling them with dead words, surely they should writhe with living bodies?
I haven’t always felt this way – I don’t remember getting the horn when I used to go to East Finchley Library with my mother; however, this may have been because I was prepubescent. What I recall is the cold suburban light falling through an oculus; the astringency of the polish used for the floors; and the photograph that hung in the vestibule of Dame Henrietta Barnett herding sheep, circa 1905, across the fields that were about to become Hampstead Garden Suburb.
Throughout university I couldn’t approach a library without my penis becoming a dowsing rod that sought out potential (but sadly never actual) sexual prospects – and this continued until about five years ago, when, slowly at first, but eventually completely, my biblio-libido departed. Up until last week I thought nothing of it – or, rather, I simply put it down to the creeping normalcy of older age. But when I found myself strolling along the interminable main corridor of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, passing one soigné Parisian swot after another and feeling not a scintilla of excitement, I realised something was afoot.
I’d been afoot myself: strolling towards the Seine through the 13e arrondissement, and thinking about nothing much in particular besides the woeful way French architects have with postmodernism: if the London skyline now resembles a desk littered with crappy “executive” toys, then the byways of Paris are like the boutiques from which they were bought: the buildings presenting as crazy agglomerations of detailing detached from any overall plan. The Bibliothèque itself is too big to fit into this anti-aesthetic: with its four signature towers comprised of stacks, the building it most closely resembles is Battersea Power Station, but instead of the humongous turbine hall there’s a sunken garden full of Scots firs, silver birches and oaks.
These trees have provoked much Schadenfreude on the part of the citizenry and at the expense of the relevant fonctionnaires. The on dit is that due to the lack of light and the inadequate soil, the firs – which were brought in from the Forêt de Bord-Louviers in Normandy and winched down into the pit – grew too tall and spindly, so supportive cradles of steel hawsers have had to be erected around them. Oh, and there’s the rabbits: scores of them, an infestation that no one has been able to account for. In another echo of Battersea (which has raptors of its own), the same benighted fonctionnaires have brought in a number of hawks to deal with the pesky things.
WG Sebald, writing in the lugubrious persona of his eponymous hero Jacques Austerlitz, described at length the minatory atmosphere of the Bibliothèque, which he put down to both the imprisoned anorexic firs and the fact that the library was built on a site where, during the Occupation, a regular “market” was held by the SS at which German officers could purchase the booty confiscated from Parisian Jews who’d been deported to concentration camps. In the past I, too, have felt something of this negative vibe, and hypothesised that it’s the strange giant “bleachers” – wooden seating-cum-stairways ranged around the sunken garden – which, by making all visitors feel like collaborative voyeurs, have condensed this bad atmosphere. Even so, I still used to become aroused when I visited the Bibliothèque.
But not any more – and I think I know why. The French are some way ahead of us when it comes to digitising the contents of their national library; almost all the books are now available online as scanned facsimiles. The library was only opened in late 1996, but it is already, in effect . . . dead. Scholars certainly don’t need to attend in person in order to use its contents, and the evidence of this is in the long corridors, which are beginning to fill up with street people who have come in from the cold, and who are tacitly tolerated by the staff.
The Skyscraper Index is the whimsical theory that the tallest building in a city usually is completed just before a recession. I would like to propose a variation on it: the biggest building for any given media technology is completed just before that technology becomes redundant. Our own newish British Library was also completed in 1996 and it, too, will become largely redundant over the next few years.
I may be sexually omnivorous, but even I don’t get much in the way of jollies from contemplating such moribund institutional bodies. I paced up and down for a while, taking squints into the sunken garden in the faint hope that a glimpse of some rabbits doing their thing might stimulate me, but sadly there was no action. Luckily, I had my Kindle with me, so I was able to sit down with a smelly man on a bench and together we read some of the more ecru parts of Fifty Shades of Grey.