I’d had a passive interest in finding this novel for years. It had been first mentioned to me in the footnote of an autobiography of a modest local 1950s television star as a favorite novel of her childhood. Though she referenced it only directly in passing in the flow of a larger discussion of her much beloved children’s show, there was a sense that perhaps this book played a larger role in some of the creative spark of the show as a whole. I had a sense that there were a lot indirect references and in jokes to that novel in that section and I was curious to find out more. It seemed implied that the book was a well beloved book at least regionally and the author presumed some familiarity with the contents of that book. I didn’t think I could tell for sure without reading that novel on my own so I added it to a wishlist at the local free public library.
The library’s online records told me the history of only the last three copies of the book in the system, though I was glad for whatever librarian had inputted even that much information into the digital systems about a 1910s small press book from a publisher that lasted only a dozen years and never really sold much outside this city. Unfortunately for my search the last three copies were listed as “damaged beyond repair”, “sold at fundraising auction”, and “on inter-library loan; overdue for return as of 03/1972”. I figured that was the end of my search, but I knew enough to leave it on my wishlist as sometimes inter-library loans would turn back up (even ones somehow decades overdue) or a librarian would spot an archived copy. What I thought most likely this century and given the book was on the edge of being public domain even in 1972 (given the publisher bankruptcy, and no known author’s estate, probably extremely likely it was already public domain then) sometimes a scanning group would find a copy and build an ebook. The wishlist had automatically sent me e-copies of other strange finds over the years.
What I least expected was the handwritten letter that arrived on the library’s letterhead years after I’d even forgot placing it on my wishlist. It was a pleasant surprise and I was almost surprised how much I appreciated it more then than had it shown up as email.
“Dear Ms. Lynne,
“It came to my recent attention in discussing books with one Mr. Forsberg that he has a copy of J. Y. Milburn’s Flight Into Night— A Slumbering Fantasia in his private collection. I mentioned knowing at least one library patron with it wishlisted as to read for several years ongoing and that apparently piqued Mr. Forsberg’s curiosity. Mr. Forsberg made it clear that he does not loan books of such vintage to the library or its patrons as a general policy, but that this was a particularly interesting book worth loaning to a new reader, if he were given the opportunity to meet with the patron, face to face, first. It’s rarely good library policy to recommend engaging a private collector in a direct manner such as this, but Mr. Forsberg is a close friend both to me personally and to the library system as a whole and I promised to at least pass the offer to visit his private collection and maybe loan this book you’ve been looking for. Mr. Forsberg assured me that it would be worth your time to read this book and he’d love to make that connection. Please find attached Mr. Forsberg’s card should you be interested.
“Regards and thank you for patronage and the time out of your day to read this letter,
I had no trouble finding the card Mx. Hayward had attached to the letter. “X. Forsberg, Raconteur (Retired)” was the dominant text on it, with only a phone number, what appeared to be a bare street name with no other address part but the county’s name beside it. I was weary about anyone that might call themselves a “raconteur”, of course, but something about that “(Retired)” seemed humanizing to me, and I wasn’t sure why I felt that way.
It took me a few days to decide if I would reach out to Mr. Forsberg. It seemed like a lot of effort to go through just for a chance to read a book that had been suggested to me merely by recommendation of a footnote of an autobiography. But I was also never one to turn down any kind recommendation from a librarian, and especially not one sent as a handwritten note (though admittedly this was my first). I have always trusted librarians as a general rule, but if you cannot trust a librarian named after “Truth” I’m not sure who in the world you could trust, even if I don’t think I’ve met Mx. Hayward in my tiny branch I most often frequent.
Pushing my courage and pressed by my curiosity on one rainy afternoon I finally convinced myself to call the number on Mr. Forsberg’s card. It took me a moment to find where I had last hidden the Phone app on my home screen, having so much less need of it this century. This ritual search added its own little needles of anxiety into the process. I was surprised when the ring was answered almost immediately by what sounded like a aged and yet sweetly voice, “Mr. Forsberg’s private residence, who may I say is calling?”
“June Lynne, I received Mr. Forsberg’s card from a librarian to discuss Milburn’s ‘Flight Into Night’?” I didn’t mean for it to be a question, but it certainly came out as one in that moment between nerves and hesitancy.
The voice on the other end sounded excited and happy for me, “Oh excellent! Mr. Forsberg adores that book. Yes, Mr. Forsberg would be delighted to extend you an invitation to meet with him here at his residence to discuss it. Unfortunately, Mr. Forsberg keeps a very busy schedule so it can’t entirely be at your convenience. Mr. Forsberg’s calendar suggests that this Saturday Afternoon say at 3 PM would work best for him, would you be available?”
“I, uh, yeah I can make that work.” I did not expect things to move so fast to a scheduled appointment, but had to admit I was free Saturday night.
“Excellent. I will let Mr. Forsberg know to you expect you here around then. Anything else I can help you with?”
“I’m not sure I know what the address is?”
There was a pause, then a hesitant, “I believe it should have been on the card?”
“Oh, well there’s a street name but there doesn’t seem to be a street number.”
“Yes, that’s the address.”
That was not at all the answer I was expecting, but I was not going to let my confusion trap me in a longer phone call, “Alright, thank you,” and we exchanged the usual phone conversation ending pleasantries and hung up.
That Saturday was warm, but not too warm, and overall a lovely bright day. I was surprised that the maps app on my phone had no trouble finding the address as I started to type it. As secretive as Mr. Forsberg seemed to, only passing his address around on physical cards it seemed, he couldn’t stop it from being indexed into all the usual databases. Though I appreciated that a lot in this case because I had no idea how I would have found the address if it hadn’t been searchable on the phone app, I know I’ve become too reliant. I guessed I’d try to call a librarian at that point, but I had a route and that was a theory I didn’t need to test.
The route took me down a city highway I’ve driven a million times and yet somehow just two turns off it I entered what felt like a forest. There was no room in my mental map of the city for this forest, and I would imagine even a small park in this area would be something that I’d recall noticing on maps before. The phone’s satellite imagery reassured me that this forest had probably been here the whole time and it was maybe my mental map that needed updating, but these trees felt too old and wild to be contained somewhere in a city’s limits. The street that was the entirety of the address was a small country gravel road leading deeper into the forest. A country gravel road was also something that didn’t quite fit on my mental map of this part of the city. It wasn’t very far along the gravel road before it opened up into a giant clearing. Here the satellite map showed a blur where the clearing must be, in the center of the forest and I presumed that at least some privacy could be bought even in the satellite age. Between that and the number of buildings that were scattered across the clearing I was starting to get an impression of an eccentric amount of wealth involved (if I’d not already been making assumptions from the card and the phone call).
The residence campus, and it seemed like a small college campus of some strange sort, had a clear house looking building centrally beside the gravel road, which seemed the most obvious place to stop and park. My eyes wandered across the other buildings. They had a variety of architecture styles and materials that seemed to imply an organic growth over many decades. Only a few of them seemed to offer any direct hints of their use. There was one full of windows and a lot of fog on its windows yet greenery visible where you could see through it implying a green house or conservatory of some sort. There was (if I was counting the number of sides correctly) an hexagonal building with an intriguing glass dome atop that I clocked as the library only once I realized that seated on plinths flanking the entrance were engravings of probably Athena or perhaps Minerva, marking it a hall for wisdom.
I had barely mounted the steps towards the porch of main house when a matronly stout woman bearing an iPad like a weapon arrived to intercept me from further around the porch (which appeared to wrap the entire house). With a deft, practiced maneuver she moved the iPad up and under the crook of her left shoulder, and extended her right hand in greetings, “Ms. Lynne, I presume?” I nodded as I took her hand into handshake and she continued, “I’m Mrs. Montgomery, Mr. Forsberg’s Chief Executive Officer, we spoke on the phone the other day. Mr. Forsberg has decided to take tea in the garden on this delightful afternoon,” her handshake was firm and commanding, “If you will follow me, I will lead you to the garden.” She broke the handshake, unholstered the iPad and glanced at it, then proceeded to lead me around the house.
From the first moment of meeting Mr. Forsberg I had a very tough time deciding if he were some sort of monster or some sort of muppet. As he unfolded himself from the garden chair, he kept seemingly growing until he stood above me at what should have been an inhuman height. He was tall and angular, yet seemingly far too skinny for his frame, in a way that looked like someone had accidentally stretched a small boy out longwise like pulling taffy. He was possibly the ugliest man I had ever met in person, yet somehow one of the most charming as well. There were hidden delights in the way his eyes glittered in the sunlight, and every part of him animated with more life than the average person seemed to. Somehow a part of me kept being surprised by that over-exaggerated animation and it’s surprising grace and fluidity despite a seemingly very awkward and gawky frame making the movements that much more implied to me that just out of range of my eyes were marionette strings or a puppeteer’s arm. They say that when you meet a muppet like Kermit it’s very easy to get taken into the illusion and you don’t want to see the strings or puppeteers after only a few moments working with him, and not even moments into a handshake with Mr. Forsberg I had decided that I did not want to dispel the illusion and check to see if he was a muppet, even if I would constantly be confused for the rest of my relationship with him that I would never decide if he was more monster or muppet.
Mr. Forsberg invited me to take tea with him and within moments of my acceptance and a light few presses by Mrs. Montgomery on that tablet of hers, a cook had brought me a cup of Orange Pekoe and an assortment of light cheeses and olives to accompany it. Somewhere in the middle of pleasantries such as the lovely Saturday afternoon weather and the beautiful garden around us, Mr. Forsberg offered, “Please, call me Xavier if you would like,” and I was charmed by it in part because of the somewhat incongruous feeling knowing his first name gave me. It did not strike me as the sort of first name of either a monster or a muppet, and maybe not even a first name I would expect from someone so seemingly always formal by contagious force such as Mr. Forsberg. Somehow settling into calling him Xavier did not dissuade him from sticking to “Ms. Lynne” in all cases of address. It started to give me the impression that “Raconteur (Retired)” was much less a self-described affectation and somehow an accidental label given him by some rival. I shouldn’t have found it charming, but it came across to me as very charming and somehow natural and native to Mr. Forsberg.
Eventually the general pleasantries gave way to the specifics and Xavier asked how I’d become aware of Milburn’s “Flight Into Night” and I mentioned that autobiographical footnote that had lead me down the curious path to meeting Mr. Forsberg. Xavier nodded, and admitted to having also read that autobiography. I mentioned my thoughts from the time I read it that perhaps Milburn’s “Flight Into Night” played a larger role in the context of the children’s show and its origins than just a single footnote might imply. Xavier nodded along and then congratulated me on my “astute observations”.
We sat in comfortable garden white noise (some eager crickets, some birds chattering sweetly among themselves). I realized I had finished the available cheese and olives and my tea was finished.
“Well,” Mr. Forsberg cleared the silence somewhat hesitantly, “I can tell you are fellow book reader after my own heart and I would love to hear your book report on Milburns’s work once you finish it. I’d love to give you access to my family’s library.”
Xavier suddenly had a key in the palm of his hand. I did not catch it if he had palmed it from a jacket pocket from one of his big sweeping gesticulations or even perhaps if some puppeteer’s stage hand had placed it there. (Though I was only somewhat disappointed the key was simply a standard modern Yale lock, not some monstrous ancient cast iron thing or something even more fantastically fairy tale.)
Xavier moved to hand me the key but then paused, “I’m afraid I must add one more stipulation to the terms: none of the books are to leave the grounds. Though you will be treated as a very welcome guest. You will be free to come and go as you please. I’m sure that Mrs. Montgomery had already logged your vehicle into the security systems and will only need a head’s up in the case you plan to arrive in a different one. She can show you how to request tea service if you wish for it, and I’m sure the chefs would be happy to account for you in meal planning if provided enough lead time. I’m biased of course, but I believe there are many fantastic spots, hidden and not so hidden, to fall into a book throughout my homestead. On days such as this, you might make use of this garden, of course, or there are hiking paths out to some lovely little grottoes and scenic points. One of my favorites has a surprising view of the downtown skyline. Indoors there are of course study nooks throughout the library and I would be happy to introduce you to some of the lesser used studies and sitting rooms in some of the guest buildings if you want some variety.”
It was my turn to hesitate as that was a lot to take in. It certainly was inconvenient, but there seemed to be far worse places to read interesting books than gardens and library nooks where someone else’s job is to serve you tea. I also found that I was appreciating thanks to such a rapid infodump how much Mr. Forsberg’s hesitancy was perhaps more an over-eager hope of and concern for being a good host than a worry what sort of person he was giving access to his family’s library. I realized I had something of a term of my own as I thought about Xavier’s offer, “I really appreciate the offer, Xavier. If I may add a term of my own? If the book is what I’ve heard it to be, it belongs in the public domain. I’d love to scan your copy to make it accessible as an ebook for others that may not receive such a generous offer from a wealthy patron.”
There was a very complex wash of emotions across Mr. Forsberg’s face, too fast for me to catch any particular individual ones, but he settled into a response I did not expect from someone of his presumed wealth, “Ms. Lynne, it would pain me greatly to let you volunteer such labor when I can easily pay for it. I’ve brought in Ms. Hayward as a consultant on several of my past library science needs and she’s been nothing but professional in projects such as that. But first, I would certainly appreciate your opinion on that large if that you brought up. It is a remarkable book in my opinion, but I shall await your own book report to compare notes, Ms. Lynne. We can discuss things like scanning that book after you’ve read it and given it time to digest, yes?”
Here again I found such an interesting and effectively charming eagerness in Xavier’s eyes especially. I nodded in agreement, it made enough sense, and reached out my hand. He gently dropped the key into my own hand and clasped my hand in something that wasn’t quite a handshake and wasn’t quite a gentle pet, before just as gently releasing my hand.
“Wonderful, Ms. Lynne. I am eager to hear your book report. I’ve found that first impressions of the family library are most interesting without a formal tour. Perhaps when you are ready to deliver your book report I’ll explain a bit more and show you some of the library’s more hidden features. I can have Mrs. Montgomery show you to the library building so you can get started.”
I smiled, “I believe it’s the hexagonal building I spotted from the street with the engravings of Athena watching its door?”
“Yes, of course! Very astute,” and with that great smile of an acknowledgement from Xavier, which I found strangely warming, I stood and thanked Mr. Forsberg again for the opportunity to make use of his personal library.
Standing just outside the library door I had a sense that the Forsberg Family Library was probably bigger than my entire regular branch of the free public library. (Though I liked that it was one of the smaller branches.) The exterior door of the library lead into a very simple vestibule. A couple of antique looking brass lamps lit up as I opened the door and I presumed they were on a modern motion sensor. Despite being a couple of relatively small lamps with modern LED bulbs (I presumed) they did a great job lighting the entire vestibule. On one side was a tiny cloak closet and the other an old fashioned card catalog. Relatedly, a QR code had been printed and posted above the card catalog. A note beside it that I recognized in Ms. Hayward’s handwriting stated simply “Use QR code for other catalog services, but please continue to use the card catalog as the main index. -V”. I of course knew the author I was looking for so I only needed the main index, presuming it was sorted by author name. I was glad for having had an eccentric elementary school teacher of mine force us all to learn the basics of a card catalog, despite it being an incredibly useless skill these days when all library catalogs were digital.
I opened the drawer that promised to contain Milburn, J. Y. and was immediately drawn into how much of a colorful explosion the cards were, and I wound up taking my time flipping through its contents in search of the card I needed. Every card had the expected author name and book title on the left hand side, and various other details such as descriptions or author blurbs printed below those. Every card also had at least a square of color in the upper right, like a test swatch from a painting company. In a few cases the entire cards were painted or printed the color of the upper right swatch. In some fun cases I stumbled across the swatch expanded out into mini-paintings and embellishments, such as on the card for Melville’s Moby Dick where the blue swatch color was part of a blue whale trying to swallow the book description. Below the color swatches were decimal numbers, but they certainly didn’t seem to align with Dewey Decimal numbers in the slightest. For one thing, even fiction works such as that Moby Dick card I passed across had these decimal numbers, which Dewey himself never bothered with, and for another the few Dewey Decimal categories I could recall off hand when I saw similar numbers flip past did not match the expected contents at all. The card for Milburn, J. Y “Flight Into Night— A Slumbering Fantasia” was in the catalog right where I expected it to be. It had a very interesting crimson/purple shade as its color swatch, perhaps resembling the tones of the later parts of dusk. A part of me wanted to keep shuffling through the cards to see what other details might pop out at me, but I was also very curious now to see the library itself.
With the book’s card in hand I swung the door open to the library proper. The vestibule door opened up into a massive flood of natural light from the dome overhead. The vestibule felt claustrophobic in comparison to the wall of light that spilled out from the building’s interior. That moment of transition took my breath away even before I started to take in the contents of the library itself. The vestibule hadn’t seemed that dark while exploring the card catalog, but it felt like it took a while for my eyes to adjust to the much brighter building interior. Even before the shift to lending mostly ebooks, I’m not sure if my regular library branch ever had nearly as many shelves as I could see in this private library. The hexagonal shape of the exterior patterned the interior as well. All six interior walls were lined with shelves of course, including the wall behind me with the library’s entrance door buried in the center of shelves. Looking towards the interior were concentric hexagonal rings of even more shelves, slowly growing in height as they progressed toward the center and an impressively looming central hexagonal spire of shelves. From the entrance angle it felt like the shelves almost made stairs for a giant to ascend to a throne just below the dome.
The shelves weren’t all entirely filled, presumably giving things room to grow, but it was still impressive just how many books I could see even before I started to explore the rings in more detail. The most prominent feature of the shelves, though, was that the covers of the books that shared each shelf all shared similar colors to each other, with subtle gradient shifts across the shelves. Each triangular sextant of the library was dominated by a single primary color, and there seemed to be a pattern to the flow of the colors between and among the rings. It was a beautiful color wheel that seemed to be the central pattern to the library, though it didn’t seem to exactly match any color wheel I was familiar with.
I could easily see why the swatch colors dominated the library’s cards so much. Assuming you weren’t color blind I could tell that you could track down individual books just by color sample alone as you got used to how the colors shift across the color hexagons. It was also quickly clear to me based on how the shelves were marked that the decimal numbers were still very handy for finding books. The hundreds place seemed to exactly match the sextants numbered 1 through 6. The tens and ones places gave a sense of which ring, though it wasn’t an exact or clear cut match. I had no idea what the decimals might represent, but there were sometimes six or seven digits. Between the decimal number and the color swatch it didn’t take me hardly any time to find the book I was looking for. It was between a treatise on art deco architecture and a biography of a Russian playwright, and I certainly had no more idea what the decimal numbers actually represented in this library as there was clearly no categorical organization here.
Other than the title and author on the spine of the cover I didn’t see any other marks such as a publisher’s mark. As I pulled the book off the shelf it became clearer that the dust jacket wrapped around the book was a unique and custom laminated work of art. It had a startlingly lovely dusk painted across it from back cover to front cover. The setting sun was featured prominently on the back cover and a kid whooping and hollering while riding a flying carpet took center stage on the front cover. No other words or adornments on either back or front covers except an artist’s signature, “R. Forsberg, Jr”. Inside the dust jacket, it was a classic dull brown leather bound book of the expected sort for its age. I found I really appreciated the beauty of the custom family cover, helping it to feel at home on such colorful shelves. A manilla card holder was the only other addition to the book, and one you would expect of a library. I slid the books card into its holder, just as expected and wandered over to a nearby study area to start into the book.
It took me several weeks of trips to the Forsberg Family Library to finish Milburn’s “Flight Into Night”. The prose was magical but incredibly dense and slow to read. Over those weeks I became very familiar with some of the reading spots in the library itself and in the garden. I did manage to find the hiking path to the city skyline overlook Xavier had mentioned. I had Mrs. Montgomery show me a lovely sitting room in one of the guest buildings when I was craving an indoor reading spot that was a bit more variety (and a little bit more cozy and comfortable, like reading on the couch of a beloved great aunt in her country cottage). I rather took for advantage the staff’s offer of tea service and was amazed at the selection and the variety of charcuterie and tapas bites that would accompany the pots of tea at chef’s whim. I tried not to take advantage of the meal planning for somewhat unreasonable fear of never leaving Mr. Forsberg’s estate again if I ate too much of its food. I was afraid of being accidentally trapped as its prisoner (of exceedingly fine dining, as I did find out the one weekend I requested it). Across those weeks I saw Xavier himself only quite rarely and mostly in passing as he was off to whatever kept him busy on weekends and I was sometimes directly rushing off to finish the next chapter.
Milburn’s “Flight Into Night” itself was equal parts amazing and infuriating.
The book contained some amazingly imaginative descriptions of a dreamy wonderland “just beyond the clouds, up the stairs, through the crystal tunnel, then across the dusk ocean, but only when you are asleep” named “The Far Kingdom”. The protagonist was a tween boy with a love of adventure and maybe just a bit of narcolepsy, and of course the adults in his life didn’t believe such a wonderland existed, much less were they interested in helping the poor protagonist in sorting out the various and sundry political conspiracies threatening to blow up The Far Kingdom and maybe even the “bland lands” “below” such as the protagonist’s home and all those adults that didn’t trust him and considered him a sad little boy with a mental illness. At the end about as you would expect the kid solves the political conundrum in a strange but fun way, wins the interest of the Princess of The Far Kingdom, and maybe manages to wink-nod earn some respect from the adults in his real life with a trinket he brings back as the Hero of the Far Kingdom. Like some of its other near contemporaries such as Peter Pan or Wizard of Oz or Little Nemo in Slumberland it was pretty tightly focused on the protagonist’s view point and treated the adventures as very real and quite serious. Like Oz the world seems setup to be a possible reusable franchise, way back before that was anywhere near a common thing, though the card catalogs in both the public library and in the Forsberg Library seem to imply that any proposed sequel was never written. The obvious reason to assume no sequel exists is purely economic: the book sold only reasonably well regionally and the publisher went bankrupt soon after, but I was also starting to see how some of the more problematic elements of the book may have also prevented J. Y. Milburn from attempting any longer term plans with the material.
It was in its problems that the book was incredibly frustrating. For all of its wonder and twee imaginative descriptions it also contained deep wells of intentional and accidental racism. The politest sentiment you might often hear here is that the book was “extremely of its time”, but the view of the book from this particular modern vantage point seemed to say that maybe it was even worse than its time. The use of a flying carpet as the primary transport to, from, and around The Far Kingdom easily implied that Milburn had studied Arabian Nights and possibly a wealth of other multi-cultural artifacts and just about every time you started to feel like perhaps the appropriation was unintentional Milburn introduces yet another racist caricature or veers rather closely to outright islamophobia or something worse. Most uncharitably the book is a white savior myth of a boy colonizing his dream space and winning the “exotic” princess as a prize for his efforts. Both things are true at once: it’s an imaginatively charming boy’s adventure and it’s a mess of bad stereotypes and outdated views and things that are very clearly awful tropes from a modern lens. Can you forgive the awful parts for the charm of the good parts? Can you blame a book for perpetuating bad stereotypes and tropes when historically it may have predated or even been the cultural source of some of them? I didn’t have good answers. I enjoyed reading the book for the most part, and I enjoyed reading it in relatively disconnected from the real world context of the Forsberg Family Library (and its garden and hiking paths and guest sitting rooms).
When I finished the book I asked Mrs. Montgomery to please schedule some time to chat about it with Mr. Forsberg. Xavier insisted on lunch together and I found myself unable to turn down an invitation for another amazing meal from his chefs.
Over lunch we mostly discussed pleasantries. It was charming and lovely and the food was as spectacular as I figured it would be. Over a slice of cake and coffee the conversation finally turned to Milburn and “Flight Into Night”. Mr. Forsberg asked for my report and I found to my surprise I had a lot to say about it. Enough that the conversation flowed back out into the garden and into some afternoon tea. I enjoyed discussing all of the good parts of the book that captured my imagination. I got somewhat heated discussing the book’s problems and how upsetting some of it had been to read in this decade. I mentioned my gut instinct that Mr. Milburn was probably even worse than average of his own time period and it wasn’t entirely “it was a product of its time”, the theory that some of its mean spiritedness and racism was so well read as to be intentional in its appropriation.
As conversation had subsided and with it again the tea and the various fruits that had accompanied it today (despite how much we ate for lunch, the bits of fruit felt cleansing and powerful when accompanied with a delightfully floral green tea), Xavier finally asked the question I had been dreading, “I’m glad that you enjoyed the book, and I’ve appreciated your perspective on its many problems. Given what you know now of this book, would you still wish to recommend that I pay someone like Ms. Hayward to scan and OCR the book for consumption by the internet as an ebook?”
I had been asking myself the same thing for days. I had been at war between the parts of me that were a big proponent of the public domain and keeping access to interesting cultural artifacts (especially in an age when so much of what should be the public domain was gated by leaseholders demanding rent and we could use all the public domain we could get), and yet the parts of me that admired it as an interesting cultural artifact that is so terribly flawed it probably should never be available in the context of the internet. “No, probably not. I mean it–” was about all I got out before my brain’s own infighting stopped me short. After hours of talking about the book, talking about what to do with its future choked me up a bit.
I wasn’t sure how much of that Xavier caught nor how much he felt himself, but he stood, unfolding to forbidding height in the process as usual, and offered a change of topic, “I offered you a personal tour of some of the secrets my family’s library in exchange for your book report, would you like to join me?” He offered his hand to me, and I accepted it.
“My father considered himself a failed painter,” Xavier started as he lead the way in a direction I felt pretty familiar with, “He went to art school against his father’s wishes, was never commercially successful, and eventually returned home. I’d submit that my father’s view of success was myopic, but I’m biased, in part because our library was my father’s greatest painting. Like many of the greatest works of art it was never completed in my father’s lifetime, but like only a few truly great works of art this was because it was designed to be a never ending, living installation.”
We started with a lap around the exterior of the building. Mr. Forsberg was full of facts about little details and secrets his father had hidden in the architecture, of which his father had first draft, but it sounded like he’d contributed his own share of details. I have no real knowledge of architecture with which to appreciate most of such secrets, but Xavier kindly pointed out that some of the books in the library could provide additional context if I wanted it. (Though I’d probably need to look them up via Ms. Hayword’s digital secondary indexes.)
Stepping into the vestibule, after a few fun facts about the brass lanterns and seeking out a custom LED manufacture for their unique sockets, Xavier pointed out what I had come to assume about the card catalog, “My father of course knew about Mr. Dewey’s system and he hated it. He thought that it removed the creativity of unusual juxtapositions, as you can maybe now guess. He grew up with my grandfather’s random shuffled library, with books in shelves spread haphazardly throughout the house, and as much as he loved the unorganized mess he wanted to organize it somehow. He considered Mr. Dewey’s system boring and problematic for the ideas in books to only be in conversations with each others in the same ‘intellectual category’. Most importantly he thought it robbed books of their context: pigeon holing books into strict categories implies that everything about those categories can be exclusively found in those and only those books, that every book in a category is equally valuable to current thought on that category, and that perhaps worst of all the impression of full shelves in a category can give the impression that everything has already been learned and written down in that category. My father wasn’t trained in the library sciences, he was a failed painter, so he used the tools that he knew: colors. Then he arranged them into numbers that made sense to himself and thought to arrange books by the most interesting color on their spines.”
I nodded along at that, and even knew what to fill in of the next detail thinking of the delightful dusk colors of the cover on Milburn’s “Flight into Night” and the “R. Forsberg, Jr.” signature on it, so I added, “And where books didn’t have interesting colored covers, he painted some beautiful ones himself.”
Xavier clapped in delight at my observation, “Indeed. Books were always my father’s greatest muse and organizing the family library gave him decades of reasons to paint beautiful covers for old books that needed new or different contexts.”
He opened the door into the main hall of the library and ushered me in before continuing, “Of course, a lot of them needed new contexts, including Mr. Milburn’s Flight Into Night. My grandfather and my great grandfather were quite the collectors in their respective times, and as you may suspect of nearly any family of multi-generational wealth in America such as mine we had more than our fair share of that made on the backs of other people and some of that was intentionally more than a little racist. My father didn’t believe in hiding the skeletons in the closet, but bringing new contexts and bright shining light to the horrors, as a reminder and a caution for future generations.”
Xavier ran a hand over a seeming random shelf and just about immediately spotted an example, sliding it off the shelf. It had fascinating bright cover, but intentionally no words on the spine. The dust jacket cover was another “R. Forsberg, Jr.” original, only this time a gathering of ghosts with shocked and angry faces in horror. Mr. Forsberg slipped the laminated dust jacket off just enough to reveal an old leather bound volume with a long disgustingly clinical title involving “trepanning” and that was more than enough than I needed to know for why those ghosts were horrified, angry, and shocked. Xavier shivered in a shared horror of his own, replaced the dust jacket, and then reshelved the book. He pointed to its neighbors, “Today such a horror has as its primary chatting companions a field guide on birding and a novel about teenage self-esteem. Perhaps it will learn from such better neighbors. I’ve had Ms. Hayward project my father’s idiosyncratic system to Mr. Dewey’s and even modern color numbers such as HSL and CIELab, but the idiosyncratic system is what makes this library the strange incomplete work of art that it is.”
I felt like I was still reeling at the given “random” example, “Why wouldn’t you burn a book that awful rather than shelve it?”
Mr. Forsberg’s eyebrow quirked up, “Weren’t you the one trying to convince me of the value of old books to the public domain as a term of accessing this library?”
I sharply inhaled as if hit. He was obviously right, and I suppose that now I had a lot more context to work on, including the racism I had directly combated in my reading of Milburn’s “Flight Into Night”.
Xavier smiled and there was a kindness I didn’t expect or know what to do with in his muppet of a monster’s face after such a surprising insult, “Come, please. Allow me to show you my favorite secret in the library.” It dawned on me that this wasn’t the first time that he had had a conversation such as this, and that as embarrassed and pained as I felt from his response, I had a lot more reason to understand that complex wash of emotions when I had so casually discussed scanning books for posterity. This family’s library was for a different sort of posterity, as it collected as much of the bad as the good.
He lead me to the opposite wall in the hexagon from the vestibule door. He ran a hand along the shelves looking for a particular volume and it shouldn’t have surprised me when pulling it off the shelf revealed a hidden button behind it. Pressing the button made the sound of a great mechanical “kerchunk” of presumably a locking mechanism and then just as smoothly as Xavier replaced the book on its shelf an entire section of shelf next to that book slid out on rollers as a hidden door. Behind the door was a simple flight of stairs running up from the main hall of the library. I spent so much time in the library and I would not have suspected a hidden door or that the hidden door might have stairs leading up of all places. I eagerly followed Mr. Forsberg up the steps to see where they lead.
“Oh wow,” I stated overwhelmed and feeling like such words were not near enough as I stepped out from the stairway into a gallery tucked under the dome. Below the gallery you could see the entire color wheel (color hex) of the library laid out before you as a beautiful rainbow room. I wasn’t sure what sort of magic angles had been applied to the shelves below to deliver the “trump l’oiel” special effect below that made it feel to me like I could see all the colors of the covers of the books from no matter what angle I was looking down from as I gently wandered the circular gallery.
Xavier chuckled at the way I was straining my head around trying to see if I could catch the trick of it, and he gave me some time before finally filling the space with the rest of the conversation as if it hadn’t been interrupted by beauty below our feet, “This is the big reason I felt I must insist the books don’t leave the family’s grounds, this final overhead context. Just as culture itself tries piece by piece to make the best things it can out of the best parts of things that came from before it by recontextualizing them, this library is one grand work of recontextualization. Mr. Milburn’s book inspired a jazz quartet to create a lovely dream suite that in turn was sampled by some of the hip hop classics. Mr. Milburn’s book inspired a progressive children’s television show that tried to equally celebrate children’s imaginations while also encouraging diversity as the way to do it, rather than an obstacle in the way as Mr. Milburn seemed to believe. Mr. Milburn’s work is better for how culture already moved on and readapted the good parts, leaving bad ones behind. So too, Mr. Milburn’s work is better as one part of a prism’s rainbow in a library where new contexts matter more than old ones.
“My father insisted on the big natural light dome and that the best prisms came from sunlight. The best way to fight darkness in our hearts, in our culture’s past, in our family’s wealth, was to shine not just any light on it, but sunlight. My father knew full well that the sun would over time paint its own brushstrokes of fade patterns across the colors in the canvas below and that sort of collaboration was something my father always trusted, and that too felt symbolic to my father.” I noticed the streaks of tears on Xavier’s face, and felt more than a little moved myself. There didn’t feel like much to say in response while I digested that. I continued to take in the sight of the library below me and we took our time before we left the gallery for supper.