New York |

The Hour of the Library

by Wah-Ming Chang

edited by Emily Schultz

Our library is dying. The books break apart like hard dust, and we can no longer read their stories. A film of oil sticks to the skin of the jackets, which emit the slightest belch when they are handled. We have all felt this breath rising up our own gullets—how curious to note that the library is similarly bloated.

The library manager has instructed us to demolish the library and then to find new homes. He dutifully packs his collection of books into a suitcase and flees into the midnight rain. The real question, however, is whether we can repair the library, to loosen her belt as it were. The library manager may think he knows what’s best for her, but the rest of us are searching for ways to ease her discomfort. One believes the constant rain is eroding the roof, and so is constructing an umbrella-like contraption to unfurl above it. Another thinks that the sun cutting through the rain is burning the building, and is sewing together panels of canvas to drape over the cracked, wet walls. Another believes that the library’s doom began with its first books brought in sixty-three years ago, grand books with covers made of bronze, with pages of the heaviest paper, causing, he believes, the library to sink into the earth. We do not know where these books are stored. Every morning he tears the library apart searching for them, and every night he restores what he’s destroyed so that she does not crumple on top of us while we sleep. We thank him daily for his perseverance.

It is true: none of us wants to be crushed when the building finally dies. But neither do we want to leave our sanctuary. But neither, too, do we want to be the cause of her ruin. So you understand our urgency: We must find these grand books, this beautiful poisonous weight, and we must heave them out of our windows. We must fix the library, we must rebuild her. There will come a day, we assure ourselves, when she will be at peace.


The library manager returns one month later, and surveys the machinery we’ve abandoned at the base of the library’s steps. Though our plans to heal her rarely worked, somehow we are still here. His amazement is infectious, and we are proud of our hubris.

 He slept little during that empty month, he tells us, and sometimes, to relieve his boredom, he ate the pages of the books he carried.

We see now that he is no more than what we are, and perhaps lesser. Still, to maintain equilibrium among us, we apologize for abandoning his solution, for our hubris for creating our various contraptions, and praise him for the resolve, however brief it was, to release himself of his burdens.


I have been living in the library for nearly thirty years. The walls in my room are thin. I hear the pages of books being turned from the floor below, where the library’s visitors gather in the cavernous space reserved for reading.

One neighbor believes that the books need their pages to be turned, just as the comatose need to have their muscles massaged. As soon as we hear that first page flutter in the morning, our ears react as if a gun has gone off. Our skin prickles, our necks sweat, our eyes film over, and our hands and feet go hot and cold at once, as though they are steeped in a boiling brew of desert sand and ice.

At first I heard these pages as a dog hears a whistle, so attuned to the library’s visitors was I, but today the sound is a sibilant whisper.

Now a girl has moved into the room beside mine, and the sound of the pages being turned has quieted. I have to stretch my head out of my door to catch their intermittent rustling, which grazes the hollows of my ears the way dirt might trip down a cliff when a bird lands in its nest. Well, I don’t know why I should say cliff when I have never been to a cliff, so let me say instead bridge—the way little rocks get shuffled about on a bridge by the flight of a passing car. I have traveled to a total of three continents, and the syntactical utterances of this bridge that spans a certain dormant river are what I remember most.

With this new neighbor, the murmur of pages—or the shuffle of rocks, let’s be precise—has changed for me yet again. I am ready for this change, of course, though my hearing has begun to fade in the past year.

These nights I sleep with my door open, so if this old library were to finally collapse, someone from the hall might see the shape of my head and carry me out. Perhaps it will be the girl, who I hear is strong, perhaps she will carry me out, even if I may already be dying in her arms, content just to hear the pages of books being turned, as waves in a fire are stirred by wind, by storm.


We are a slew of old comrades who live on the second floor. We do our chores like the rest of the residents—painters and sculptors and philosophers and the occasional piano player—but for one difference: we don’t finish these chores. This is not tragic, for they are unfinishable. Our primary job is to reshelve books on the first floor. It is an uninspiring task. To keep ourselves occupied in better ways, we share our writings with these visitors, and at night, after the library has closed herself to the public, we comrades congregate in the grand gallery to share yet more of our words, our voices, with one another.

We argue often, and sometimes laugh, and we smoke bitter cigarettes that one of us brought over from a summer in Harbin. We have not bathed since stepping into the library. It’s not that water is scarce here, or that the place, slovenly as it is, influences our decisions about hygiene. This is our natural state. Our beards are always brown. When we recite our writings, we are assaulted by the stains on our teeth and in our eyes, by the way our fleshy lips purse like two fighting fish squeezed into a bowl of algae.

We are given an entire floor to work. Whoever has the misfortune of being assigned a room on our floor will ask to be moved to another floor, even if it’s three higher and inconvenient on the knees.

The only person who tolerates our disheveled state is the library manager. He is a burly man with strong hands and even stronger lungs. He has survived four wars, we have heard. We’ve also heard about the snarling dog he used once to kick out the worst of the lot. Above all, he tells us, he is not a comrade of any type, and therefore reserves the right to have us beaten to the ground if our work does not please him. He shuffles us around like dominoes, or like dolls. In fact, he is a master of puzzles. We sometimes discover his face outside our windows—a broad, giant, ruddy face peering in as though eager to catch us in our negligence. During the worst storms, the face fills up the entire window so that one pane contains an eye; and the pane below, a flaring nostril; and the two to the right, his rosy cheek. In the distance, his earlobe flaps in the breeze as steadily as a flag.

Is this image of him real? Shall we give in to collective hallucination? It does not matter. What is known is that the rain overwhelms the library, and once we start to believe the library manager is watching us, we understand that he’ll be moving us to yet another floor.


I have been keeping a journal of sorts. During the intervals the library manager moved me—from the first floor to the second, then from the second to the fifth, and then from there to the twelfth—I wrote down something about each of my rooms. Dead spiders pooling in the corner of one, the ceiling retreating each night in another, and brittle rose petals hidden behind the dresser in the third. I stayed ten years in each room, and today, the beginning of winter, I am moving again, this time to the innermost room on the twentieth floor.

As with the previous moves, I sit on my old, newly stripped bed to read the entries started from the years before, and just as with the previous moves, I do not recognize the person who wrote these entries. What this journal describes is a man of great ingenuity.

But my hands are not the hands of a clever man. They are ground through with calluses from building things, before they were asked to stop building things. On account, if I remember correctly, of how they smashed up the things that were being built. Do I have no respect, I (apparently) once wrote, for bringing life into the world, that I must rend it apart again and again, as I wish to rend apart my own insides?

I had a daughter once. The beginning of that story occurred long ago, and its ending, which was also long ago, was what had brought me here. The short of it is that I had watched her die in a fire. Today I do not need to shut my eyes to imagine the fire that had swallowed her up, for they, my eyes, search through my memories for her, and search, too, into the memories of her next life.

It seems odd that I do not remember much about the time between the moves, only the moves themselves. What I remember is how rarely I slept as my belongings were sent into transit. When I settled into my meal in the dining room—one per day for me—I would be surrounded by new, robust bodies. I was conscious of my sluggish weight. But weren’t they also unable to sleep (I wrote in the journal), like me?


If only I could be left alone to my real work. I have a painting that demands attention. It would like to be hanged—or hung, rather—in the hallway outside my room. But these days it’s all about the new girl in our midst. She is just a girl, I know. But she is a girl who walks in her sleep. What can I do but follow her while she roams about, and make sure she doesn’t bring harm to the library? This is my thinking: a girl in our midst, no matter how lost, should not be allowed to tread past the second floor. She is too unpredictable a creature.

I follow her also for her own safety, for many of the books are shelved incorrectly, and with one jolt from her clumsy elbow against a bookcase, a pile of them might crash down upon her head. Perhaps I should allow this to happen, though, because then she will wake up and go back to her room, and I can return to bed myself.

See how she is on the verge of waking? I can tell by the way her eyes open partway and how her gait becomes more confident. No one that sure of her step is totally asleep. But somebody warns me that waking a sleepwalker can harm her brain irrevocably. Which is plainly true, or plainly untrue.

During the day, a minor miracle happens: she stands in the corner of the library, awake and still. The long fingers of one hand stretch down her thigh, while the other hand hides in her pocket. She stares at the doorway where visitors enter, and they gasp as though her eyes, which are unrelentingly large, are presented to them in greeting. I do not know what she wants from the library or from the doorway she stares at so longingly. I tried moving her from her spot once, or at least to face her toward the back wall, but the pocketed hand came out wrapped around a sharp knife, and I let her be.

When she is not standing in her corner, she is eating with me in the dining room, or following me during my rounds, or shelving the multitude of books left out on the reading tables. Soon I will approach her with my questions, however, as her behavior has altered, though the change is slight, to be sure. This morning, as for the past five mornings, she stands in her corner of the main reading room, bracing her knife against her palm, hard enough to leave an indentation but not hard enough to break skin. When visitors notice her movement, they get up from their seats to leave the library. She follows them, and waits for the door to shut all the way before returning to her corner.


To live at the library, we are assigned tasks to help maintain the building. We gladly took these jobs when we first arrived, no matter how trivial or time-consuming, because every day we remembered how we’d lived outside the library. We check the locks on the various doors, windows, and cabinets, and pay special attention to dusting the books encased behind glass. Then we write our stories together, and paint our paintings together, and like the pack of stray dogs that frolic in our courtyard waiting for word from one of their elders to start the show, we watch one another for clues as to who is the strongest among us and who is the weakest. Say what you will about it—our library may not be stocked with the newest materials or provide a rigorous education, but what we, the residents, have these days is time. Time, finally, to reward our eyes with the ever-changing paintings alive on the walls. Time, finally, to try our hand at creating masterful works of art. Time, at long last, for timeless afternoons. We work with our books, and then we stir, around midnight, for a stroll throughout the library. We’ve got it on our hands, we say, as though the library were a spot of blood. Each man recalls this spot, this languorous unraveling of our souls, a bit differently. One says he feels as though his mother’s arms are wrapped around him. Another says it’s like he is flying, and with real feathers. Others describe a thirsty sensation, or a vast hunger in their bellies, or a general desire to consume.

Another says, “I can stand in front of the painting in the grand gallery all day, all night, and wake up soaked with dew dripping off the painting’s flowers.”

“This is the same for me,” says another, “except that instead of dew, I am covered very lightly in a prickly moss that flutters whenever wind in the painting presses forward.”

And the library manager says that time for him has grown into the old, fragile books stored in the top floor of our library. He does not allow these books to be visited. He respects their privacy, just as they respect his.


At night the girl is a silent angel. We are beholden to keep her company while she slips through the library in her sleep. We pass rooms we hadn’t known existed or had forgotten about. Wasn’t this railing once part of the stairwell? And isn’t that door hiding the collection of bronze mirrors? Why do our paintings hang on some walls and not on others? How stupid we feel for not knowing. Nightly, this stranger, our guide, shows us more and more of our library, as though she’d trod this path countless times before. Now her audience lags behind, for here we are in the library’s innermost hallway—on my floor—staring at a large painting of our very own sleepwalker. In the portrait, though, she is a little plumper in the cheeks, and awake.

This is upsetting. If only the girl would tell us where she’s headed. One of us, a former doctor, mutters, If only she’d tell us. Despite being pulled along by her charm, he walks up to her and snaps his fingers. She stops and sees him. He says, his desperation plain, “Where are you taking us?” She blinks like a baby, and just like a baby she has her brow do a funny dance, before it magically settles back down as though the bit of distress she just experienced has evaporated like so much mist. “Excuse me, please,” she says to the former doctor, and he steps aside.

Oh, we all agree, she has a lovely voice.


Many years ago I wandered into this library by accident. I was in an awful state back then. I had lost my daughter. What I mean is: one day I started a fire, and then I couldn’t find her anywhere.

At the time, the library was not filled with books, but with writers. At certain intervals in the day these writers would report to the grand gallery on the first floor to recite a chapter from a favorite book. Many writers recited from the works of other writers, taking pride in what they could have written, or what had spurred them to pick up a pen in the first place, or what had helped them to create their own most famous, or most maddening, narrative. There was a time limit for each writer to recite the material, but not strictly enforced, for when a writer in this library spouted the memorized lines, he found himself lured to the very next line that was as savory as the one just recited, and then he couldn’t resist the next line after that, and so forth with the lines after that, until the end of the story was reached and the writer clapped his hands together, once, in the act of closing a book.

Unfortunately, I never witnessed such a performance, as those with talent for such had gone by then. Instead, I drifted from room to room. Each gathered up only four or five people at a time, including writers who recited from their own books in a tremulous monotone that never kept the room occupied for more than one minute. I almost interrupted a reading to protest these comings and goings, even though I could understand why the people came and went, but I told myself to stay quiet, and sat through the writer’s novel about a young girl who had lost her way in the city. I considered asking the writer about the ending, which is frowned upon at the library—asking about an ending, that is—but then the writer looked at me. He was the first writer at the library to do so, and in his sunken face I saw how the ending of his novel about the lost girl pointed to something inside myself, something infinite that was expanding. If I had ever read about one of these girls before—and I have, and plenty—I would know why this particular girl had done what she’d done to herself.

Before the library closed for the night, I stole into one of the empty rooms behind the grand gallery, and sat against the bookshelf feeling the weight of its books around me. I was still reflecting on that lost girl and on all the lost girls who’d been born before her, my daughter included. Their stories were mirrors of one another, just as surely as the mirror behind the writer with the sunken face, along with the mirror sitting behind his audience, showed again and again the patterns of our knowledge and of our losses.


During the coldest nights at the library, the brittle sky belonging to the north window is distinct from the brittle sky belonging to the south window, though the variations between the two might seem minimal. If I gaze out the north window, the moon is a high, milky ball, whereas the moon at the south window appears closer to the earth and more oval in shape, rounded heavily at the bottom as though about to let go a fat droplet of rain. For a second example, the wind blowing past the north window sounds like one of our dogs gasping in its sleep, while the wind at the south window sounds like the march of a soldier’s feet. For a third example, too, the snowflakes outside the north window are large and sparse, twirling at the speed of dust motes in a shaft of sunlight, while the snowflakes outside the south window impatiently shoot down into a pitch-black ground. And for a fourth and last example, the north window sometimes opens to a view of a distant mountain, and the south window most times does not.

During these coldest nights, the girl moves between windows to catch other such variations, though when it is so dark from the cold, even as winter eventually fades and I am longing for an end to this madness, I can discern no difference at all, and stand with the girl in the very center of the library, looking north and then south, and back and forth until the sun reveals itself, to my relief, through a faint reflection in a window, any window.