by Aliya Whiteley
Art is my favorite archipelago.
It's a series of vast gardens, the anonymous islands wild and tangled, but on the landscaped island every known artist is represented as a type of plant: Renoir is a rosebush, Escher is a monkey-puzzle, Kandinsky is a perfectly trimmed privet. And each leaf or flower, when picked, becomes a work of art that can be held in your hands and manipulated to whatever size you wish, from the Mona Lisa to the embalmed shark. Every painting, sculpture, statement is represented as an organic offshoot from its creator.
Sometimes I fly there when my shift is quiet, and walk amidst the entire history of art, choosing a period at random. There is so much to see, and I can only experience a tiny amount of the data, but that does not bother me. It is the tactile nature of the garden I enjoy. That's how I assimilate information. I'm a toucher. Some librarians prefer the giant helix ladders leading to the cumulonimbus, cirrus and stratus of Science, and others walk the cities of Mathematics. I think I will always love Art the best.
A student has entered the hall and has chosen my desk to approach, his shoes clicking on the gray-veined marble floor. He looks very young to me, his eyes darting from left to right, taking in the green leather armchairs that sit in pairs opposite each other around the room, with the wires and sensors draped over the backs. It has a sumptuous, classical look, this library; I've worked in ones that favored high-tech white walls and glass screens, but this is preferable. At least I'm not on my feet all day.
The student stops a few paces from my desk and says, "I, um, I'm Andrew Molloy and I have a History project to do, and I got permission to use the library."
I give him a smile, to show him I understand his nervousness. "Can you give me your number?"
He hands over a laminated card. He's so new to the university that he hasn't even learned his number by heart yet; I'm going to enjoy this engagement — his first, I'm betting — even though History is far from my favorite place.
"What period are you studying?"
"Concentrating on …?"
He looks confused, then says, "I don't know, just general … stuff."
I choose a pair of armchairs and steer him toward them, then show him how to attach the sensors to his scalp and give him an eye mask as I run through the ASK procedures in my head. Belkin's work on the Anomalous States of Knowledge is a cornerstone of library training; in this age of information overload, so many people come to us with no idea of what they need to know, let alone how to find it. Andrew, as yet, has only a blurred vision of Pompeii, and I must manipulate our engagement to help him clarify and formulate his questions: the founding of Pompeii by the Oscans; the discovery of Pompeii in 1599 by Dominico Fontana, and the subsequent covering of the frescos, with their unacceptable sexual content in that time-period; or the moral censure of the paintings that continued throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? But no, I'm veering toward Art again, when my student probably wants only to learn about the eruption. So many are given this assignment, and all they want to see is the top get blown off a volcano.
As I run through the safety procedures, I remind myself that all I wanted when I first visited the Dataworld was to touch the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I could not have cared less about visiting its collapse due to the thousands of tourists, the raised voices and the flashes of the cameras. Most people just want to see something amazing when they take their first flight, and so I will show Andrew just that.
"Do you feel comfortable?" I ask him.
"Yes," he says, looking more confused than ever. It's such a lot to take in. I sit opposite him, and apply my own sensors, then instruct my contacts to mist over and initiate flight to the Dataworld.
The gray clouds in my head clear and we are standing in space, with the planet spinning far below in blues and greens, yellows and whites. Andrew gasps. I zoom in on the Arctic Circle.
History is a hole. It can be entered at the top of the Dataworld, through the frozen wastes of time before knowledge was recorded, and it plunges downward, to the core, in an absolute darkness that always unnerves me. From this darkness — like a mind without information — historical events can be summoned and reconstructed, choosing a particular school of thought or an amalgamation of the most widely accepted views as a starting point. If you are a watcher, it must be a marvellous experience, but I have grown tired of History's tricks. It's a nest of carefully sewn lies to me, like a termite mound, with more being added every day. History is a scuttling mass of interpretation.
The ground has turned to white beneath us, like a blank sheet of paper, and the mouth of History is a perfect cut-out circle, growing wider and wider, until it becomes all we see, and we plunge into the darkness.
"Don't worry," I call to Andrew, and I feel a tug on the back of my blouse; he is holding the material, bunching it in his fist as if he is a small boy afraid of being separated from his mother. It's a gesture that grips my heart. I was once so afraid of the Dataworld, of what it might show me, of how it could change me. I increase our rate of descent, feeling the rush of years, decades, centuries, passing.
It's a skill, controlling time in the hole. I have perfected stopping on specific hours, even minutes. I listen to that voice in my head, my own expertise, telling me that we're approaching AD 79, and I slow us down, gradually, and come to a stop.
Bang on time. Three minutes before the eruption of Vesuvius.
I allow myself a moment of pride, and then use my contact lens menu to cast a circle of light around us. Andrew is looking queasy.
"The stomach ache will pass," I tell him, and he nods, and lets go of my blouse. He has very pale skin; it flushes under my gaze. I bet he curses that skin in the mirror, giving away his embarrassment so easily, making it impossible to talk to the opposite sex or to give an answer in class. Being a teenager was a terrible business, I remember. My own experiences taught me that, not the Dataworld. The knowledge acquired through life experience is so much more potent, somehow. It stays with you for your entire life, and cannot be forgotten or erased, even if you would like to.
I select a general reconstruction from the menu. Around us, Pompeii appears, as if on a giant wraparound screen. Virtual people start living their lives, walking around the forum, the agora, sitting in their houses with cutaway walls, talking, eating, doing all the things that real people do. In the background looms Vesuvius. We watch, and watch; I draw attention to certain behaviors. We zoom in on the aspects that interest Andrew. He seems drawn to the soldiers, so I tune the reconstruction to follow the lone guard on duty at the Herculaneum gate, who stood his post to the last. The commitment to civic duty even under extreme circumstances would make a good angle for an essay.
The spewing of a million and a half tons of molten rock occurs in the first second. Ash begins to rain down, along with chunks of red-hot, glowing pumice.
I speed up the timer, and we watch the virtual citizens attempt to flee. Some succeed; others, like the guard at the gate and the 34 soldiers in the barracks, are consumed by the hydrothermal pyroclastic flows. We stand in silence and watch 16,000 citizens die.
"Wow," says Anthony. I glance over at him. He is crying.
"I'm sorry," I say. I shut off the reconstruction and bring back the circle of light. "It can be very powerful for those not used to it."
"No, I'm sorry, I don't like …" He brushes at his face, as if tears were crawling flies, an annoyance to be swatted. "My mother says I'm too sensitive." And then he flushes, no doubt thinking he's said something intensely stupid.
"I was the same, once," I tell him. "I thought seeing things like this, learning about the terrible events, the worst people, could affect me. I used to believe there was such a thing as too much information."
"But you don't think that now?" He looks at me with hope in his face. He wants to toughen up, no doubt, to learn to look objectively at the world.
I had forgotten what it was like to long for the deadening of my own feelings.
I access the menu and select the archipelago of Art.
We fly up, out of the hole of History, and back into the white of the Arctic wastes. Then up into space. I angle us down, to the island I love, and we land in the ordered gardens I think of as a second home.
"Here. Here's something worth knowing." I walk with him, touching flowers, stroking leaves, bringing works of great beauty, of form and color and meaning, to life. Andrew nods, and smiles, and his tears are forgotten. But it comes to me, as we stroll, that I have let my feelings cloud my judgement. He is not a toucher, and this place does not mean the same to him as it does to me. If I had been his mother, or a favorite aunt perhaps, he would have grown up under my influence, and I could have passed on my love of art to him. But I am a librarian. I can only find the information. It is up to him to make sense of it.
And no matter what either of us feels, the school demands an essay on Pompeii.
"It's beautiful," says Andrew, but his voice is empty of emotion. "It's weird, though."
"There's no sound."
He's right. I never realised before; there is no noise on this island, not even the rustle of the plants. How could I have not noticed this? I think, perhaps, the silence suited me, allowed me to concentrate on the visual. But to Andrew, sound is the vital element that is missing.
I feel that I'm beginning to understand him. And I allow myself a smile; I know how to help him. I access the menu and select the mountain range of Music.
From the high snowy peaks of Sibelius to the alpine passes of Beethoven, diving down into the deep lakes of Miles Davis and beyond, into the pressured darkness of deep water experimental recordings, and even the twin grazing goats of Gilbert and Sullivan and the rocky cave of The Beatles, this place overwhelms me. I am never able to concentrate for long in such avalanches of sound, so I take us directly to the white palazzo on the shore of the Baroque, and we enter through the great scrolled double doors to stand in a long white hall, among the gilt urns on elegant plinths that represent Italian opera.
I access my menu and arrange the urns in chronological order, then lead Andrew to the late nineteenth century, and point to a small urn, bright and shiny.
He reaches out a hand and strokes the smooth surface. A song bursts from the mouth of the urn, as refreshing as water, tripping along with gleeful ease to our ears. We listen to it, once, twice. I relish his rapt concentration. He is, undoubtedly, a listener.
At the end of the second rendition he removes his hand and says, "It's … I know it."
"Funiculì, funicula," I tell him. "Lyrics written by Peppino Turco and music composed by Luigi Denza to commemorate the opening of the first funicular cable car on Mount Vesuvius."
It's a fascinating story, the coming of tourism to Pompeii, and I enjoy seeing Andrew fit pieces of knowledge together, bringing the anomalous state of knowledge to an end, formulating ideas, and discovering the confidence to write his essay. Information cannot be only found in one area, one subject; it dovetails, segues, or jostles for position, each topic touching, everything interconnected. History, maths, music, and art — the Dataworld divides them up, but real understanding only comes from putting them together.
We finish up the session, and I make some notes for Andrew's bibliography on his card while I return him to the real world.
"You can take off the mask and the sensors now."
He reaches up slowly, and removes the mask. His eyes meet mine, and I see elation in his expression. Then the strictures of normal life return to him, and he glances around the library, and blushes.
"Thank you," he says.
"It was a pleasure."
He peels off the sensors, and I give him back his card. He gets up from the armchair and walks away, without looking back. I listen to his footsteps on the marble, and then return to my desk. It's nearly lunchtime. I might spend ten minutes in the archipelago of Art; the bold, bright orchid of Gauguin is calling to me. But then I think of the silence of Art. I don't suppose I will ever visit there again without thinking of Andrew, and his discomfort at the lack of sound.
Sometimes, I suppose, the student teaches the teacher. And information does not always come easily to the librarian.
Copyright © 2016 by Aliya Whiteley