We are sitting in a quiet corner of Birmingham Central Library, surrounded by the sloped spines of paperbacks. Around us there are people milling about, mindful of the library silence, casting their eyes across the shelves. The stories that encircle us belong to everyone and yet, when you open the pages and lose yourself in them, they – briefly, fleetingly – belong only to you.
Mette Edvardson’s contribution to the Fierce Festival is inspired by Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. In the dystopian America of Bradbury’s novel, books are outlawed, something to be feared, a threat removed through burning. Some people hope to preserve the stories within them by learning them by heart, committing the contents of the book to memory.
This is what Edvardson has been asking people to do, to make these books a part of themselves, to become volumes in a living library. Visitors to the library are greeted at the entrance by their chosen ‘book’; a suitable perch is found somewhere among the stacks and the story-telling begins. It’s not quite the same as being read to, though it’s an equally intimate experience, sitting side by side engaged in the sharing of stories. Nor is it quite the same as listening to a monologue, though in some ways that’s exactly what’s happening and there is an undoubted performative aspect to the experience.
The first book I meet is Bali Rai’s (Un)arranged Marriage, a contemporary first person novel, given voice by Aaron Virdee. He chose to become this book, he explains, because some of the experiences and characters it depicts struck a chord with him. He speaks the words with care and warmth, giving life and shape to the book, making me sorry when it ends. Edvardson herself has chosen I am a Cat by Soseki Natsume and while her retelling is crisper, it’s no less compelling and again there is a jolt when she draws to a halt.
The process of memorising is vital to the piece. The performers are not reading the words, the words exist within them. And it is very much a process: the act of memorising such large, uninterrupted chunks of text requires commitment, continuation. The words can fade if not spoken often; it is by no means a permanent acquisition, and the books need to be communicated to people, passed on, if they are to be retained.
Other novels and stories on the list include Bartleby The Scrivener by Herman Melville, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, The Trial by Franz Kafka, Crash by J G Ballard, and Aesop’s Fables. This last choice is telling. The piece evokes a pre-literate world when stories only survived through a process of oral communication, repetition and re-telling: Aesop’s Fables were transmitted in this way. It also makes you think of books as subversive, thrilling things, coded objects, with the potential to excite and incite those who come into contact with them.
Edvardson succeeds in making you think of books both as a physical objects and as vessels. There’s a potency that comes from setting it in a library too, where the act of speaking out loud creates something of a frisson and the books are often a little bruised and bent, well-travelled volumes, pages that have been read and re-read countless times. It reminds you of the vital role a library can (and should) play in a society: all these stories, all these words, all this power, just waiting on the shelves, to be borrowed, to be read, to be loved.