This article was written on 18 Apr 2015, and is filled under Literature, New Ecologies.

Reading at the Roche Limit: A Review of “Fantasies of the Library”


In commemoration of National Library Week I want to share a remarkable new book, a book that gathers many libraries between its cerulean covers, a book whose bibliographic imaginary is not national but planetary.

Fantasies of the Library (2015), edited by Anna-Sophie Springer and Etienne Turpin, occupies the intersection of a number of ventures: it is co-published by K. Verlag (co-founded by Anna-Sophie Springer and Charles Stankievech) and the HKW; it launches the six-volume intercalations series, a paginated exhibition series which is a project of SYNAPSE, the International Curator’s Network. Each of these bodies in this constellation exerts its pull on the book with different intensities and at different spots, setting in motion a number of productive interferences between the geological and the epistemological, the curatorial and the classificatory, the bibliographic and the archival.

A longer essay by Anna-Sophie Springer, “Melancholies of the Paginated Mind: The Library As Curatorial Space,” runs the length of the book on the right side of the page—interrupted at length by a visual essay on reading rooms and reading machines—while interviews with other librarians, archivists, bookmakers, librarians, and curators run on the left side. Interspersed—or in the geo-poetics of the book: intercalated—throughout are images from Andrew Norman Wilson’s ScanOps (2012-2014), a collection of “anomalies” gathered from scanned images found in Google Books: software distortions, the hands of google employees, and other manifestations of otherwise invisible labor.

But rather than lingering over errata, Fantasies of the Library actively promotes an errancy that repositions the act of reading as an act of wayfaring, picking one’s way through a garden of forking paths. The page can no longer be likened to a cultivated vineyard, as it was for medieval monastic readers; situated within the disturbed ecologies of the Anthropocene, the page becomes something more like a makeshift archipelago on which an imperiled reader or precarious lecturer goes foraging rather than harvesting. It is an exhilarating, vertigo-inducing book, where within the span of a few pages your eye is confronted with multiple concurrently-running interviews and essays. (Your bibliophilic brain will experience FOMO while trying to focus on one page.) For example, while reading an essay about the Warburg library on the recto you might notice a mention of the Asia Art Archive in an interview on the verso, and when that interview ends, and you resume the Warburg essay, you might be seduced a few pages later by the images of Katie Paterson’s Future Library and consequently not notice that the Warburg essay has halted—and along with it the page numbers—and will only resume some fifty pages later after a visually arresting exhibition of reading rooms and reading machines. Is Fantasies of the Library a book, a “paginated exhibition” (as it insists), or a deranged reading machine à la Rodney Graham? Perhaps all three. Just try to read one essay or interview from start to finish without getting pulled into the orbit of another; it is nearly impossible and probably not advisable anyway. Rather than mimicking the layout of a newspaper, instead it playfully recalls the environmental theater of Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More.

The emphasis placed by Fantasies of the Library on juxtaposition suggests that it might be advantageous to momentarily consider it alongside a book that I was rereading simultaneously, W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, an account of a pilgrimage around East Anglia that can be read alternatingly as travelogue, archive of colonial atrocities, modern novel, and as the pagination of a melancholic mind. While both books announce their bibliomania and melancholic disposition already in the title—and while both extensively riff on Foucault’s thought—they also demonstrate that melancholia is not a one-sided as it is often made out to be. Unlike Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), whose reading room features prominently in Anna-Sophie Springer’s visual essay, Fantasies of the Library does not tend toward  entropic disintegration; in fact, the ultimate word is “order.”

Likewise, Sebald’s Rings of Saturn exists in a state of suspense between order and entropy that finds its emblem in the Roche limit that is announced already in the epigraph. The Roche limit, which accounts for the rings around Saturn, describes the distance at which a satellite’s gravitational self-attraction is overwhelmed by the tidal forces of a larger celestial body. Within the Roche limit the disintegrated satellite’s fragments are held in a state of suspended animation, neither coalescing into a unified body, nor colliding with the primary planet: such are the rings of Saturn. As Richard Gray has elsewhere written, Sebald’s writing can be seen as emerging precisely at the Roche limit in which both the forces of decomposition and the countervailing tendency toward inflexible and totalizing systems are resisted.

In Anna-Sophie Springer’s own Saturnine text, however, it is a writerly act of reading—in a liminal space that recalls the Roche limit—that is the seat of resistance, for

it is only when observation and discipline are invigorated by the promiscuous adjacencies and kaleidoscopic entanglements of anexact relations that the imagination is produced. (139)

As Joanna Zylinska argues in an interview (“The Species of the Book”), the bibliographic imaginary of Fantasies of the Library must be more than merely the by-product of innovative design. Where, then, is the experiment if not in the layout?

Tentatively, I would see the book not only as producing an imagination but also—to cite from Eileen A. Joy in her recent essay on the disintegration of the humanities and the decline of the university—as offering (provisionally and rudimentarily) a para-academic institution, a shelter for the intellectual vagabonds, and radicant Gardens of Thought. The peripatetic practices of Springer and Turpin, of the academic precariat at large, and of all the rogue librarians encountered in Fantasies of the Library are (re)inventing Academia outside of the University—or within its interstices—and in these simultaneously coalescing and decentering communities the book is likewise becoming undone: becoming tool, becoming platform, becoming library, and becoming exhibition.

– Jason Groves

Fantasies of the Library
Edited by Anna-Sophie Springer & Etienne Turpin
Design by Katharina Tauer
Paperback, thread-bound, 160 pages
30 color + 15 black/white images
ISBN 978-0-9939074-0-1      15.99 €
Co-published by K. Verlag and the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin

Order the book via

Open Access version here.

Reblogged on SYNAPSE.


  1. Kickball Jesus
    April 30, 2015

    What a nice essay, but what is the book about?

    • Jason Groves
      April 30, 2015

      Thanks for the kind words, Kickball Jesus. It’s a book about books. Technically it is not just a book but an exhibition, a paginated exhibition. An exhibition about books. That is itself a book. It is also about fantasies about books, and libraries. You should read it.