In a very small town of otherwise no interest there was a library, and in that library there lived a librarian, and people said, although nobody knew if it was true, that he had read every book ever written. The people believed in this so much that they came from their homes to this very small town to ask questions of the man, for they felt that surely one of the books he had read must have an answer to their question. When they walked in he was always sitting reading, with his feet on the dark oak table and his chair tipped back and a book held above his face.
A messenger came from the king to ask the librarian if he should go to war. The man made a low humming noise and seemed to ignore him. The messenger asked again, and he was silent, and then still reading his book he said that the king should read the histories of the country, and read the history of their wars, and that if the war he was going to start looked like one of the wars he’d already lost then he should not do it. The messenger borrowed the books and left.
A philosopher came to ask the librarian what he thought of the brightest new thinking. Without looking up from his book, the man said that it wasn’t all that new, really, and told him the name of the book where he’d first read of it, and the names of some of the books that criticized it and appraised it, for what the librarian thought of the new thinking was already written there. The philosopher borrowed the books and left.
A young woman from a house in the small town of otherwise no interest came to see the librarian, and asked him to tell her something new, for she was so tired of having nothing to think about in this town. He said that there was nothing new to tell her, that it was all old by the time that it reached him, for it would take time for it to happen, and then for people to agree that it was something worth writing about, and then time to write it, and time to print it, and time for someone to bring it to him. She left without borrowing any books.
The next day she came back and asked him to tell her something old, then. He said that there was so much to tell, she would have to be more specific. She said that there was too much to know, and that she wanted to know it all, and so she could not possibly decide what to start knowing first because it was all so interesting but she knew nothing of any of it. He told her that it was not what he knew that mattered, but the wanting to know it, and that her desire for knowledge made her just as capable of knowing as he was. For he didn’t know anything himself, he just knew what other people knew. She said that was the stupidest thing she’d ever heard and left without borrowing any books.
The next day the librarian knocked on her door, and as soon as she answered he asked why she’d said that. She said that now that she’d had a think about it she was sorry, it was not the stupidest thing she’d ever heard, it was just that it wasn’t right. She didn’t know anything about how to begin to know, and he didn’t know anything about what that was like. She just wanted someone to help her start, and since she had thought that he knew everything, he might know how. He said that he began to know from reading a book that told him that to know everything, he would have to read everything, and so he read, and that even how he gained knowledge was not his own thought. He could give her that book, if she liked, but he could not tell her what he thought, for he had no thoughts that were his own. She borrowed the book, and she said that when she returned it she would like him to tell her what his favourite book was.
Instead of reading the next day, the librarian tried to think, but the more he tried to force himself to think the less he could. He walked through the rows of his library picking up every book from every shelf, thinking he would perhaps pick up a book and then, upon seeing its spine, remember it as his favourite. He tried to think of the book that had contained the most knowledge, the book that he had used to answer the most questions, the book that had been most key to his understanding of other books, for perhaps one of those would have to, by numbers, be his favourite, but all of them seemed even, each had something he liked the other didn’t, each had knowledge he didn’t think he could leave out of a favourite book. So he grabbed the passages he’d calculated were the best and tore them out, and once he had torn them all out he threw them back together.
This book, his book, now the longest book in his library, had in it all of the thoughts and facts that he thought were the most important, all that he thought someone might need to know if they wanted to know the world.
When she came back, he showed it to her. She took it carefully and held it softly, for its pages did not all match and she feared that it would fall apart. He explained how he had made it and how it would answer her question of his favourite book. She asked if she could borrow it – this precious thing, she called it. And he said that only if, in return, she would when she brought it back cut out her favourite part for him.
On the first day after the young woman left, he cleaned the library, and took notes of the books he had torn the spines from that he would have to re-order. On the second day, he sent away for the replacement books. On the third day he just sat at his desk, waiting for her to come back.
On the fourth day, just as he was about to close the library, she came back, and softly put the book on his desk. He asked what part she had cut out, what part was her favourite, for her favourite part of his knowledge must be therefore the most important thing that he knew. She said, carefully, that she had at times felt she understood it very well, and at times felt she did not know what she was reading. And as to her favourite part, she handed him a page. Her favourite part, she said, was how he’d chosen it and put it all together, and so her favourite part, therefore, was the index page he had attached to the front.
Also you might be interested in this wonderful anthology she was part of creating!