John Quentin’s powerfully provocative second novel, Ex Libris, is a modern classic. It stands, bold and daring, in the tormented no-man’s land between deeply intrenched opposing philosophies: the sacred on one front of the conflict facing the secular on the other. It shines its penetrating searchlight to illuminate both sides so that, if they choose to, each may see the other for what it is, and may see themselves as the other sees them. In a society and a world that is different to ours, yet disturbingly familiar, it brings forward stark warnings from history that seem likely resonate far into the future.
“Sacred Books, Leader? For the greater good, make it legitimate to destroy them. Threaten to burn them. Maybe even go ahead and burn a few. Burn more if necessary. Burn them all if needs must.”
Titus Brand is a creation of The War. So is the world he lives in. He lives in a world where he feels betrayed and lost. The Leader needs Titus Brand and when The Leader finds him, Titus Brand finds trust, gains a new identity and is given a new purpose in life.
In Grand Ordinance Number One, The Leader obliges The People to surrender all their sacred books. They will all be collected and they will all be burned. It is the law of The State. The responsibility for the legal collection and burning of sacred books falls to Titus Brand, Chief Superintendent Titus Brand, and his Ex Libris Corps.
Now it will be seen just how sacred these sacred books are. Now it will be seen what The People—some people—might do to help, or hinder, their destruction by fire. Now it will be seen how populist, how absurdist or how nihilist, the law is. Now it will be seen how effective, how symbolic or how futile book-burning proves to be in a world where there are so many digital alternatives to printed books and where there are so many alternatives to reading.
Is book burning in a digital world of no consequence and no significance, or could the consequences for the world be more significant than ever before? Titus Brand answers those questions for himself and for the rest of the world.
Ex Libris deserves a top-ranking place on any ‘Best Dystopian Novels’ list. It stands shoulder-to-shoulder with timeless dystopian classics like Jack London’s ‘The Iron Heel’, Yevgeny Zemyatin’s ‘We’, Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, George Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’. It sits comfortably among more modern dystopian classics such as Anthony Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’, Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, Lois Lowry’s ‘The Giver’ and Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’. It stands tall beside them all, but different and in its own, unique niche.
For all its provocative dystopian brilliance, Ex Libris is not set in some far off, post-apocalyptic future fantasia where people share an unrecognisable world with androids and aliens, which features improbable and impracticable technology, and the narrative is riven with incongruities. In Ex Libris, their environment and history are as familiar to us as our own environment and history; their society and culture are as familiar to us as our own society and culture; and the people are as familiar to us as our own families, neighbours, colleagues and friends. In Ex Libris, the issues of the past that influence the present, the future challenges individuals and communities face, and the decisions that leaders and the led and governments and the governed choose to take might all easily describe lives parallel to our own. They may be reflections of our past, descriptions of our present and portents to our future.