By Roger Tagholm
One of the unexpected pleasures — nay excitements — for anyone in the book business of watching the Interstellar movie is spotting just how many books are featured. Traditional paper books, that is, some of them hardbacks, too. This may be a science fiction movie, but you won’t find a tablet or e-reader anywhere. Bezos himself may be interested in space travel, but he wasn’t able to shoehorn a Kindle into any scene.
Not just books, but poetry, too. How odd that in the year that the centenary of Dylan Thomas’ birth is celebrated, a blockbuster movie should be released featuring one of his best-loved poems, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” The character played by Michael Caine recites it four times and the first lines even appear on a plaque towards the end of the movie. There’s more. The movie was released worldwide on staggered dates in the week beginning November 5. Thomas died on November 9. From such coincidences — is it coincidence or was it intended? — literary conspiracy theories are born.
Those books hold our attention. There are numerous close-ups of the shelves in Murph’s bedroom. She’s the ten-year-old daughter of former astronaut Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey. We crane our necks to read the titles. In the few seconds we have during various close-up panning shots we try and remember as many titles as possible. Stephen King’s The Stand was easy to see, so was the name Isobel Wolf (the book is Out of the Blue). But there are many more, glimpsed just for a moment.
As is the way with a movie genre that attracts a cultish audience, the Internet is alive with Interstellar book lists and speculation over the choice of titles. Here is a selection of what we see, and some possible explanations.
Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis — well, no need to ask why that one might be on the shelves.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez — one unfortunate crew member does get left for a while, and don’t forget, an hour up there equals many years back on earth.
Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin — the novel has this epigraph: “I have been to another world, and come back. Listen to me.” Enough said.
Maugham by Ted Morgan — the 1980 biography of the English writer W. Somerset Maugham, who wrote at least one novel with a mind-body-spirit element, The Razor’s Edge, which tells the story of a man’s spiritual awakening.
Other titles include Downwinders: An Atomic Tale by Curtis and Dianne Oberhansly, a thriller set against the background of atomic testing in Nevada in the ’50s, and James Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere, whose title seems obviously appropriate. There was also Diana Gabaldon’s name visible on a spine, but it was too difficult to read the title. She’s the author of Outlander though, which features time travel.
(Spoiler alert. Stop reading here if you intend going to see the film.) If you’ll forgive the phrase, these bookshelves in Murph’s bedroom bookend the film. In effect, the story rests between them. In one key scene, the future, and all its potential, lies quite literally just beyond this wall of books; and it is the physicality of those books that is used to transmit a message from the future. How wondrous that in a science fiction movie that has its fair share of spacecrafts and gadgets and robots and technical talk it should be this most ancient of technologies that links a father and daughter across time. Books carry love here — and they also seem to represent both a gateway to the future and the storehouse of the past.
During these minutes, Cooper finds himself in what seems like a visual representation of Borges’ “infinite library,” the structure the Argentine writer invented in his short story, ‘The Library of Babel,” and that contained every single permutation of text in existence — or that will exist — stored in “an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries.” Except in Interstellar it is an infinite number of Murph’s bedrooms, an infinite number of that wall of books that we see multiplying in all directions, rather like your own reflection when you step into an elevator with mirrors on every wall.
For a few seconds we see books stretching into infinity. It is like a visual representation of the “multiple universes” theory, the theory that states that any number of potential realities exist at any one point. Our actions bring them into being — not so much Schrodinger’s cat, but Schrodinger’s library.
Heady stuff for a Saturday night, but this London audience — your correspondent among them — was transfixed.