Monday, December 21, 2009

Library: An Unquiet History

When I opened this book and saw the opening quote from Jorge Luis Borges, I knew this would be no ordinary chronicle. Matthew Battles, a rare books curator at Harvard's Widener Library opens with his experience of trying to "read the library" and I was immediately captivated.

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles is an exciting and comprehensive journey through the history of the written text that takes the reader from the great library at Alexandria through the near and far east and up through history to the present day.

His prose is at times breathtaking.

"In the stacks of the library (this or any other), I have the distinct impression that its millions of volumes may indeed contain the entirety of human experience; that they make not a model for but a model of the universe. Fluttering down the foot-worn marble stairs that drop into the building's bowels, descending through layer after layer of pungent books, I am often struck by the sense that everything happening outside must have its printed counterpart somewhere in the stacks. It's easy to plunge into cabalistic reveries, dreaming arrangements of the books that would reveal the mysteries of the universe, a sacred Logos tantamount to the secret name of God. Where among the 43 books published in Bhutan in 1983, or the 31,602 published in China, or the 30,000 tablets at Ashurbanipal's long-lost library at Nineveh, or the 300,000 scrolls burned when Caesar flamed his ships at Alexandria, might we have sought the formula for the philosophers' stone? To which of the eight daily newspapers of Western Samoa should we look? wa the name of God carted off to the bookbinders in a ripped manuscript stolen from Salisbury Cathedral during the troubled reign of Henry VIII? Or encoded among some number of the 2,635 children's books published in Iran in 1996 alone? There's a reductive danger in this fantasy; for if the world can be compressed into a library, then why not into a single book -- why not into a single word?"

But the history of libraries and the cultural and political forces that drove their creation and tragically and predictably (as we learn with growing horror) their destruction is vastly more fascinating than I could ever have guessed.

Battles describes things I'd never given any thought to -- like the evolution of the methodologies for cataloging and organizing books, the decision making process to determine what a library curates and how these curators, these librarians throughout history came to be.

Repeated tales of the destruction of libraries and sometimes, entire civilizations are such a frequent part of our global history and yet it's hard to comprehend.

"A century after Alexander encircled his city with a wall of flour, the Qin emperor Shi Huangi began to connect his far-flung forts with the stone embattlements that would become the Great Wall of China. According to the chronicles, Shi Huangdi next undertook the most extensive book burning the world has ever known. His aim, the same chronicles tell, was to destroy all Chinese literature, all history, all philosophy written before the founding of his dynasty. When he died, six thousand terra cotta warriors accompanied him, buried together in a vast funerary complex near the modern-day city of Xian, in central China. As the chronicles have it, though, he didn't extend the luxury of effigy to the traditional Confucian scholars: they were buried in person when their books were burned."

This may be true or it may be exaggerated.

"Mythical or real, biblioclasms have their reasons. Often they are accidental, as when Caesar torched his ships in the harbor at Alexandria. Purposeful book burnings are of two kinds: they may be attempts at revision, such as with Shi Huangdi; another example comes from the emergence of Islam, when the Koran's adherents burned other religious texts deemed unauthoritative. In this case, the burning was a kind of sacrament; believers consigned the books to the flames almost reverentially, lest they contain words of truth hidden among the pages of error. Or books may be burned in order to erase their authors and readers from history, as the conquest of Mexico shows."

Throughout history, from the ancients to the Nazis to the burning of the Bosnian National and University library in Sarajevo, biblioclasms -- what an amazing word -- have continued.

Battles takes us through the history of access to libraries and how very recently it was that in this country, African-Americans in an astonishingly large part of the nation were denied access to public libraries.

This book was published in 2003 and Battles brings us into the digital age to ponder where texts and the library are headed.

So much that I'd never thought about and so beautifully told.

Next up: Saturday by Ian McEwan


JonnyWalker said...

nice post my friend

trung said...


Kaylene Norris said...

This book looks really interesting. Ive been looking for a new book to pick up and I think I have just found it. Thank you for sharing this with us! I look forward to your future posts!

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf