Matthew Battles, author of "Library: An Unquiet History" interviews András Riedlmayer, a Hungarian librarian and historian at Harvard about the war in the former Yugoslavia.
Over coffee one afternoon in the summer of 2001, András reminded me of another way to burn books, explained to him by a colleague who survived the siege of Sarajevo. In the winter, the scholar and his wife ran out of firewood, and so began to burn their books for heat and cooking. “This forces one to think critically,” András remembered his friend saying. “One must prioritize. First, you burn old college text books, which you haven’t read in thirty years. Then there are the duplicates. But eventually you’re forced to make tougher choices. Who burns today: Dostoevsky or Proust?” I asked András if his friend had any books left when the war was over. “Oh, yes,” he replied, his face lit by a flickering smile. “He still had many books. Sometimes, he told me, you look at the books and just choose to go hungry.”
If you understand how the scholar feels, you may be interested in “Library: An Unquiet History.” If you don’t quite get it, then this book is probably not for you.
I finished “Library: An Unquiet History” by Matthew Battles four months ago. Normally, I can turn around a review more quickly, but this one is a bit challenging. I couldn't decide if I liked it or not.
While I enjoyed the book, it wasn’t as good as I’d hoped. The book jacket describes it as a history of libraries from ancient times to present. In reality, though, it’s more of a collection of historical stories about libraries.
Battles frames the stories around the historical tension between two camps. The Universalists believe the library should include all books. Its value is in having a complete collections. The Great Books group, on the other hand, sees the library as the pinnacle of culture. It should have only the books we want people to read. The role of the library is to ensure people don’t waste time on books they shouldn’t read. Battles himself seems to come down on the side of the universalists.
Reading the library, we quickly come to an obvious conclusion: most books are bad, very bad in fact. Worst of all, they’re normal: the fail to rise above the contradictions and confusions of their times (in this respect, I’m sure this book will be no exception). It’s understandable, then, that we spend so much energy ferreting out the exceptional books, the ones that shatter paradigms. But we shouldn’t forget that the unremarkable books have much to teach us about cultural history – ultimately more, perhaps, than our cherished Great Books.
Battles doesn’t claim to tell the whole history:
I am looking for the library where it lives. Of course, a complete history of the library – a documentary account of libraries wherever they have existed, in whatever form they take – would run to many volumes. What I’m looking for are points of transformation, those moments where readers, authors, and librarians question the meaning of the library itself.
While Battle does find many of these points, he doesn’t quite tie them together into a single story. The stories themselves are fascinating. I learned a great deal about libraries. And the book itself moves smoothly from one section to the next. But somehow it feels like a shallow river. There’s a lot of stuff happening and swirling all around you, and you know it’s going someplace, but you can’t quite dive in and go along for the ride.
Battles writes long paragraphs and sentences. In the selections I cite below, he averages more than 20 words per sentence. I’m sure that’s from his experience as an academic. He crams so many facts into each paragraph that the information gets lost. This paragraph is great example:
Despite his distaste for the vulgar curiosities that seemed to pass for modern thinking, Swift found cause for hope in the early numbers of the Mercury. His mentor [Sir William] Temple was among those who offered questions for the learned members of the Athenian Society to ponder. Evidently, he encouraged swift to take the paper’s use of the Athenian moniker seriously, and to expect that the “Society” would offer sober and learned guidance to England’s burgeoning reading public. Swift’s first published poem, in fact, is his “Ode to the Athenian Society,” in which he extolled the “the great Unknown, and far-exalted Men” whose wisdom filled both sides of the Mercury’s sheet twice weekly. Later Swift learned that this “Society” was actually composed of just three Grub Street hacks. Its publisher and guiding spirit, a bookseller by the name of John Dunton, was a product of the dissenting academies who flourished in the book trade of London’s coffeehouse demimonde. He had even travelled to New England, where he met with Cotton Mather, visited a lecture given to Christianized Indians at Natick, and sold books at Harvard (some of which may have ended up in the library). Dunton championed precisely the new kind of book that, in Swift’s estimation, was cluttering the Royal Library. Indeed, he seems never to have had an experience in life that he didn’t deem fit to publish in book form. He memorialized his New England trip in an autobiography he called The Life and Errors of John Dunton, which he brought out, doggedly in some thirty editions. When his second wife’s promised generous dowry failed to materialize, he initiated a pamphlet campaign against his mother-in-law.
Tighter writing and a more deliberate structure would make this a more compelling book, and more accessible for those looking for something more than historical anecdotes.
Library is like a stroll through a library. You can walk down the stacks picking up random books as you go. You can open it to random page and read some. Then you go on down the stack and pick up the next one. Such a stroll is relaxing and educational. And you can relish an afternoon surrounded by aging pages, smiling slightly in the comforting warmth. It’s all very pleasant, but there is no sense of transformation or completion at the end of the stroll.
Some things I learned:
- The library at Alexandria wasn’t destroyed in a cataclysmic fire
- The library at Alexandria acquired many of its books by seizing them from visitors to the city
- Libraries have been a strategic asset and target in war
- Thomas Dewey trained women to be librarians not out of any egalitarian notion, but to make the position of librarian more subservient
- When the Nazis banned books, they didn’t tell people what books were banned.
- Many libraries used to organize their collections by size
Some key passages:
Endowed by the grieving mother of Harry Elkins Widner, a Harvard graduate and bibliophile who went down with the Titanic, Widener is the Great Unsinkable Library. Its ten levels contain fifty-seven miles of shelves, enough to hold some 4.6 million bound volumes, giver or take a few. The shelves are great armatures of forged iron that carry the weight of the building; the library quite literally is supported by its books.
Like other natural philosophers of the Latin Middle Ages, Roger Bacon held that three classes of substance were capable of magic: the herbal, the mineral, and the verbal. With their leaves of fiber, their inks of copperas and soot, and their words, books are an amalgam of the three. The notion that words, like plants and stones have existences independent of our uttering them – that they have power and do things in the world – is a commonplace in many traditions. Brought together in multitudes, heaped up and pared down, read and forgotten, library books take on lives and histories of their own, not as texts but as physical objects in the world.
Still more Mesopotamian libraries must lie buried in the great tells, or mounds of ruined cities, that dot the landscape of the Assyrian homeland; precision bombs may now be destroying libraries we don’t even know exist.
In an effort to stop the growth of the libraries at Rhodes and Pergamum, both of which threatened Alexandria’s preeminence, the city’s rulers banned the export of papyrus. The move backfired, however, spurring the Pergamenes to invent parchment (charta pergamenum), which for its strength and reusability would prove to be the preferred writing medium in Europe for more than a thousand years.
The centralization and consolidation of libraries serves the convenience of scholars and princes alike. But great libraries are problematic in times of war, disaster, or decay, for their fate becomes the fate of the literatures they contain. Much of what comes down to us from the antiquity survived because it was held in small private libraries tucked away in obscure backwaters of the ancient world, where it was more likely to escape the notice of zealots as well as princes.
When the future emperor Liu Ji’s father was kidnapped by a rival who threatened to boil him alive, the leader showed his coarse mettle by requesting a bowl of soup made from the resulting stock.
But even if the last few charred characters offer up nothing new, once thing is certain: the most complete ancient library accessible to us today survived because it burned.
[Francis Bacon’s} parsing of all human knowledge into three categories – memory, wisdom, and imagination – became an organizing principle of empirical thought. In his system, Bacon eschewed the division of sacred and secular, harking back to the classical epistemologies that emphasized relations among disciplines of the mind. His taxonomy enjoyed a lasting influence: Diderot adopted the scheme in Volume I of his 1751 Encyclopedie, and it has been the forerunner of modern library classifications.
In the same issue, William Frederick Poole (who ran the Chicago Public Library) also draws a parallel between the smoking and reading habbits. To Poole, however, the tobacco reference was not entirely negative. “I smoked tobacco and read Milton at the same time,” he declares, “and for the same motive: to find out what was the recondite charm in them that gave my father so much pleasure.” But too many people, Poole admits, are dissuaded by that first unpleasant impression of tobacco from any further consideration of its charms.
Alleging that Belgian civilians had committed such atrocities as ambushing rearguard troops and gouging out the eyes of wounded soldiers in the field, the German government justified the burning of the Louvain on the grounds of military necessity. “The barbarous attitude of the Belgian population in all parts occupied by our troops has not only justified our severest measures,” the Germans declared, “but forced them on us for the sake of self-preservation.” The West, of course, saw it differently. “It is treason to civilization,” wrote the London Daily Chronicle on August 29. “War on non-combatants is bad enough, but this is war on posterity to the remotest generations.” Eight days after the Germans razed the town, a witness wrote that “even into the country, leaves of manuscripts and books fluttered about, half burned, at the mercy of the wind.” One manuscript was saved, though: a professor had withdrawn it for consultation and carried it with him when he fled the city before the German occupation. Trudging along in a refugee column, he stopped in a garden near Ghent and buried the book, “ enclosed in a little iron safe.” There is no record of this single manuscript’s return to the library or of its rediscovery. Perhaps the last book of Louvain’s great prewar library still rests in its iron casket, a hidden library of one.
The Germans had other reasons to revile the Louvain’s library. Not only had a new library building risen risen from the city’s ashes, but a new collection as well – and after World War I, Belgian libraries had refilled their stacks with books confiscated from the defeated Germans. The library at Louvain once again held a rich collection, including incunabula and medieval manuscripts; many of these had been taken from the stacks of Germany’s own libraries.
The new libraries of the earlier twentieth century, however, hid away the books. Rendering them accessible only staff employing the latest technology: telephones, conveyor belts, elevator. The cover of the May 27, 1911, issue of Scientific American showed a cutaway view of the stacks of the New York Public Library, then newly opened. The view shows the all-male staff bustling among the shelves below floor level, sending volumes to the delivery room via a complex network of shafts and booklifts. Beyond the delivery room windows sit the blissfully browsing readers, unaware of the machinery employed to bring them their reading material.