"From the clay-tablet collections of ancient Mesopotamia to the storied Alexandria libraries in Egypt, from the burned scrolls of China's Qing Dynasty to the book pyres of the Hitler Youth, from the great medieval library in Baghdad to the priceless volumes destroyed in the multi-cultural Bosnian National Library in Sarajevo, the library has been a battleground of competing notions of what books mean to us. Battles explores how, throughout its many changes, the library has served two contradictory impulses: on the one hand, the urge to exalt canons of literature, to secure and worship the best and most beautiful words; on the other, the desire to contain and control all forms of human knowledge."--BOOK JACKET.
Library develops two themes in detail; the accretion and destruction of several grand libraries, and the development of the library in the West. The burning of the library in Alexandria is well known (though Battles paints a much more complex picture than the one we have of barbarians torching the joint), but three great libraries have been destroyed in the past 100 years: The destruction of the Louvain University Library by the Germans (twice- in 1914 by the Imperial Germans and in 1940 by the Nazi Germans), and, in the 1990s, the destruction of the Afghani National Library by the Taliban and the library at Vijećnica by the Serbian Nationalist army.
The most terrible and awesome story is the creation of the 100,000 volume library in the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. It is profoundly moving and I will leave it to Battles to tell the story to you.
Battles also points out two ironies- the only library we have from ancient times is one that burned (the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum) and one of the greatest discovered treasure trove of ancient MS comes from what the West would call a dump (the geniza from the Cairo synagogue.) One burned and the other passed over because it attracted no attention.
The development of the Western library begins with the accumulation of books by popes and princes, at first open only to family and scholars, and the building of magnificent libraries open to the public (in that the public was welcome to ooh and awe). With the advent of printing the number of books available increased, libraries bulged, and the Western canon became diluted with plays, novels and other “highly seasoned” works. Librarians pondered how to store and retrieve so many books, and what kinds of books it was most meet to store and retrieve. The universal library was born- a large, (usually) free library open to the public, but still with a affinity to try and move the right kinds of books into readers’ hands.
This is just a brief outline. Matthew Battles has written a detailed and lovely book that packs a wallop. It is of interest to all bibliophiles.
Everyone who works in libraries knows how they live and how we become of them, rather than simply passers by in them. This work that follows the history of libraries, by no means a neglected topic, is one that stands out to me because I always feel that I’m not missing anything, that Battles is standing right next to the book I want to read to find out more about The Public Library Movement, or Herculaneum, or the development of parchment or even the multiple theories about the destruction of the library at Alexandria. It is, in many ways, a catalog of histories, without being pedantic or overwhelming or superficial.
My only real complaint about the book is that there is no bibliography as such. He includes his citations in the Notes sections, which is a very enlightening section, but still. I enjoy a good bibliography.
Experiments in Reading
“Like most readers, Kazin believes that the stuff he wants has been lost here, forgotten, discarded – that the library is a genezia that offers up its secrets only to the most indefatigable scholars. Of course, someone acquired these yellowing, fading materials; of course, someone retrieved them from the shelves and will return them when the reader is finished. But in the library these assistants hide behind the curtains; the library becomes a stage with a mirror for a backdrop that reflects only the reader and obscures the multifarious origins of the books.” (p. 202)
“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 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.
You wish you were because the topic is interesting enough and you have plenty of things to say about it, but he just wants to recite the bibliography of his thesis at you, and you can't tell what he thinks about it, or get a word in edgewise.