Monday, June 22, 2009

milton and cigars!

Facebook groups come and go, but my favorite is probably “I’d Marry the Beast for that Library!”

I’ve been reading a lot of books about libraries lately (The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel, On Literature by Umberto Eco), and I just finished Library: An Unquiet History which Jamie thoughtfully gave me. I’m a total library geek and once defined heaven as Trinity College’s Library in Dublin. My mother is a librarian, and I spent a great deal of my youth in the public library and the library on the University of New Mexico campus. Then when I was a student there I spent even more time in it and then when I started working at the Center for Southwest Research, I spent hours in it! (Fun times, though working alone in dark and deserted stacks seriously freaked me out!) It was totally telling that on the shelves I could find my mother’s undergraduate thesis and my father’s multi-volume doctoral dissertation!

Library is a surprisingly brief condensation of thousands of years of bibliophilic history and is neither given to the flights of fancy nor the profound analysis that either of the two books I mentioned before is. It’s entertaining, eminently readable, and like the author Matthew Battles, I’m not quite sure in what category I’d put it (he natters on about where he might find it in the Library of Congress cataloguing system and when I flipped to the front to find out, I discovered it was a British-printed book even though Battles is American and the book maintains his original American spellings—BIZARRE!). When the narrative voice intrudes it’s always got useful and interesting things to say, but it still jars slightly.

I loved the sprightly and thoughtful introduction, which quickly moved on to Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and ancient Chinese libraries before making a pit stop in ancient Rome. I hadn’t realized that many of the Roman elite went to Greece for schooling, and that educated, literate Greek slaves were among a household’s most important members. There’s some good information on the shape of books as we know them today; “the codex was still a distinctly Christian medium.” As you can imagine there is a large section on book-burning, both in the section on the 20th century (which covers the destruction of a Belgian library in WWI, Nazi book-burning in WWII, and the books destroyed in Bosnia), and in the great loss of Aztec books by zealous conquistadores, not to mention the obvious loss of the Library of Alexandria. However, did you ever stop to consider the “books” in Herculaneum? The Villa of the Papryi’s scrolls were all scorched and illegible until a priest in the 18th century devised a means of unrolling the fragile paper and making them readable. More recently digital imaging techniques have been employed in saving this ancient library.

There is a very strong section on the libraries of Islam, noting that because Muhammad dictated the Qu’ran to his followers, they “became enthusiastically literate.” Just as the age of the great Muslim libraries was waning, the Renaissance began in Europe—but at the expense of many book losses caused by the Crusaders and later by the expulsion of Moors and Jews from Spain in the fifteenth century—in tenth century Cordóba, Caliph Hakim’s library numbered 2 books to every household in the city! I love the idea of the Hill of Books—in the eleventh century Hakim was defeated by the Turks, who had no use for books and ripped off the covers for shoes and buried the defaced manuscripts in a hillside!

By contrast, Western European libraries are somewhat glossed over, though considering their miniscule size until the Renaissance, perhaps there just wasn’t anything interesting to say (Henry VIII, for example, doodled all over his books whereas his daughter Elizabeth, despite what you might think, had few books added during her reign in the Royal Library). One of the strongest sections of the book is on Swift’s “Battle of the Books”; the eighteenth century was indeed an important turning point for reading in general, the proliferation of the press, and a debate in library maintenance sprung up. Another of the book’s strongest sections is on the life and innovations of Melville Dewey, who not only invented this revolutionary way of cataloguing books, he changed everything from the furniture to the card catalogues in libraries. He wanted things standardized, he wanted things efficient. Like it or not, he changed libraries a great deal, and we owe him. (I forget about France, but in Britain the Dewey decimal system is still used while most libraries in the US have gone to LC.)

There are a lot of interesting facts in this book, and it’s neither overly scholarly nor too breezy (most of the time). The author is obviously passionate but not to the point either Manguel or Eco were—or at least he doesn’t let his enthusiasm show as much! His notes on sources at the end was humanely related and such a pleasant surprise after the monstrosity that greeted me at the end of an article about Milton. :-P (By the way, Milton is mentioned a couple times in the book—once in conjunction with smoking a good cigar!)

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