Library: An Unquiet History, by Matthew Battles
In reading this book I was struck by my own fondness for libraries and their vulnerability. To be sure, libraries have always had a purpose and agenda wherever they have been found, and that makes for interesting realities. In times past libraries were thought to contain all of the knowledge of texts that were possible in the world, and it was possible for someone to be a very well-read person over all of what was written. Nowadays one can scarcely be an expert reader of Amish romances there are so many books of all kind being written. The author makes light of the fact that libraries are massive, cataloging them is a nightmare, and people go crazy trying to read at the level that books are released, something that I can relate to. Given that libraries are places that are full of quiet, generally, it is somewhat telling that the author calls this book an unquiet history, though it’s not clear exactly why this is so. There are plenty of stories of the destructions of libraries in the face of war and civil unrest, but why this should make the history of libraries unquiet is not very clear.
After some acknowledgements, this slightly more than 200 page book begins with a discussion on reading the library, something the author acknowledges is growing increasingly hard (1). After that, the author talks about burning Alexandria and the troubled fate of ancient libraries and the stories of their destruction (2) in the face of political and religious turmoil. After that the author discusses the house of wisdom and the way that the Arabs passed on Greek knowledge to the Europeans (3), before spending some time looking at Swift’s immensely entertaining “Battle of the Books” and the way that the moderns and ancients have been treated as books (4). The author then discusses the construction of libraries in the Western world in the 19th century as places of education for all (5), before looking at the damage that Europe’s libraries faced in a twentieth century full of conflict (6). Finally, the author discusses the fate of being lost in the stacks (7) and the difficulty people have of finding the books that they are looking for, which has necessitated ever more complex cataloging that seeks to allow books and the people who would appreciate them to find each other, before the author gives some notes on the sources used as well as the index.
In reading this book I got the feeling that the author was being rather meta with his discussion. After all, he mentions the categorization of his own book, wondering where within the various library systems the particular book that is being read would fit in. Like many writers, the author is intrigued at the way that the concerns of the time help influence the way that books are categorized and feels highly ambivalent about the political importance of libraries and the way that they can serve to promote culture while unintentionally helping to encourage creativity on the part of those who read books there. Yet so long as books are being written, and so long as there is an interest in providing a way for books and people to meet up with each other and see if they get along with each other, libraries will continue to be built either publicly or privately, even if they are places that are remarkably sensitive to political difficulties, as one can find out very readily from reading any books on the subject and the way that people continually fret over the fate of libraries in a political climate of austerity and suspicion.