Monday, July 9, 2018

The Library by Stuart Kells

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

Plenty of the books I have read over the years have been impulse reads. The library (sinister institution that it is) has a new books display as you walk in, and books (sirens that they are) call to me. I pick them up, and I end up reading stuff that was not on my list. Oh well. Such is the life of a bibliophile.

This book was one step removed from that. My eldest daughter saw it on the new books shelf, checked it out, and read it. And told me I should read it. And seriously, who can say no to that?

The Library isn’t a history of libraries, exactly. It is more like a series of interesting stories about Western libraries since the great library of Alexandria. It is a book about book collectors. It tells of how famous libraries came to be, from Roman times, to our own times. It has its tragedies: books destroyed by fire, flood, mold, insects, and war. It has humor and skullduggery. It has book thieves along with collectors (often the same person.) It has copyists, artists, printers, and more. It has mentions of Terry Pratchett and Umberto Eco. And Doctor Who.

Stuart Kells is apparently an authority on rare books. His official professions are “author” (of course) and “book-trade historian,” which is as specialized as it sounds. And he loves books. Dearly. His passion and affection shine through on every page. I can certainly sympathize. I have a decent library of my own. (Yes, we have a whole room dedicated to it. My wife found our current house, and when we walked through it intending to make an offer, we both thought “library” when we entered the room, which was - at that time - desecrated with a giant television.) Not that our books actually fit in the library. We have bookshelves elsewhere too. And our kids have books. I haven’t counted or catalogued them, but between all of us, we are certainly north of 2500 volumes - and possibly over 4000. (See below.) This would make ours a rather large library by medieval standards, if fairly small by 19th or 20th Century measures. Like the older tradition, though, ours are mostly used books. We have painstakingly collected them at thrift stores, at library sales, at used book stores, and off Ebay. These days, we mostly limit ourselves to hardbacks, due to limited space. But our library is a lovely thing, and our happy place.

Trying to summarize this book is impossible, so let me just hit a few fun highlights.

Our word “library” comes from the Latin “librarii,” the scroll copyists who worked off of the author’s manuscript. So, a collection of scribes gave the name to the place where books were kept. But libraries weren’t just for reading or copying. Originally, they were where books were translated. The Alexandria library made the attempt of translating works from around the known world. One of the major works that resulted was the Septuagint - the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, which is the bible that Christ would have known.

Since the dawn of the modern era - which brought both the printing press and (eventually) widespread literacy - libraries have grown exponentially. Leibniz (co-inventor of calculus) worried as early as the late 1600s that at the rate books were being written, whole cities would be filled with books. A generation earlier, Thomas Coryat said “methinks we want rather readers for bookes than bookes for readers.” If only he had known. It is kind of ironic that today we do the same thing, whining that nobody reads anymore, which isn’t true. (Especially ironic coming from Baby Boomers, who read less than their children and grandchildren.) Worldwide literacy is at an all-time high. While discernment about sources continues to be an issue, we are in the golden age of books. At least until the next one.

Speaking of interesting quotes, there is a conversation between Henry James and Edith Wharton that is fantastic. There is a chapter devoted to naughtiness of various sorts, particularly erotica, which has existed since humans learned to draw. So has censorship, and keeping the sexy stuff out of the reach of plebeians has long been a priority. Wharton mentioned the kind of novel “that used euphemistically to be called ‘unpleasant.’”

“You know,” Wharton told James, “I was rather disappointed; that book wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected.” James replied with a twinkle, “Ah, my dear, the abysses are all so shallow.”

This is why I love Henry James.

Speaking of naughty stuff and censors, there is a mention of a book from the Puritan era which is housed in the Folger Shakespeare Library. I mention it solely because of its marvelous and descriptive name:

A Just and Seasonable Reprehension of Naked Breasts and Shoulders, Written by a Grave and Learned Papist by Jacques Boileau.

You can read it in translation here, if you wish. Clearly Modesty Culture™ is nothing new, and has generally be driven by dirty old men.

Irony abounds in the history of book collecting. In describing the Pierpont Morgan library (which is, to say the least, ostentatious), the author points out that in a prominent place over the fireplace hangs Pieter Coecke van Aelst’s tapestry, The Triumph of Avarice.

The final chapter of the book concerns the future of libraries. The idea of the public library isn’t new. Ancient Rome was full of them, and emperors from Trajan to Augustus supported them. (Even if the books contributed were generally plundered from conquered nations…) The Middle Ages were “dark,” in part because literacy declined precipitously, and libraries were placed under lock and key. The Renaissance revived the idea of the public library, open to those who could read and wished to. During the Victorian Era, Anthony Panizzi, librarian of the British Museum, expressed the goal of public libraries eloquently:

I want a poor student to have the same means of indulging his learned curiosity, of following his rational pursuits, of consulting the same authorities, of fathoming the most intricate inquiry, as the richest man in the Kingdom, as far as books go, and I contend that Government is bound to give him the most liberal and unlimited assistance in this respect.

Sadly, this goal has become unpopular in our day. Libraries, after all, cost money, and don’t yield obvious economic rewards. Government services in general are under attack by a Right Wing increasingly opposed to the very concept of the Common Good.

Here in Kern County, we have had ongoing attempts over the last few years to privatize the library system. (Fortunately, a neighboring system to the south already tried it, and just went back to a public system. This failure has helped us turn the tide.) The nadir of this discussion was when our former District Attorney actually said that she thought that every library in the County should be closed before her office lost one cent of budget. This despite the fact that our spending on libraries is far below other California Counties - and we haven’t opened a new library in decades despite doubling in population. (We depend on oil and agriculture for our tax base - when gas is cheap, our budgets suffer…) This shortsighted viewpoint is what those of us who love our libraries are up against. Rather than being seen as a vital public service - the sign of a healthy society - libraries are viewed as an expendable drain on the budget. It isn’t just here in the United States either. As the author points out about his native Great Britain:

Today Britain’s public libraries are caught in a downward spiral of reduced funding and the de-professionalization of library services.

This is the heart of the privatization debate. For-profit companies promise to lower costs. How does one do that? Buildings and utilities cost the same for everyone. So, buy fewer books? Reduce hours and close branches? Or, what is usually the plan: fire the professional librarians and hire glorified store clerks to do the work. That’s what de-professionalization means in practice. The library ceases to become a learned place, and becomes a glorified WalMart. Fortunately, our community has fought back, and our libraries remain public.

This is a fascinating book for those who love books. And if you don’t love books, then, you probably aren’t reading a book anyway…


How many books DO we have? I did a rough estimate by measuring “shelf-feet,” then multiplying by the average number of books per shelf-foot. By the way, when I say “shelf-feet,” I do not mean that we have that much in shelving. We don’t. We have stuff double rowed on shelves, stuff in boxes, and stuff waiting to be read on tables and nightstands.

By my count, we have roughly 360 shelf feet of books. I counted a few shelves containing different sizes of books, and think that 12 books per foot is a reasonable average. That would give us around 4300 books. If we go with larger average size - 10 to a foot - you end up with 3600. Which is still a lot. Hi, my name is Tim, and I’m a bookaholic…

 This is about 72 shelf feet of books - my prettiest ones. I built the shelves, and 99% of the books are used book finds.

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