Two books for you today, connected in the loosest sense by the fact that they are both written by librarians and are, in part at least, about libraries. Otherwise they couldn’t be more different, which makes them interesting companions.
Matthew Battles – Library: An Unquiet History
Matthew Battles is a rare books librarian at the Houghton Library at Harvard University. What he’s written is a sort-of history of the library, via a series of essays covering the libraries of Ancient Greece, Rome and the Arabic and Chinese empires; changes in the way libraries were perceived during the Renaissance; the purpose of libraries; the destruction of books (via such diverse events as the mythical desecration of the great Alexandrian Library by Caliph Omar and the very real Nazi book burnings); and the categorisation, storage and eventual retiring of books.
The opening essay – ‘Reading the library’ – makes for a gripping if uncomfortable experience, as Battles explores his time working at Harvard’s Widener Library, with its ‘…ten levels […] fifty-seven miles of shelves [and] 4.6 million bound volumes…’. If you wanted to set someone off on a downward spiral of despair at the limits of one reading life, this is the way to do it. I’ve always loved libraries in a profound, almost spiritual way but I realise my ability to be in them is the result of a constant subconscious effort to suppress the thought that they contain thousands of books I won’t read in order to maintain focus on the few that I will. In a way, browsing in a library is the ultimate expression of hope – if you thought too much about how little time for reading you really have, you’d end up a gibbering wreck frantically pulling books off the shelves at random and discarding them after a sentence or two.
In the same way that you dip in and out of the shelves of a library, Battles’ is the kind of book best read by dipping in and out of the essays, depending on what grabs your attention. I tried to read it in one swoop, from beginning to end and found my interest waned a bit as a result. The writing can be a little impenetrable and dry at times and, if I were the sort of person who could do such things, I should probably have read the chapters that appealed to me and left it at that. Snippets of enlightening information have lodged in my mind (such as the fact that early libraries were so light on books that categorisation wasn’t even a requirement, and alphabetic categorisation was a pretty late addition to the systems in place). There’s some interesting info on Dewey, actually, who may not have been the unequivocal force for good I might have previously thought. And it was really fascinating to consider libraries as political tools: the means by which various people secured power, toppled dynasties or exercised their intellectual authority.
My overriding takeaway from reading the book, though, is a renewed appreciation for the libraries I use (big shout out to The Hive in Worcester, one of my all-time favourite places to be) and my own personal library at home. It’s impossible to read a book like this without feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the fact that I can surround myself with books, collect them for sheer love of them (without needing to be embarrassingly rich) and share them with others with such ease. I am very lucky.
And now for something COMPLETELY different (picked up at Wenlock Books as it happens)… Annie Spence has spent the last 10 years working at various public libraries in the American Midwest. Her book (as somewhat evident from the title) is made up of a series of letters written to books that have been significant in her life – for good or bad. A lot of serious stuff is written about books (and don’t get me wrong, I take books pretty seriously myself) so it was fun to read something a little more irreverent. Spence’s letters come from a place of deep love, but she’s also witty, breezy and sarcastic. I thought she was hilarious and I love the conceit of talking directly to the book, or its protagonist, as if it became a discrete entity the second it left the author’s ‘pen’, which in many respects I believe it does.
One of my most interesting takeaways from Spence’s book is that we have long relationships with some of the books we read, just like some of the people who come in and out of our lives. Some books are a brief conversation on a bus, others are lengthy, often emotional experiences, that shape and change us over the years or are somehow changed by us along the way.
Not all of the letters are humorous either – one of the most powerful is addressed to The Fledgling, a book I haven’t read (thus proving that really isn’t an issue, for anyone who was wondering), and describes how a childhood favourite helped Annie find her way through the explosion of uncertainty and temporary loss of self that comes with new motherhood. Moving and powerful, and the subject matter of the book was secondary: “You comforted me in a way that no one else’s words could have managed, reminding me of my own natural soul. Of the person I am when I don’t have to be anything else.”
And yes – some letters do offer an insight into life as a librarian. From the relationships they have with the reading public (there are echoes of Shaun Bythell here) to the decisions they make when ‘weeding’ the shelves.
Ultimately, I thought this was a great read and definitely has something new to offer in the much-beloved ‘bookish people writing about books’ category. Every library should be so lucky as to have an Annie Spence in the stacks.