Matthew Battles’ Library: An Unquiet History
W.W. Norton & Company, 2003

Welcome to my second bookish Friday. I’ve got notes that will take this theme halfway through July and I am thrilled; some of these are books I’ve meant to read for years, whereas others, like next Friday’s choices, are new acquaintances that have introduced themselves to me this reading year.

I chose this one specifically as a companion read for Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night, as part of the Bibliophilic Reading Challenge.

Battles’ book does contain some of the romantic spirit to which I responded so warmly in Manguel’s work: “From age to age, libraries grow and change, flourish and disappear, blossom and contract — and yet through them all we’re chasing after Alexandria, seeking a respite on Parnassus, haunted by the myths of knowledge and of wholeness that books spawn when massed in their millions.” (214)

Overall, however, Battles’ book is more scholarly in its approach. Two aspects that I found particularly informative were the sections on the moral implications of collection building and accessibility, and the chapters on the systematic political, historical and martial destruction of libraries as recognizable depositories of knowledge.

It was informative and entertaining to read about the dangers inherent in continued reading of fiction, with comparisons drawn to the addictive habit of smoking tobacco. William Frederick Poole says: “I have never met a person of much literary culture who would not confess that at some period in his life, usually in his youth, he had read novels excessively.” (You can hear the finger wagging, can’t you?!)

He continues: “My observation…has confirmed me in the belief that there is in the mental development of every person who later attains to literary culture a limited period when he craves novel-reading; and perhaps reads novels to excess; but from which, if the desire be gratified, he passes safely out into broader fields of study, and this craving never returns to him in its original form.”

He was not alone in his view of fiction as inferior: many librarians held firm opinions about the role libraries and librarians might play in arresting or altering this immoral tendency. (Clearly I am stuck in the “reads novels to excess” stage and have not yet passed “safely out”!)

It was also fascinating and disturbing to consider the material presented on the destruction of libraries (also included in Manguel’s work, but with a different slant). Battles clearly states that book burning wasn’t invented in the 20th Century (with evidence drawn from Alexandria to Tenochtitlán, Cappadocia to Catalonia, and from China’s Qin dynasty to the dissolution of the English monasteries), but new ways of destroying books and exploiting their destruction have been tested and defined.

Among the stories shared, this one, an anecdote told to Battles by András about a colleague who was a survivor of the siege of Sarajevo, stood out for me.  He had run out of firewood and was forced to burn books for heat and cooking. He said that forced him to think critically: “One must prioritize. First, you burn old college textbooks, which you haven’t read in thirty years. Then there are the duplicates. But eventually, you’re forced to make tougher choices. Who burns today: Dostoevsky or Proust?”

:: pause ::

Battles asked András if his friend had any books left when the war was over. “Oh yes,” he replied, his face lit by a flickering smile. “He still had many books. Sometimes, he told me, you look at the books and just choose to go hungry.”  (190-1)

:: sigh ::

And, so, I know that Matthew Battles’ passion for books and libraries is something we share. As a whole, the spirit of Manguel’s work was more immmediately and consistently inviting, but Library: An Unquiet History was also a worthwhile read on the subject. I’m glad that I read it.

Are you a library addict? Do you use more often than is healthy? Do you try to disguise the number of visits you make lest family members grow overly concerned? Do you routinely max out your borrower’s quotient? Do you “borrow” other people’s cards to feed your own borrowing habit?