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Titles similar to The Library
Libraries “massively predate books,” Kells asserts, if one defines a library “as an organized collection of texts.” He’s thinking of the oral tradition: “Warehoused as memories,” legends, myths, prayers, parables, and poems were preserved and shared for generations. But as intriguing as this line of inquiry is—leading Kells, an Australian historian of the book and a rare-book collector, to a stinging recounting of outsiders’ attempts to understand the first Australians’ “Dreaming stories”—it is the physical book that delights and occupies him—all the ways books have been made, amassed, sheltered, and accessed. In this free-roaming history of libraries, Kells, well read, well traveled, ebullient, and erudite, relishes tales of innovation, obsession, and criminality.
Kells’ scintillating, often irreverent catalog of “wonders” and bibliomaniacs begins with a reluctant cataloger, the future library director and renowned writer Jorge Luis Borges, whose tedious work at a municipal library in Buenos Aires inspired his indelible and disquieting short story, “The Library of Babel.” Kells will return to Borges after he tells the full story of the clay tablet, papyrus scroll, vellum and parchment codex, and printed books on paper, each technological advance paralleled by the evolution of library organization, design, and construction, including the development of the bookshelf and bindings that allowed books to stand upright.
As soon as there were books, there were forgeries and thefts, yielding saucy bits of history. The rapid and constant proliferation of books means that libraries have their own Moore’s law, Kells observes, necessitating structural and logistical evolution. As books multiplied, so did threats to libraries, from fires and floods to war and political change, not to mention the perpetual onslaught of voracious, book-eating insects.
Kells, who will please readers of his fellow bibliophiles Alberto Manguel and Nicholas Basbanes, tells tales of “the best and worst librarians in history,” and outs library secrets, including the use of fake books, which he was pleased to see on a supersized scale at the Kansas City Public Library’s splendid downtown branch. Kells also tracks the presence of libraries in literature, citing Hobbit libraries in Tolkien and Audrey Niffenegger’s beautifully haunting illustrated novel, The Night Bookmobile (2010), among others. As Kells ponders the role of libraries now, he returns to Borges’ vision of an “infinite library,” a prescient metaphor for the internet, which has created an even greater need for librarians and libraries and their arts of “selection and curation.”
“Much more than accumulations of books,” writes Kells, “the best libraries are hotspots and organs of civilizations”; they are also “places of solace and education, sources of nourishment for the human spirit, cultural staging posts in which new arrivals can be inducted into their adopted countries.” Kells’ revelatory romp through the centuries cues us to the fact that, as has so often been the case, libraries need our passionate attention and support, our advocacy, gratitude, and (given Kells’ tales of book-kissing, including Coleridge pressing his lips to his copy of Spinoza) love.
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