Monday, September 04, 2006

Matthew Battles, Library: An Unquiet History

This book is essentially a history of the development of the library, from its earliest beginnings in Mesopotamia to the public library we use today. But it's much more. In elegant prose, Battles regales the reader not only with the "stories" of major developments in library sciences over the centuries, he also gives you loving descriptions of the ways in which books have been handled, bound, and catalogued as well as fascinating character studies of the many people who contibuted to developments in the library sciences: Aristotle and Cicero, John Harvard and Jonathan Swift, Melvil Dewey and Alfred Kazin, among others.

Library: An Unquiet History is further filled with trivia for the eager bibliophile, such as phony titles from Dickens's "false facade" collection, titles from books that exist only in literary works, descriptions of the personal libraries of famous writers and thinkers, even details on how the role of the librarian has changed over the centuries.

Interestingly, one thing that emerges from Battles's writing is an appreciation of the fragility of the library and the intellectualism for which it stands. In retrospect, the history of the library is really the history of its destruction and the suppression of its works, whether at the hands of a Julius Caesar or a Joseph Goebbels. But like a phoenix emerging from its own ashes, the library is testament to the endurance of intellectualism in the face of fundamentalism, demagoguery, and military might.

This is an interesting and well-written work of non-fiction that I enjoyed. You will, too.