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Likely Stories: Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

A few years ago, I came by three interesting books about libraries.  In the third, Matthew Battles wrote Library: An Unquiet History.  The depth, breath, and detail of this history appeals to most bibliophiles.



Battles wrote, “When I first went to work in Harvard’s Widener Library, I immediately made my first mistake: I tried to read the books.  I quickly came to know the compulsive vertigo that Thomas Wolfe’s Eugene Gant, prowling the fictionalized Widener stacks, felt in the novel Of Time and the River: ‘Now he would prowl the stacks of the library at night, pulling books out of a thousand shelves and reading them like a madman.  The thought of these vast stacks of books would drive him mad: the more he read, the less he seemed to know—the greater the number of books he read, the greater the immense uncountable number of those which he could never have …. He read insanely, by the hundreds, the thousands, the tens of thousands …. [T]he thought that other books were waiting for him tore his heart forever.  He pictured himself as tearing the entrails from a book as from a fowl’” (3-4).

What will follow this entre is a delicious series of a few tales of books and libraries and the voracious consumers—like myself—who revel in libraries, especially my own.  I begin with Alexandria.  Battles writes, “Unlike Alexandria’s collection of papyrus scrolls, the first libraries could not burn at all, for they were filled with books written in clay” (25).  The next item is located “Throughout the Middle Ages, connections persisted between the book cultures of Islam and Christian Europe.  European scholars visited the great book markets of Toledo and Cordova, and during and after the crusades, books flowed into Europe as the booty of war” (67). 

Next, we visit Harvard University.  “Thomas Hollis of London, […] In 1725, wrote to the college, ‘Your library is reckoned here to be ill managed, […] you want seats to sett and read, and chains to your valuable books […] [Y]ou let your books be taken at pleasure at home to Men’s houses, and many are lost, your (boyish) Students take them to their chambers, and tear out pictures & maps to adorne their Walls, such things are not good; if you want room for modern books, it is easy to remove the less useful into a more remote place, but do not sell any, they are devoted’ (86-86).  Devoted indeed!

In 1891, Enoch Soames despaired that his works would never see the light of day, let alone wide-spread admiration.  Battles writes, “[Soames] hopes lay in the future: there, he was sure, his name would loom as one of the nineteenth century’s poetic prophets […].In his hunger for this future , finally, he made a desperate pact, a deal with the devil: an eternity in hell for the opportunity to visit the Round Reading Room of the British Library one hundred years later, to find his books in the collection, his name draped in laurels” (117-118).  I wonder if an asbestos suit might help?  “When the British Museum opened in 1753, […] ‘it contained some 51,000 books’ (121).  At the end of the eighteenth century, ‘The formidable Bibliothèque Nationale had amassed a collection of more than 300,000 books’ (122).  I shudder with envy! 

Matthew Battles has provided me with a splendid excursion through the development of the library.  Library: An Unquiet History would allow diving more deeply into libraries.  5 Stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!

Life-long voracious reader, Jim McKeown, is an English Instructor at McLennan Community College. His "Likely Stories" book review can be heard every Thursday on KWBU-FM! Reviews include fiction, biographies, poetry and non-fiction. Join us for Likely Stories every Thursday featured during Morning Edition and All Things Considered with encore airings Saturday and Sunday during Weekend Edition.