Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders


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I received a copy of this book from the publisher, Counterpoint Press, in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 4 Stars

There is so much to love about this book. SO. MUCH.

First, the cover. *Sigh*. AND to make this one even better, this wasn't just a digital ARC that I had to make do with on my Kindle when admiring the cover, because I received a PHYSICAL ARC. I know this is not a big deal to most people, but I live in the US. A lot of what I read is published in the UK. I love any ARCs I can get, but there is something special about a physical copy and now this one is situated quite cozily on my over-flowing shelf.

Secondly, the title should also give away my giddiness. BECAUSE, not only do I love books, but I love books about books, and I love libraries and books about libraries. That makes me some kind of weirdo times four, right? Oh well, don't care. As such, you may not be surprised that this face:

😭😭😭😭😭😭😭😭😭😭😭

is similar to the one I make every time I hear the words 'library' and 'Alexandria' together and I think about all the knowledge lost. Who knows what we are missing, once the library was destroyed and it contents along with it, or carried off to where it was lost over time.

So, in all seriousness now, this book is wonderful. I have the fondest memories of a variety of libraries from my youth, one of my most favorite being the library where my grandparents lived while I was growing up. It has been remodeled in the last twenty years, so the long narrow stairs up to the children's section is long gone, but what a great image that still is in my mind. I spent countless hours at my grandparents' house in the summer, going on all kinds of adventures and the library was always a favorite stop. I have instilled that same library-love in my daughter, and from her earliest (think fetus) existence, she has known the sounds of the library. Being in a library, or surrounded by books in general, is her natural environment. Perhaps my most favorite library in the whole world is the library at Trinity College in Dublin, so you can imagine my delight when I first looked at the book cover - voila! It's the long room at Trinity College. If you've not seen it, I highly recommend visiting if you're ever in Dublin. The Book of Kells isn't too shabby either.

There is so much information packed into this slim volume, I am almost at a loss for where to actually start, not that I have gotten my craziness out of the way. Perhaps that really is the best place - there is so much information, so many libraries, so many volumes, so many hoarders book collectors to discuss. There were several individuals highlighted throughout the text who had more books than anyone could possibly hope to read in a lifetime or even five lifetimes. They owned additional homes just to store books - can you imagine? It makes my own little personal library look a little sparse (though, to be fair, I am a big proponent of passing books on when I am done with them, someone else should have the chance to enjoy it), but what a sight those stacks and stacks and stacks must have been. Hopefully today hoarders collectors take better care of their books and have them properly shelved and cataloged.

While for the most part this book was exactly what I thought it would be - a "love letter to libraries" as it is billed in the summary - it was also so much more. The presentation of the information was somewhat chaotic, in that it did not follow a linear path as one might expect when delving into a massive history such as this. The journey starts centuries back, and the book ends with a look at the future, but the whole way in between is a hodge-podge wonder, dedicated to hilarious and terrifying anecdotes - I was absolutely horrified to think that an actual copy of Magna Carta was nearly destroyed, only to find out later the incident probably did not happen. I am hanging tightly onto that probably. The chapters were a mix, longer chapters dedicated to specific libraries, interspersed with short anecdotes about a certain person, book, or idea.

While I was reading, I spent a good deal of time Googling as I was reading, to look at the various books and libraries that the author was discussing. I kind of go back and forth on the idea of including photos. I knew about more than a few of the subjects mentioned, but still there were many more I knew of, but did not know what they looked liked. It did not bother me, but I could see how it would be frustrating for some. I also would have appreciated a bibliography, or at least a suggestion of further readings.

So much research went into the book, it is almost mind-boggling - especially if you are not someone who spends a whole lot of time thinking about books and reading books about books. The author is clearly very well-educated on his subject matter and no lie, I am kind of jealous of his life. There is so much that he touches on - how the earliest stories were handed down from generation to generation through oral tradition, then the infancy of book production and the various materials first used, such as clay tablets, papyrus, and animal skins. From there the text weaves around to today, and the mass-market production that monks a thousand years ago couldn't have even dreamed of.

Like any good bibliophile, I worry about the future of libraries. So often, especially in the US today, under this "administration", it seems like knowledge is a bad thing. Funding is constantly cut to these beautiful facilities and we can not allow it to keep happening. Often the arguments are made that libraries do so much more than provide reading material, they provide Internet access, social programs, etc. I am guilty of making those exact statements, even though they are true, and I feel a twinge of guilt because even if the only thing libraries did was offer books, that would be amazing. Looking at these grand and small places, we should be in awe of the fact that so much knowledge is contained in one place - with the added benefits of Internet, story times, research assistance, etc. We need libraries, now more than ever. Books need to be valued for what they are and I do mean print and digital, though I am always partial to a physical copy. It is convenient to have a Kindle, and I wavered for months about even getting one. I felt like a traitor. But over time I have grown to love it, and can not imagine where I would put the 705 physical books that would be in my possession were they not digital.

This book will most certainly appeal to those who love history and love books/libraries. I know that seems like an odd statement to make, but in truth, this book will not appeal to everyone, even those who love to read. I certainly don't mean it will only appeal to us weirdo book-sniffers, but in skimming other reviews before I accepted the ARC, I came across some comments who felt the book was too academic or "high brow". I don't feel that way at all, I think it was a fantastic, lively jump around in the history of one of the most important institutions that exists today.

6 comments:

  1. I need a bigger house to properly display my beloved books!

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    1. Yeah, I already know that when I decide to go house-hunting, there must be a room for our library. It will be a deal-breaker.

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  2. Ooh, this book sounds perfect for me :-)
    I need to start making use of my library again. It's been too long since I visited one!

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    1. It's such a lovely collection of stories and anecdotes about books and libraries, you must tell me what you think when you get around to reading it!

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  3. My local library in my teens had a huge influence on my reading and my interest in every subject under the sun. They were (looking back) very indulgent with me.

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    1. I have a feeling that is how the library will be for Eleanor when she is a teenager - they are already pretty indulgent with her and don't bat an eye when she would go running through the lobby. It's a comfortable space for her, as it sounds like it was for you.

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