My own love affair with libraries started well over half a century ago. The libraries of my youth were places of magic, of possibilities to be explored. They were also places of refuge. But what are libraries, and how have they evolved over the centuries? In this book, Stuart Kells writes about libraries (both fictitious and real) and their influence on individuals, on literature and on culture more generally.
‘If a library can be something as simple as an organised collection of texts, then libraries massively pre-date books in the history of culture. Every country has a tradition of legends, parables, riddles, myths and chants that existed long before they were written down.’
I remember the folk tales of my childhood. Many of them appeared in print, but some of them were part of the storytelling that is part of my Gaelic-speaking ancestry. I remember, too, reading ‘The Name of the Rose’ by Umberto Eco, and wondering exactly which books were in it. Or in Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s Cemetery of Forgotten Books.
This book is full of interesting anecdotes. One of my favourites was this :
‘Sir Robert Cotton was at his tailor’s shop when he saw by chance an ancient document that the tailor was about to cut up and use as a tape measure. On examination, the sheepskin parchment turned out to be an original Magna Carta—one of as few as four that King John had signed in 1215—still with ‘all its appendages of seals and signatures’ attached.’
I was marginally disappointed to read, a few pages later that:
‘Some of these stories of book discovery are surely apocryphal. There is considerable doubt, for example, as to whether Cotton really did find an original Magna Carta at his tailor’s shop.’
But the point isn’t really whether an original Magna Carta was treated in this way, the point is that it’s possible. Sometimes the margins between fact and fiction can be blurred in a most satisfying way.
Aside from the anecdotes, there’s information about the many libraries Stuart Kells has visited. There’s information about the history of recording information and its storage, including the use of tablets, papyrus and animal skins. And, eventually, mass scale printing.
Like many other readers, I read both print and electronic material. I prefer print, but electronic material is often easier to access and requires less physical storage. But does the digital age pose a threat to traditional physical books, or is it simply an additional delivery mode? In the library I now use, there’s a mixture of physical and digital material. And the library has plenty of patrons.
I liked this quote:
‘Reading a book on screen or in microfilm was an unsatisfactory experience, like kissing a girl through a windowpane.’
While I don’t know about kissing through a windowpane, I do know that books that I love are books that I want to hold. That, for me and for many others, reading is a tactile experience as well as a visual one. There’s something about the smell of books (old or new), something about the heft of a physical volume that digital copies just don’t have.