Saturday, June 26, 2010

Library: An Unquiet History

I heard about Matthew Battles's Library: An Unquiet History from Buried in Print, who read it for the Bibliophilic Books Challenge (for which it is also my fourth book). Somehow the book struck me enough to immediately go and order it from the library. It thus arrived, and I have now read it.

My first three books about books this year were stories (the Christopher Morley books and 84, Charing Cross Road), so it's a nice change to read a nonfiction book about books. Every single time, I forget how much I love this kind of nonfiction. Matthew Battles divides his story of libraries into more or less chronological chapters, beginning in ancient times, ending with the Internet. Apart from this chronological framework, each chapter has certain themes, such as book burning, library controversy, public libraries, and the destruction of books. The whole book is tied together by its constant questioning of what a library is, what people throughout history have believed to be the ideal form of the library, and what kinds of collections, intended as such or not, can functionally be called libraries.

Library sometimes feels disjointed, and I believe parts of it were previously published separately. It comes across as everything Battles wants to say about libraries (he's a librarian at Harvard), collected into one place, whether it entirely belongs there or not. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it's all very interesting, but the book could have used a little more editing. Despite that, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Battles writes well--sometimes a little fancifully, but this is never dry nonfiction. As the book's subtitle suggests, the story of the library is really very dramatic, full of wars, burnings, bombings, political and social prejudice, and literary controversy. Despite this, one suspects that in the wrong hands, a book about libraries could still come out very quiet and dull. Matthew Battles's are not the wrong hands. There are stories here of the impressive lengths to which people will go to read, and to prevent people from reading, and it's all very often surprisingly moving. Books and libraries are powerful, and Battles clearly understands this and has managed to transmit it. Helpfully, he obviously loves libraries and is well read on the subject.

Near the end of the book, Battles discusses how the Internet fits into the story of the library. He says, "The digital objects of today are the incunabula of a not-too-distant tomorrow..." (pg 212). Thanks to Sam Starbuck we have a word for such digital incunabula--extribulum, which you can (and totally should) read about here. I get rather a lot of glee out of connecting other things to Sam Starbucks' work, so it was lovely to see this in Library. It's fascinating to me to consider the relationship between books and the Internet, and it's always good to see writers treating this subject well, since it's so often written about with a certain amount of histrionic the-world-of-books-as-we-know-it-is-ending/the-internet-is-making-us-stupider sentiment. Plus, I like to think my blog is an extribulum.

So, I thought this book was fun, informative, and intelligent, and I very much recommend it.

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