Thursday, February 20, 2014

Case Study No. 1254: Matthew Battles

Library An Unquiet History (Unabridged) Audio Book
http://www.qb library-an-unquiet-history-unabridged/
For rarebooks librarian Matthew Battles, libraries represent a compelling paradox....
Tags: audiobook knowledge books information librarian unquiet history matthew battles grover
Added: 1 year ago
From: AudioBooksWave
Views: 83


On the survival and destruction of knowledge, from Alexandria to the Internet. Through the ages, libraries have not only accumulated and preserved but also shaped, inspired, and obliterated knowledge. Matthew Battles, a rare books librarian and a gifted narrator, takes us on a spirited foray from Boston to Baghdad, from classical scriptoria to medieval monasteries, from the Vatican to the British Library, from socialist reading rooms and rural home libraries to the Information Age.

He explores how libraries are built and how they are destroyed, from the decay of the great Alexandrian library to scroll burnings in ancient China to the destruction of Aztec books by the Spanish - and in our own time, the burning of libraries in Europe and Bosnia.

Encyclopedic in its breadth and novelistic in its telling, this volume will occupy a treasured place on the bookshelf next to Baker's Double Fold, Basbanes's A Gentle Madness, Manguel's A History of Reading, and Winchester's The Professor and the Madman.



Roaming the stacks of Widener Library as a selector for the HD Push Project - which processed books for transfer to the Harvard Depository - Matthew Battles, mesmerized by rows and rows and rows of volumes, began to ponder his surroundings - the library. With Widener as an ever-present muse and a valuable resource, Battles undertook researching the history of libraries and now, four years later, has published "Library: An Unquiet History" (W.W. Norton & Co., 2003), which explores how libraries have accumulated, preserved, shaped, inspired, and obliterated knowledge.

"Libraries have always been important to me. I can remember spending summers in my small hometown library reading for hours. And that is really what I am interested in, how libraries interact with people. I didn't want to write a dry history of library facts, I wanted to look at the interplay between knowledge and cultures," said Battles, coordinating editor for the Harvard Library Bulletin at Houghton Library.

Battles' ruminations about the library first took shape as an article, "Lost in the Stacks: The Decline and Fall of the Universal Library" published in Harper's Magazine in January 2000. A literary agent read the piece, contacted Battles, and asked him if he thought he could turn it into a book, an idea Battles had already been considering. It took him a little over two years to complete his draft, during which he moved from the HD Push Project to the Harvard Library Bulletin.

"Library: An Unquiet History" explores the creation of libraries, beginning with the clay-tablets of ancient Mesopotamia, and proceeds to the destruction of libraries, culminating in the wars of the 20th century that shamelessly wiped out entire collections. Battles examines the two competing notions of the library's mission: the library as temple for the best and most beautiful works, and the library as a place where all knowledge is brought together under one roof. He looks at the library in Islam, in the Roman Empire, and in the Middle Ages, across centuries and cultures.

The book ends where it began, in the Widener Stacks. Battles notes, "Much has changed among the massed millions of books in Widener Library since the first time I lost myself in the stacks." He continues, saying the stacks "inspire more books, goading us [authors] to finish them, to complete the set, to add another book to the collection." And Battles will. He is currently working on two new books, one documenting the history of Widener Library and the other the history of writing.



Among Widener's dusty stacks are tunnels; one leads to the government document depository, in which I have read Indian censuses recording how many houses are made of mud and grass, or how many basket weavers and hide tanners reside in each village in Uttar Pradesh or Kashmir. Another tunnel leads to the stacks that hold the theater collection and the "X-cage," which hides items in odd sizes and formats, on paper deemed too fragile for the open stacks, or of a nature too salacious for the eyes of the undergraduates of various eras. Here, piles of slim boxes contain philological notes written in a flowing, nineteenth-century hand; binders are stuffed thick with typescripts in Georgian and photostats of Averroes manuscripts. There are crumbling volumes of anti-immigrant tracts and pro-Nazi American magazines - sequestered not for the ideas they contain, but because the acid in their depression-era paper is causing the pages slowly to digest themselves. In this locked-away, seldom visited corner of the library, I come across the title Military German: A "Lingo" Language Game. It consists of a box of cards the size of a pack of unfiltered cigarettes with a booklet of instructions.

"Questioning prisoners of war on the European front demands a specialized vocabulary," it says. "You learn it by playing cards and having fun at it!" The cards contain such useful phrases as "This is no time for arguments. Get out" (Das ist keine Zeit zum Streiten! Raus!) and "In spite of your lies I intend to give you another chance" (Trotz Ihrer Lugen, beabsichtige ich, Ihnen noch eine Gelegenheit zu geben). A companion title treating Japanese states, "Most language manuals are for tourists. Not this one. This one is for American soldiers and sailors engaged in licking hell out of the Japs."

But the library - especially one so vast - is no mere cabinet of curiosities; it's a world, complete and uncompletable, and it is filled with secrets. Like a world, it has its changes and its seasons, which belie the permanence that ordered ranks of books imply. Tugged by the gravity of readers' desires, books flow in and out of the library like the tides.The people who shelve the books in Widener talk about the library's breathing - at the start of the term, the stacks exhale books in great swirling clouds; at end of term, the library inhales, and the books fly back. So the library is a body, too, the pages of books pressed together like organs in the darkness.

In the Widener stacks more than anywhere else, I can fool myself that the universe is composed of infinite variations of a single element - the book - that I, too, am made of books, like the person in Giuseppe Arcimboldo's painting The Librarian. The Prague court of Arcimboldo's patron, Rudolf II, freely mixed the rational and the irrational, the mythological and the empirical; Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler mingled with alchemists and astrologers. Arcimboldo reveled in the contradictions that surrounded him. This revel - and revelation - is embodied in his Librarian, a person made of books; he is not a single book but a whole library. His cheeks and lips are miniature books, the sort that in Arcimboldo's time would have contained prayers and devotions. His right arm, by contrast, is a weighty folio volume. Pages fan out from his head, marked not with type but with handwriting, legible only from above.

In the stacks of the library (this or any other), I have the distinct impression that its millions of volumes may indeed contain the entirety of human experience: that they make not a model for but a model of the universe. Fluttering down the foot-worn marble stairs that drop into the building's bowels, descending through layer after layer of pungent books, I am often struck by the sense that everything happening outside must have its printed counterpart somewhere in the stacks. It's easy to plunge into cabalistic reveries, dreaming rearrangements of the books that would reveal the mysteries of the universe, a sacred Logos tantamount to the secret name of God. Where among the 43 books published in Bhutan in 1983, or the 31,602 published in China, or the 30,000 tablets at Ashurbanipal's long-lost library at Nineveh, or the 300,000 scrolls burned when Caesar flamed his ships at Alexandria, might we have sought the formula for the philosophers' stone? To which of the eight daily newspapers of Western Samoa should we look? Was the name of God carted off to the bookbinders in a ripped manuscript stolen from Salisbury Cathedral during the troubled reign of Henry VIII? Or encoded among some number of the 2,635 children's books published in Iran in 1996 alone? There's a reductive danger in this fantasy: for if the world can be compressed into a library, then why not into a single book - why not into a single word?

From the 1870s to the 1990s, the collections of research libraries at Harvard and elsewhere have increased a hundredfold - in some cases, a thousandfold. This vast torrent of books inspires in many people an awful shock and anxiety. All these books - who has time to read them? The apocryphal eighteenth-century Old Librarian's Almanack (actually a literary hoax perpetrated by a Boston librarian in the early twentieth century) extols the virtues of the librarian who diligently dusts his way through the books in his charge, taking the time to read each volume; when he reaches the last book, he begins the process again. The librarian in the research library of today could not accomplish this task in a lifetime - not in three hundred lifetimes. And of course, the collections aren't frozen. This library, like all research libraries of any size, acquires more books each year than any one of us could read in a lifetime. The Library of Congress, the world's largest universal library, each day adds some 7,000 books to the more than 100 million items already standing on its 530 miles of shelves. Add to this the printed ephemera we daily produce at our word processors, fax machines, and photocopiers, plus the more than 800 million pages on the World Wide Web, and it becomes clear: we are inundated.

This flood of print forces us to ask, How do we sort it all out? Until fairly recently - that is to say in the last couple of hundred years, which is a short interval for the library - librarians could have counted themselves among the Stoic followers of Seneca, who, in his Epistulae morales, wrote that "it does not matter how many books you have, but how good they are." Seneca's library is a place of canons. I like to call this type of library the "Parnassan," for like Delphi it is a temple built upon the flanks of Mount Parnassus, that hilltop holy to Apollo and the Muses. The works within it are a distillation, the essence of all that is Good and Beautiful (in the classical formulation) or Holy (in the medieval). It is meant as a model for the universe, a closely orchestrated collection of ideals. In the universal library, by contrast, books are not treated as precious and crystalline essences, at least not in the first instance. Instead, they are texts, fabrics to be shredded and woven together in new combinations and patterns. Like the stars in the sky or the flowers of Linnaeus, they are not to be praised for particular influences or qualities; they must be counted and classified before they may be desired.

Grumpy Seneca gave the selective Parnassan library a motto fit to inscribe in Roman capitals above the doors. Thomas Jefferson (whose own books were the kernel of the collections of the University of Virginia and the Library of Congress) offers the relentlessly accumulative universal library a contrasting creed: "a library book ... is not, then, an article of mere consumption but fairly of capital." Each sort of library is also an argument about the nature of books, distilling their social, cultural, and mystical functions. And what the Word means to society - whether it is the breath of God or the Muses, the domicile of beauty and the good, the howling winds of commerce, or some ambiguous amalgam of all these things - this is what the library enshrines. Ultimately, there may be a common creed under which the Parnassan and the universal libraries - with their attendant conceptions of the book and the Word - can be united. If so, perhaps it is the one offered by Stephane Mallarme, who expressed best my own experience in the library when he wrote that "everything in the world exists to end up in a book."

In Of Grammatology, Jacques Derrida sets out to show that writing is no mere secondary system of symbols for the spoken word, a "trace of a trace," but is, in short, its own thing. He needn't have looked farther than the universal library for support. For here the written word takes on a life of its own in the jumble of incipits, explicits, and colophons; of pages recto and verso; of manuscript in hands uncial and Beneventan and Merovingian Compressed; in palimpsests and lacunae; in sewn signatures from folio to octavo to sexagesimo-quarto; in chain lines and watermarks, in incunabula and CD-ROMs; in the Pandectarum and the Index Librorum Prohibitorum; in subject, author, and title cards; and in the subfields and literals of the MARC record format.

Like other natural philosophers of the Latin Middle Ages, Roger Bacon held that three classes of substance were capable of magic: the herbal, the mineral, and the verbal. With their leaves of fiber, their inks of copperas and soot, and their words, books are an amalgam of the three. The notion that words, like plants and stones, have existences independent of our uttering them - that they have power and do things in the world - is a commonplace in many traditions. Brought together in multitudes, heaped up and pared down, read and forgotten, library books take on lives and histories of their own, not as texts but as physical objects in the world.

No comments:

Post a Comment