The treasures and pleasures of bibliophiles in ‘The Library’

By Adam Rivett
Stuart Kells celebrates book collections real and imagined, tangible and intangible

About a month or two ago, at a Hawthorn street fair otherwise dominated by children on rides and overpriced food, I found a first edition of Patrick White’s The Burnt Ones. Its hardcover form was still remarkably sturdy, and its dust jacket was only slightly torn. On an otherwise sunny and seemingly happy day, the four gaunt and ghoulish Sidney Nolan portraits adorning that dust jacket were the only sour note struck.

Giving my daughter a fleeting minute or two on the spinning teacups would cost me a few dollars each time around, yet the book in question was far cheaper: mine for a dollar, and even that’s rounding up. Books that day were dispatched in bulk, and cheaply – whatever could fit into the provided box was yours for a tenner. That most of the titles were former library stock made up of spine-cracked Penguins and other shades of familiar commercial publishing didn’t matter. Among the books found that day – the good, the decent, the barely worth it for their price – this was my treasure, my rare find.

I haven’t read the book yet, of course. That’s the hard part. For the time being it sits on a shelf heavy with other books bought in good faith, with daydreams of free time. As I’ve learned from The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders (Text Publishing; $32.99), reading is often the last thing a book is good for. Collecting, retrieving, saving, preserving – these are the nobler tasks self-assigned to his book’s cast of bibliophiles, fevered collectors and millionaire amateur scholars.

With The Library, Stuart Kells has written a deft and involving book that manages to balance the erudite and the accessible. Writing any book is a challenge, but above questions of craft – and Kells, it should be said, writes a consistently clear and elegant prose – what one marvels at here is the organisation. In the hands of another writer – more rigorously academic, or, alternatively, more hopelessly besotted by sprawl – the book might have arrived dead from solemnity, or needlessly cluttered, or both. Above anything else, this is a book of compression, of tightly drawn lines of thought.

While moving skilfully across familiar historical moments – the songlines, the Library of Alexandria, Gutenberg – it avoids the inevitable plod a linear structure enforces. Instead, it structures itself loosely around themes and detours. Longer chapters will deal with a larger topic (for example, Chapter 10 – ‘Execration upon Vulcan: Libraries destroyed by fire and war’) while shorter chapters follow, no longer than a few pages, in a spirit of amused minor digression (for example, ‘Books in Bed’, ‘Delicacies’, ‘Library Fauna’ et cetera.)

I hope it’s no slight on Kells’ work as a writer (or harnesser of overwhelming amounts of historical information) to say that one of the delights of a work such as this is its rich yield of anecdote (or, to put it less grandiosely, it’s full of useable factoids). There is, in any given chapter, a dozen odd details or compelling stories a reader can only hope to memorise, with an eye towards future use (perfectly timed and skilfully deployed, naturally).

A personal favorite: Samuel Pepys, who could not tolerate “even the slightest deviation from straightness” when it came to the arranged spines of his books, “commissioned tailor-made blocks – little wooden plinths disguised with leather – and placed them under his books so that the tops would be exactly even”. Or better yet, there’s the unforgettable title of Jacques Boileau’s 1678 treatise: A Just and Seasonable Reprehension of Naked Breasts and Shoulders, Written by a Grave and Learned Papist. Or maybe this, regarding that minor religious dispute, the Western Schism:

In 1414 a general council of the church convened in Constance with a view to mending the schism. The council was a logistical exercise with few precedents. Apart from 30,000 horses and 700 prostitutes plus scores of jugglers, more than 20,000 cardinals, abbots, monks, friars and priests converged on the Swiss town. The council lasted four and a half years …

That’s a lot of juggling.

Yet beyond the amusement provided by historical folly, and Kells’ skill as tour guide, there’s a deeper concern present: with lost and forgotten books, and lost and forgotten words. Consider the following passage, regarding the Abbey Library of St Gall, an infamous site for book thieves:

Despite its many past vicissitudes, St Gall’s library remains rich in herbals, breviaries, evangialiaries, antiphonaries, psalters, missals, graduals, hymnals, processionals, pontificals, decrees, edicts, satires, allegories, epics, festschrifts, palimpsests, calendars and lexicons.

A sentence such as this becomes its own fragile book, rarely exposed to the light and gilded with linguistic rarity. All the same, if the book has a failing, it’s one of inevitable surfeit. Only a few pages after the above quote, the reader finds this, also about St Gall:

The library continues to be known for its manuscripts, such as works by Horace, Lucan, Sallust, Ovid and Cicero, and the surviving eleven pages and eight fragments of the Vergilius Sangallensis, a fifth-century volume that was originally written in the first century BC by Publius Vergilius Maro and that contained the AeneidGeorgics and Bucolics. The library is also famous for the rococo library hall made by Thumb, Loser and the Giggels – visitors must wear special shoe-covering slippers to protect the beautiful, creaking pinewood floor – and for the mummy Schepenese and her beautiful teeth.

Kells, in the book’s autobiographical introduction, describes his education as “self-crafted”, plucking units from “literature, psychology, philosophy, art, commerce, curatorship, history, law, logic and mathematics”. Such a paragraph honours that multidisciplinary sprawl and inquisitive mind, but occasionally the book can labour along, helplessly piling on the names and book titles (one other small complaint: the book screams for an index) as sentences strain to accommodate the insistence of detail. Still, at least Kells has kept his sense of humour: a cursory internet glance tells me the architect Peter Thumb was alone responsible for the hall, leaving Loser and Giggels, presumed inventions, on the outer. Or perhaps I’m mistaken. After all, Kells probably has the books to prove his case, and me only my lazily deployed Google search.

The book’s conclusion, as might be expected, is pessimistic regarding the future and relevancy of the library in the digital age. It sounds familiar, if resonant, notes about the rapid and ill-considered destruction of print, periodical and newspaper holdings, and ends, with a rejected book lover’s spurned rage, comparing reading on a screen to “kissing a girl through a windowpane”. I agree, as I imagine will most of the book’s readers, if not readers of this review (temporarily locked on a screen, but, of course, dreaming of their hands touching paper). The destruction of any book, any page bearing words, generates in us a profound unease.

Then again, to strike a self-consciously contrary note: perhaps it’s time to destroy our books, or at least grow more comfortable with the idea. The modern library, shedding weight for some imagined jump to light speed, does so coldly yet practically. Not everything awaits placement in the catalogue of wonders. Consider the piles of library duplicates; only someone who imagines actual space extending as indefinitely as a supercomputer’s hard drive could lament the necessary disappearance of a dozen economics textbooks made redundant by yet another new edition. Consider the unsold bookstore stock sent back to the warehouse, to its final home of commercial redundancy; only a true reader, some psychopath of completion, could imagine wanting to consume them all. As I wandered both lost and optimistic through the second-hand discards at Hawthorn that day, far from the first time I’d passed a weekend in such a fashion, praying for the discovery of a single title that might redeem the time spent lost among books now unwanted, there were few psalters or festschrifts to be found. The screen is bad, but the glut might be worse. And ours is the age of glut.

Kells’ book is high-minded and dedicated, the engaged and engaging work of someone in love. And it earns a lover’s response – for anyone who cares for books, how could it not? But the future of the library, in whatever final form it takes, will likely write itself as a history of necessary destruction.

Adam Rivett

Adam Rivett is a Melbourne-based writer. He has written for The Lifted Brow, The Age, The Australian, Island, Fireflies and Seizure.

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