A bright, idiosyncratic tour of a book historian’s collected knowledge about libraries and bibliophilia.
More miscellany than catalog, the book assembles snippets from a wide variety of disciplines into an eclectic history of libraries as cultural, political, aesthetic, literary, mnemonic, and, above all, personal phenomena dedicated to collecting and preserving the written word. Australian book industry historian Kells (Penguin and the Lane Brothers: The Untold Story of a Publishing Revolution, 2015, etc.), an expert on rare books, invokes recognizable figures such as Borges and Tolkien as patron saints of the library, but he also spotlights less familiar libraries and librarians from the dawn of writing to the information age, with thematic interludes for all the strange, obsessive things people have done with books besides reading them. The author leads us through this labyrinthine account by his own associative logic rather than following a systematic design; paragraphs jump from one millennium to another and back again, while lists of names and dates exhilarate and disorient in equal measure, running headlong through the stacks of the world’s great collections. Kells leaves the modern library to other writers to chronicle and analyze, bypassing current and future threats to global archives and ignoring the rise of the hip librarian. In adapting academic subject matter for a mainstream audience, the author risks boring general readers with an accumulation of arcana and irritating scholarly readers by omitting the sources and depth of coverage that characterize a reputable book history. Still, the narrative merits attention for the way it enlivens dense summaries on printing, the book trade, collecting, library design, and bibliography with tales of the disasters, discoveries, and notable book lunatics that populate library lore.
Readers familiar with St. Gall, Poggio, Count Libri, and other such significant figures in the history of manuscripts may look to more specialist accounts, but budding book enthusiasts will find this an engaging bedside read.