The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The poet Mallarme once memorably remarked that “everything in the world exists to end up in a book”. One could add that all books exist to end up in a library. This may not be appreciated by those who use libraries in Calcutta and are driven to despair by the incompetence and the disarray. But those who have been fortunate enough to read in a good library — the British Library in London, the Bodleian in Oxford, the Widener in Harvard and others in the Western world — will recognize the merits of the fantasy. There is an almost ethereal joy in reading in a good library which only book lovers know.

Matthew Battles has not only read in some of the world’s best libraries, but he also works in the Widener. His love for books, their content, their history, their binding and the texture of their pages is writ large throughout this book which evokes the joy, the character and history of libraries. It is not an easy book to read since it is packed with information of the most arcane kind. But it is a delight and is a great tribute to some of the great collections of books, past and present.

Battles, because he is a librarian, has access to the stacks of the Widener (57 miles of shelves, spread over ten levels and holding some 4.6 million bound volumes) and he can be allowed to have the impression that books contain the entirety of human experience: “they make not a model for but a model of the universe”. All that happens outside the library building has its written counterpart somewhere in the stacks. Within the library, the written word takes on a life of its own and Battles notes that people who shelve the books in the Widener talk about the libraries breathing.

The library that has acquired mythical status is the one in Alexandria which contained, it is said, all of ancient learning. According to legend, the library was burnt on the orders of Caliph Omar and the scrolls from the library fuelled the furnaces of the city’s baths for six months. This story is no more than “Orientalist lament for the fate of Hellenic learning”. The facts were even more startling. By the time the caliph’s army arrived at Alexandria in the seventh century A.D., the library had been burnt more than once and the first act of arson may have been the work of the great Julius Caesar himself. Caesar did not intend to burn the library but he set fire to the ships in the harbour. The conflagration took the library with it. Fire, more than the philistine, is the worst enemy of books and libraries.

If the great library of Alexandria succumbed to the predatory instincts of man, another treasure chest in Egypt survived because of man’s piety. This is the Geniza in Cairo. In Hebrew, the word means container. The Jews are people of the Book and in the synagogue in Cairo, there was a room where all papers were preserved. It was the grave of written things. The discovery of this in the late 19th century is a major signpost in the world of learning. It opened up Mediterranean society of the late antiquity and the medieval world.

Battles delves with encyclopaedic learning into the obscure history of libraries from Boston to Baghdad to Beijing. This is a unique read.

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