By Stuart Kells
The Library: A Fragile History, Andrew Pettegree & Arthur der Weduwen, Profile, $49.99
The intriguing category of “books about books” is broad: it embraces many different aspects of making, owning, using and even destroying books. The meta-attractions of this meta-genre have caused a recent flowering of popular and scholarly titles, such as Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, Richard Ovenden’s Burning the Books and Edward Brooke-Hitching’s marvellous The Madman’s Library.
Now we have The Library: A Fragile History. Ambitious and impressive in scope, this history of libraries extends to public and private collections, banned books and burned books, and adjacent subjects such as literature, the media, technology, theology and commerce.
The book, by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen, covers well-trodden ground. We hear again the stories of Gabriel Naude, Poggio Bracciolini and Richard Heber, who believed “no man can comfortably do without three copies of a book. One he must have as a show copy … another he will require for his own use [plus] a third at the service of his friends”. We are reminded again of the Bodleian Library’s rule that visitors must not kindle “any fire or flame”, and we hear once more how Sir Thomas Bodley spurned “idle books and riff raff”.
Despite the authors’ encyclopaedic ambition, the perspective is far from universal. Pettegree and der Weduwen rightly credit China and Korea as wellsprings of paper and printing, and they name-check early Islamic libraries, but overwhelmingly their viewpoint is Anglocentric and Eurocentric.
Numerous important libraries in Asia, the Americas and Africa are left out of the authors’ survey, and the discussion of Indian libraries is mainly through a British colonial lens. Greater attention is paid to the modern library of Alexandria than to the ancient one, but several prominent preoccupations of public libraries today – such as austerity, accessibility, volunteerism and anti-racism – are given short shrift.
The book features excellent examinations of British subscription and circulating libraries, which we learn were “routinely compared to brothels and gin shops”. Equally good are the chapters on the tragic dispersal of Austrian and French monastic and aristocratic libraries. Books that had once been revered suddenly had to endure the foulest ignominies. “A great number of those who purchased [monastic properties] reserved of those library books, some to serve their jakes [lavatories], some to scour their candlesticks and some to rub their boots.”
A book of this length and scope will inevitably contain some missteps. Pettegree and der Weduwen claim 19th-century author and book enthusiast Thomas Frognall Dibdin provided “intellectual firepower to share the activities of bibliophiles and their passions with a broader public”. An unreliable character and luridly incompetent bibliographer, Dibdin had no “intellectual firepower” at all, but his ghost would be delighted with the authors’ compliment. The authors also repeat the common fallacy that Allen Lane – another unreliable and anti-intellectual figure – was the literary and commercial driver behind Penguin and Pelican.
“Ironically,” the authors observe, Shakespeare’s illustrious First Folio “is not a very rare book”. Well, if they find a stray one in their travels, I’d be happy to take it off their hands.
“All libraries,” they claim expansively, “are the product of a process of judicious selection.” Henry Clay Folger, progenitor of the famous Folger Shakespeare Library, shows this to be untrue. Yes, he collected only Shakespeareana, but his scope was exceedingly wide: musical instruments, film posters, concrete busts, damaged books, dodgy bindings.
The banker-bibliophile J P Morgan, too, was far from judicious in assembling his library. His collecting forays were elsewhere likened to “a sailor on shore leave” and to a “tipsy dowager with unlimited credit moving down Fifth Avenue on a riotous shopping trip”.
One or two passages are cringeworthy, including a section on Australian libraries that is headed “Libraries are great, mate!” . #VomitEmoji. Romance fiction, the authors claim, “has never attracted much admiration or attention from literary critics”. That might have been true two decades ago, but romance and other genre fiction has since been reappraised and is now spoken of more seriously.
The ears of Pettegree and der Weduwen are often closed to the inherent poetry of bibliography. Nor do they notice the intriguing harmonies and symmetries that recur across more than 5000 years of library history. The book does not say enough about the essence of libraries or the shape of their future. Nor does it pay sufficient attention to everyday, human encounters with libraries. It rarely captures the subjective, personal experience of library passion and library love.
Speaking of which, I wanted to love this book but ended up only liking it. Nevertheless, The Library: A Fragile History provides an effective and reliable survey of the bibliotechal literature, and is a worthy addition to any bibliophile’s bookshelf.
Stuart Kells is the author The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders (2017), published by Text.
The Booklist newsletter
A weekly read for book lovers from Jason Steger. Sign up now.