v30#6 Wryly Noted — Books About Books

by | Feb 18, 2019 | 0 comments

Column Editor:  John D. Riley  (Against the Grain Contributor and Owner, Gabriel Books)   

The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders by Stuart Kells.  (ISBN: 978-1-640-09020-0, Counterpoint Publishers 2017, $26.00 HB.)

When I once asked my friend Bob Willig why he had opened a bookstore (Troubadour Books for Saints and Holy Fools) he replied: “Because books are oceanic.  They contain everything.” I couldn’t agree more. The book at hand is for those who hold a similar belief and want to read a book that confirms it.  Stuart Kells is an authority on rare books and book-trade history.  He has previously written a history of Penguin Books, Penguin and the Lane Brothers, and he is the author of Rare, the biography of Kay Craddock, the first female president of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers.  Because of his background, he is the ideal companion for a fresh tour through the minutiae of library and book collecting history.

With chapters on Renaissance book hunters, English bibliomaniacs, secret library compartments, destructive library fires in history, and infamous book thieves, we follow him through almost every country and time gleaning bits of history and odd facts.  He is also fond of lists and tells us about his education in book history when he learned about book collectors such as the “black-letter men, gilt toppers, rough edgers, tall copyists, broadsiders, Aldusians, Elzivirians, Grangerites, pasquinaders, and tawny moroccoites.”  For his research he delved into “national libraries, workingmen’s libraries, subscription libraries, scholarly libraries, corporate libraries, club subscription libraries, plush private libraries, and also modest libraries such as a ‘found’ library amassed by a demolition man.”

The author begins his book with a unique idea: that the first libraries were oral libraries and he cites the Aboriginal people of Australia as having the oldest continuous oral tradition.  Their stories include histories and fables and religious “texts” and especially descriptions of Songlines, or dream tracks. These libraries are highly organized and intact after thousands of years of history.  The author also mentions the Kope people of New Guinea, the Mandika griots of Mali, the nomads of Mongolia, and indigenous tribes of the Amazon as possessing similar “libraries.”

Soon after the author delves into the history of the Alexandria Library and compares it to an even earlier exemplar, the cuneiform libraries of Sumeria.  The Royal Library at Nineveh, founded by King Ashurbanipal, preceded the Alexandria Library in its attempt to gather all available knowledge in one place.  He even speculates that cuneiform writing gave rise to hieroglyphic scripts.

Fortunately, much of tradition of the Alexandria Library was passed on to the great libraries of Constantinople: The Imperial, Patriarchal, and university libraries.  He also speculates that the demise of the Alexandria Library was attributable to the simply mundane fact that papyrus is extremely fragile and that the collection simply “wore out” in the damp conditions of the Nile River delta

In his typically meandering and idiosyncratic style, Stuart Kells breaks up his history with digressions on the pleasure of books where book collectors describe their books as “garden flowers, elixirs, meteorites, gems, friends, tenants, devils, and wraiths.”  These book collectors were engaged in a “psychically loaded enterprise” that engendered “anxiety, avarice, envy, fastidiousness, obsession, lust, pride, pretension, narcissism, and agoraphobia.”

A perfect example of the above obsessions is the Renaissance book hunter, Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini.  In 1416, during a church general council in present day Switzerland, Poggio took a break as secretary to the Tuscan representatives to follow up on a rumor that a nearby monastery guarded an ancient library.  The monastery in question was the venerable St. Gall which traced its roots to Irish monks in the seventh century.  Books were central to Benedictine monastic practices and St. Gall held incredible treasures of the illuminator’s art.  Among the books discovered here by Poggio are such key works as Vitruvius’ On Architecture, works by Quintilian and commentaries on Virgil, books that had been unknown outside of this monastery library.

This was just the beginning for Poggio and his companions who began to scour monastery libraries throughout Europe, sparking a renewed interest in many ancient authors and thus the Renaissance itself, Poggio and his band considered themselves saviors of lost and mistreated texts.  They called the monastery libraries filthy, damp and dusty backwaters and promoted themselves as benefactors of civilization, even though many considered them to be thieves who were profiting off the naïve monastics.  Despite Poggio’s and subsequent book hunter’s predations, the St. Gall Library remains rich in “herbals, breviaries, evangialaries, antiphonaries, psalters, missals, graduals, hymnals, processionals, pontifical, decrees, edicts, satires, allegories, epics, festschrifts, palimpsests, calendars, and lexicons.”

Further on the author chronicles the history of many private book collections, including the Morgan and Folger Libraries.  He also explores imaginary libraries, such as those of Jorge Luis Borges, Umberto Eco and J.R.R. Tolkien.

For such a dense and detailed book, it is lacking in both an index and footnotes, serious impediments to returning to find those intriguing and odd facts that Stuart Kells piles up.  This is a book to fill in those missing pieces from standard book histories.  


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