Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Library: An unquiet history

The Book

Library: An unquiet history
Matthew Battles

I picked this book up in a discount bin a few years ago. I figured I would read it the summer before my first semester of library school and be ready to crush the program with my awesome knowledge of library stuff. So here I am, a week before my final semester of school, finally reading and reviewing this title. The plans of mice and men...

Technical Merit

Matthew Battles writes with that stream of consciousness style that I tend to gravitate towards. He weaves a poetic history of the library from the standpoint of the books themselves. He starts off very strong and inspiring, but wears down towards the end. For that reason, I give this title 3 out of 5 stars for technical merit.

The Review

Matthew Battles uses biblioclasm as his hook for this work. Books have been restricted, burned and censored since powerful men realized that their power could be limited by the knowledge contained in books. He begins with the most famous of all biblioclasms—Alexandria. From there, he continues throughout the centuries and regions, exposing ugly truths from cultures all around the globe.

My favorite quote in this book is from Herman Kruk, who lived in a Nazi-controlled Prague ghetto. He wrote specifically regarding the psychology of the ghetto reader, but it applies to all readers:
[O]nly two things are possible: reading for the purpose of intoxication—that is, in order to stop thinking—or the contrary, reading in order to ponder, to become interested in comparable fates, to make analogies and reach certain conclusions. (Pg. 178)
Those are the two polar extremes of the philosophy of books. Your answer to the question, Why are books here? will reveal what kinds of books you would include in your library. If people should be allowed to read for escape or pleasure, then all titles are permissible. If you hold a high philosophy of learning, that leads to more censorship with selection.

Granted, there are other considerations in play that just the one posed in the previous paragraph. However, this black-and-white, either-or view of books is what Battles seems to blame for the biblioclasms of history. While there is some validity in that statement, things are never so simple.

The one element that dissappointed me is Matthew Battles' treatment of web content. In the first chapter, Battles promised that he will get to the topic and show that web content is handled no differently than print. However, web content gets nothing more than a passing remark in the final chapter. I do not know if this was due to the editing process or if he thought his readers would forget this promise. I felt that the first statement was very ambitious and it piqued my curiosity. Unfortunately, it was ignored.

In the end, I certainly would recommend this book. It is a straightforward read if you can handle the stream of consciousness style that Matthew uses. It is an entertaining history of books, libraries and biblioclasm that I am glad to have read.

Have you read "Library" by Matthew Battles? What did you think of it?

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