Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders by Stuart Kells

A barrage of interesting minutiae lacking coherence
Australian author Stuart Kells’s 2017 book The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders is not quite the history of libraries it promises to be. Though it contains a lot of historical information on some libraries of the author’s choosing, the definition of library is about as broad as it could possibly be. Arranged neither chronologically nor strictly thematically, The Library is a haphazard collection of anecdotes, data, and historical trivia on libraries, bookmaking, writers, readers, and just about anything else related in any way to books. Within this very broad range of subject matter, Kells throws in just about anything that strikes his fancy. If you are a lover of books and libraries, there is plenty of interesting content here, but the presentation leaves a lot to be desired.

In the book’s preface, Kells reveals that he is a collector of rare books, which explains why this really is a book about book collecting more than it is a book about libraries. Most of the libraries Kells discusses in the book are private collections, not public institutions. He expresses his admiration for illustrious book collectors of the past and envies their shrewd purchases and acquisitive luck. Many of these great collectors of centuries gone by were clergymen, so there is quite a bit of coverage of monastic libraries as well. Most of Kells’s bibliographic interests seem to fall prior to 1800, though he does cover a few more recently founded institutions such as the Morgan Library and the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale.

Some chapters tell a single story in exhaustive detail while others are just a hodgepodge of loosely related bits and pieces. A chapter on library fires, for example, is just a string of one-paragraph summaries of different libraries that burned, without any discernible organization to their sequence. Some chapters drift farther afield, as when Kells makes the case that the traditional oral histories of Australian aborigines constitute a library. In another chapter he discusses fictional libraries in the works of Umberto Eco and J. R. R. Tolkien. There are some good chapters on papermaking, printing, and binding, but again, that’s more about bookmaking and collecting than about libraries. One gets the idea that Kells is far more interested in the physical packaging of books than the actual content of them. Books are objects to be owned, not knowledge to be used. Only one chapter really deals with issues of public or academic libraries today, and Kells uses it to assert the inferiorities of digitized texts when compared to the heft and smell of old tomes.

Though Kells often ventures off into irrelevant asides, many of the stories are fascinating, and the book is packed with interesting information. It’s all delivered with such a lack of structure and organization, however, that it is difficult to remember anything from this verbal quagmire. Kells seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of these subjects, but without any notes or bibliographical references there’s no way to gauge the truth or accuracy of any of the data. I don’t know about the print edition, but the ebook has zero illustrations, which is a shame. It is only natural that after reading about these wonderful libraries and beautiful bindings readers would want to see some photographs of them, but no such luck.

Perhaps I would have had a more positive opinion of this book if it had been titled more accurately. The Library is worth a read, but its constant barrage of tangentially related factoids is also a frustrating mess, somewhat like a book composed entirely of footnotes. Readers who really love libraries and old books will likely find it equal parts delightful and disappointing.
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