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Library: An Unquiet History (2003)

by Matthew Battles

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1,862416,264 (3.54)34
"From the clay-tablet collections of ancient Mesopotamia to the storied Alexandria libraries in Egypt, from the burned scrolls of China's Qing Dynasty to the book pyres of the Hitler Youth, from the great medieval library in Baghdad to the priceless volumes destroyed in the multi-cultural Bosnian National Library in Sarajevo, the library has been a battleground of competing notions of what books mean to us. Battles explores how, throughout its many changes, the library has served two contradictory impulses: on the one hand, the urge to exalt canons of literature, to secure and worship the best and most beautiful words; on the other, the desire to contain and control all forms of human knowledge."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)
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English (39)  Italian (2)  All languages (41)
Showing 1-5 of 39 (next | show all)
This probably should have been a long article. There is some fluff and belaboring of points (e.g. Jonathan Swift's Battle of the Books in chapter 4). I've read long, mostly academic, books on libraries and loved them, and I did get some neat tidbits out of this one, but it never really felt full or deep enough to justify its length.

As I said, the neat tidbits were fun. I enjoyed reading about the Ptolemies in Egypt, who confiscated all books of visitors to Alexandria. They were taken to the library, copied and sometimes the originals were kept (p. 29). This helped increase the library's holdings. Battles also suggests the possibility that the hoarding of these texts may have contributed to the loss of so many ancient works. Had they been in private hands or in other locations, they might have survived longer (p. 31). I really enjoyed the description of an early Vatican book organization system, with sacred books and profane books laid out on tables in a specific relation to each other (pp. 78-79). ( )
  drew_asson | Mar 22, 2020 |
A necessarily idiosyncratic, but quite fun, short history of libraries. A couple teensy errors/typos crept in, and of course anybody writing this book would have focused in different places, &c., but overall, not bad at all. ( )
1 vote JBD1 | Jan 23, 2020 |
In my quest to read some non-fiction I ended up giving up on The Blind Watchmaker and turned to a book that had been waiting on my shelf for many months. It's a relatively brief and interesting history of libraries, literature, biblioclasms & librarians. Very interesting bits on ancient libraries and harrowing bits about modern destruction. The style was smooth and charming. (October 05, 2005) ( )
  cindywho | May 27, 2019 |
Boring. Not the book I expected it to be. Could not get through the first chapter.
  booklover3258 | Oct 14, 2018 |
Library: An Unquiet History was a fun book to read, as it jumps from one vignette to the next, highlighting times of turbulence and uncertainty in libraries' history, from the relatively light "Battle of the Books" of Jonathan Swift's time, to the darker episodes of systematic library destruction during World War II and beyond. Battles illustrates the truth of Borge's statement, "the library is unlimited and cyclical" as libraries fall and decay and are rebuilt throughout the ages. He makes these stories relevant by highlighting the fact that the fear for the modern library--that it will be rendered obsolete by the digital era--is a fear echoed earlier in history, as various technological advances were made. The only thing I'd fault is that sometimes the stories don't seem to relate to one another, and there are large jumps across time and topic that slightly lack coherency. A good, light read on library history. ( )
1 vote renardkitsune | May 16, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 39 (next | show all)
"Library: An Unquiet History" explores the creation of libraries, beginning with the clay-tablets of ancient Mesopotamia, and proceeds to the destruction of libraries, culminating in the wars of the 20th century that shamelessly wiped out entire collections. Battles examines the two competing notions of the library's mission: the library as temple for the best and most beautiful works, and the library as a place where all knowledge is brought together under one roof. He looks at the library in Islam, in the Roman Empire, and in the Middle Ages, across centuries and cultures.
 
In this sweeping view of library history, Harvard librarian Matthew Battles provides a beautifully written story of the often-tumultuous saga of books and book-places in the world. Written first as an essay published in Harper's; this study grew into a book-length treatment, an admirable overview of the large issues facing libraries over the past couple of thousand years.
 
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"The impious maintain that nonsense is normal in the Library and that the reasonable (or even humble and pure coherence) is a miraculous exception." -Jorge Luis Borges, "The Library of Babel"
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For my family and for Ken Carpenter Keeper of Books
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When I first went to work in Harvard's Widener Library, I immediately made my first mistake: I tried to read the books.
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