On the day I finished reading Library: An Unquiet History I glanced out of the bus window and saw garbage cans lined up curbside. One of them was overflowing with books ... and I had the sudden urge to stop the bus, leap out, and pick through the trash heap.
Guilty as charged: I love books. Matthew Battles, a Harvard librarian, does too, and he has written a delightful (if at times rambling) history of them and of their accumulation and organization. It's idiosyncratic and incomplete — no mention of Andrew Carnegie? — but it's also well-researched and accurate in its anecdotes. And it's philosophical. For instance, a paragraph that my wife (who read Library before me) highlighted in the final chapter, where Battle discusses some ideas from Walter Benjamin's essay "Unpacking My Library":
.. So the personal library carries with it a potential that the publicly owned collection or the academic library, as Benjamin points out, tends to obscure. As the library offers passage into the universe of possible ideas, so the book as cherished object reveals to its owner the connections that individual books can make across time and place, reflected in the story of its previous owners, the history of its bindings, its uncut pages. The book is a tool, and like all tools, it tells the story of its making. It is the door and the key, the passport and the transport. ...
Library does have weaknesses. As the author admits, large sections were originally published as magazine articles or were presented as speeches. At times, the seams show. And Battle misses the chance to end his book on a powerful self-referential note, when he browses the shelves in the Z721's:
... But my own book is missing. I stoop to ankle level, to where it should be shelved. All I find is a little tent of darkness — an empty space, a geniza hole — where the next book leans to rest against its neighbor. My book isn't here; I like to think that someone has already checked it out.
What a brilliant image! Alas, it's followed by four pages of anticlimax.