Published: 2004 by W.W. Norton
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It’s getting close to finals time, and one of my projects this semester involved a Library Journal style book review on a book about libraries. I chose Matthew Battles’ “Library: An Unquiet History.” Personally, I find the style of Library Journal reviews to be unnecessarily constraining, so I thought I’d take a moment here to ramble a bit about the book.
Battles, an eccentric Harvard Librarian, describes the history and evolution of libraries from the ancient world to the present. While the book mentions the obvious stuff like the Library of Alexandria, I also learned a lot from it that I hadn’t read before in other places. I didn’t know about book burnings of Aztec volumes; in fact, I hadn’t even realized that the Aztecs had so many written texts. The author also mentioned a library found in a Jewish ghetto during the Holocaust, which shows the resilience of libraries even under some of the most hostile conditions.
While I found the information to be fascinating, I thought that Battles writing was unnecessarily verbose and disorganized. He jumps around a lot in both time and space, and a few times I found myself caught off guard thinking “Hey wait, weren’t you just talking about something going on an a different continent?” There was also a tangent on Jonathan Swift that lasted a bit too long for my taste (not that Jonathan Swift isn’t awesome–he is–but it felt excessive). It’s not that the book isn’t good, but I’m the sort of person who prefers a clear form of organization that doesn’t jump around so much.
Battles very clearly cares about his subject matter, but this book didn’t really do it for me. At the same time, I can see why some people would enjoy it. One of Battles’ strengths is that he brings up a lot of interesting anecdotes and historical details that get glossed over or aren’t mentioned in other similar books, and those anecdotes do give readers a sense of perspective. His use of intellectual history to illustrate the changing purpose of the library shows how the very concept of a library has changed over time.
The history of libraries is something that interests me, and I wish it were more widely known. I often hear that e-books are killing libraries, but at the same time, books like this one show the way that people have thought that libraries were dying for hundreds upon hundreds of years now. Instead of doing so, they evolved to confront the challenges of their eras.