What constitutes a library? In common parlance, most of us regard a “library” as a scholarly institution administered by a state or private entity. Perhaps uppermost in our minds are our local public libraries, many of which are the legacy of Andrew Carnegie.
Today it seems as though every president of the United States creates a personal library to ensure his legacy shortly after leaving office. There are also great libraries that are part of the former estates of 19th century entrepreneurs; these include Henry E. Huntington’s namesake Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., which is better known to most of its millions of annual visitors for its expansive themed gardens. The Morgan Library, J.P. Morgan’s former home on New York City’s East Side, is a must-see destination not only for its rare books, but also for its incunabula and artworks on paper, much like its peers MoMA and the Met.
I’d like to offer a counter-narrative! You and I began to create our personal libraries willy-nilly with the first books we acquired as students. As a high-school freshman, I bought a few dozen scattered titles to augment my literature classes. Though I didn’t understand it at the time, one of these slight paperbacks soon became the anthem of alienated 1950s teenagers caught inside the wooly myths of the Eisenhower era. The entry password and mantra of its anti-hero, Holden Caulfield, was “phony.” The book, of course, is Catcher in the Rye, a cri de coeur whose impact is probably lost on today’s less naïve generations.
I felt I was beginning a library when I made the singular but, for me, bold move of mail-ordering the works of William Shakespeare. Like millions of high-school freshmen, I had just read Julius Caesar as a class assignment. The challenge of trying to parse an idiom of English I had never seen became a kind of magical adventure into the unknown, and I determined — foolish as I was — to set about reading all of the Bard of Avon’s works. I found a set of the plays and poems published by Yale University as a “library set.” What was unique was that it was not printed in several large volumes: Histories, Comedies and Tragedies. Rather, each work came as a slight blue volume. It was easy to carry Macbeth or Hamlet with you; each volume measured just 4.5 x 6.8 inches. Until my college years, I always carried a volume with me in a jacket or pants pocket, hoping, I suppose, that I would gain insight to its secrets by osmosis.
So began my lifelong love for and acquisition of books. Today, Carol and I have two bedrooms, two basements and a guesthouse filled with our books. Carol has largely made the transition to E-books, whereas I continue to hold out for mostly hardcover print editions. I don’t consider myself a book collector in the classical sense; I don’t scour rare booksellers or book fairs for first editions. The sole exception is an Arion Press letterpress edition of Moby Dick with illustrations by Barry Moser, hand-set in Goudy Modern type, the paper hand-made by Barcham Green at Hayle Mill in England.
All this is mere introduction to a very special book titled The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries, recently published by Taschen. Generous in its three-language discussion of dozens of the world’s most important and beautiful libraries, this book is a behemoth, a 16-pound, 664-page congeries of photographs by architectural photographer Massimo Listri and text by Elisabeth Sladek and Georg Ruppelt.
There is a perspective view of the so-called Long Room of this library that bespeaks the cathedral-like awe inspired by many of these architectural wonders.
On the early afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, I quietly strolled through the Long Room on my way to the Grand Colonnade area of the Old Library that displays some of the library’s masterpieces. One of these is the 9th century illuminated manuscript of the four canonical gospels of the New Testament, the Book of Kells.
I was scrutinizing an illumination, one of the great early-medieval manuscript paintings of Western civilization, when, at 1:46 p.m. local time, American Airlines Flight 11 struck the north tower of the World Trade Center. I had just checked the time because I had a 2 p.m. meeting in a local pub nearby. The sickening irony of standing before one of the world’s literary treasures at the instant of such wholesale death and destruction is forever burned in my soul. The preservation of the world’s knowledge and culture in its great libraries (not all as beautiful as the ones in Listri’s book) serves to define who we are, reminding us of our best natures even in the face of abject horror. Being deeply literate is no guarantee of human empathy, but one need look no further than the Oval Office to see the consequences of embedded aliteracy.
The title of one chapter in the Taschen book is “Memory of the World.”
It recalled for me a documentary short film I saw in my early student days at USC. It was directed by Alain Resnais, the French New Wave director we associate with breakthrough movies like Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad and Muriel, as well as his first English-language feature, Providence. The documentary was the 19-minute black-and-white short Toute la mémoire du monde (1957).
Resnais was 35 when he made the film and already the veteran of nearly two dozen shorts, mostly documentaries; the one he made the previous year was Night and Fog, his devastatingly dark visual poem of the Jewish Holocaust.
Toute la mémoire du monde is a study of the Bibliotèque Nationale. The long, slow camera and dolly moves and intersecting planes of action through the library stacks are almost studies for the similar choreography of actors to camera that is one of the hallmarks of Marienbad.
There is no better cinematic evocation of the primacy of the world’s libraries than this 60-year-old movie set in a world of paper records — books, newspapers and periodicals printed decades before the venerable card-catalog files archiving them were supplanted by digital databases.
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