Skip to Content


The precious core of civilisation

13 December 2003

12:00 AM

13 December 2003

12:00 AM

Library Matthew Battles

Heinemann, pp.246, 14.99

In 1989, two years before the Gulf war, I travelled to Baghdad to write an article on the Hanging Gardens of Babylon which the Iraqi Ministry of Culture then planned to have rebuilt. The project never materialised, but instead I was able to explore Baghdad and its intricate labyrinth. One experience was memorable above all: the discovery, in the National Museum, of two small clay tablets which had recently been unearthed in Syria, and dated back to the fourth millennium BC. Each tablet was the size of the palm of my hand and bore a few simple marks: a small indentation near the top, as if a finger had been stuck into the clay, and below it a stick-drawn animal meant to represent on one tablet a goat, on the other perhaps a sheep. Standing in the museum and staring at these ancient pieces of clay, I tried to picture how, on an unimaginably remote afternoon, a brilliant and anonymous ancestor thought of recording a transaction of livestock by drawing signs on clumps of dirt, and in doing so invented for all future times the magical art of writing. Writing, I realised, much to the reader’s chagrin, was not the invention of a poet but of an accountant.

The hand that made those first signs has long turned to dust; the tablets themselves, however, survived until a few months ago, when they disappeared in the looting of the museum. When I first saw them, in their grimy display case, I was overcome by the vertiginous sense of witnessing the moment of my beginning. Historians tell us that other magicians in China and Central America also invented, at different times, systems of writing, and yet, for me, this was the starting-point. The act that made it possible for a shepherd to carry, locked in a piece of clay, the memory of a precise number of goats and sheep foreshadowed the vast universal libraries of our collective memories; the dialogue with a writer 6,000 years old is the model for my own ‘converse with the mighty dead’, as James Thomson once described the act of reading. In those two lost tablets were the seeds of all future writings: the Book of Job, Superman comics, King Lear, the Sherlock Holmes stories, Evelyn Waugh and Penelope Fitzgerald, all mathematical and scientific treatises, the poems of Sappho and Whitman, and, of course, every precious issue of The Spectator.

The looting of museums and libraries is a long-established occupation which (as Matthew Battles makes clear in his loving Library: An Unquiet History) is as old as the earliest libraries themselves. The libraries of Mesopotamia were looted by conquering kings; the libraries of Rome suffered ‘the ravages of emperors, and barbarians, and angry mobs’. Between the 13th and the 15th centuries alone, ‘the extraordinary libraries of the Muslim world disappeared; its conquerors — the Mongols, the Turks, and the Crusaders — did not share the love of learning that Islam had inherited from its Greco-Persian forebears,’ Battles notes laconically. To add one heart-breaking detail to Battles’ sweeping view: during the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258, the invading army threw away the contents of the libraries into the Tigris to build a bridge of paper. ‘So many books were used,’ wrote a contemporary chronicler, ‘that the waters of the river turned black with ink.’

But Battles’ brief history is as much the story of the survival of the word as it is of its dissolution. His starting-point is the Widemer Library at Harvard University where he works in the rare books section and which he describes, with justifiable swagger, as ‘the largest academic library the world has ever known’. Born from a mother’s wish to erect a lasting monument to her bibliophile son who went down with the Titanic, the Widemer Library, with its four-and-a-half million volumes, stands as a sort of counterpart memorial to the vainglorious ship that thought itself unsinkable. Dazzled by the rag-and-bone quality of the library’s treasures, Battles admits that his first mistake, when he started to work here, was to attempt to read the books. A library (as Borges famously noted and as Battles discovers) ‘is no mere cabinet of curiosities; it’s a world, complete and uncompletable’. Every reader must resign himself to the fact that most of a library’s vast geography will remain forever, to his eyes, terra incognita.

Undeterred, Battles guides the reader through the various forms of book preservation and of cataloguing, the different dangers posed by tyrants and natural disasters, the fables of bewildering greed and of knowledgeable ambition, the sagas of survival by chance, by the intelligence of a handful of brave book-lovers, by the perseverance of social reformers who believed that books were at the core of any true civilisation. Battles tells stories of readers who found salvation in libraries — Richard Wright who as a young black man in the 1930s devised strategies to use the segregated libraries of the American South — and libraries who found salvation in their readers — the Sarajevans who tried to rescue books from the burning Bosnian National and University library, shelled by the Serbs on 25 August 1992. Most important of all, in tracing the history of libraries, Battles necessarily grants the act of reading its rightful place in our daily lives. ‘Reading whatever we will,’ he says, ‘we fulfill a public function, preserving the sacrosanct space of inner thought that is our birthright.’ Let this reminder be engraved on every television set.

Library: An Unquiet History is an erudite, companionable, joyful book ideally suited for these gloomy times. Wandering through the stacks, Battle says, he has the impression that the millions of volumes around him constitute ‘not a model for but a model of the universe’. The idea is thrilling: that everything we know, that everything we believe we can know of this chaotic world, might be reflected in an orderly way on the open shelves of a library. I can think of no other place that justifies such jubilant optimism.

Show comments