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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Library: An Unquiet History

Library: An Unquiet History
Reason for Reading: Dewey Decimal Challenge
Rating: 3/5

I don't read nearly as much non-fiction as I should, thus the reason why I decided to sign myself up for the Dewey Decimal Challenge. The goal is to read a book from each of the hundreds. So a book from the 000's, the 100's, etc. This will be a fun challenge to pick out books for. I don't research ahead of time, I just go to the library and wander through the stacks and pick a book that draws my attention.

Thus the reason I arrived at Library. It must have been a daunting task to try and sum up several thousand years of history of libraries, so wisely, the book selects a few interesting examples from each era and doesn't attempt to give a comprehensive history.

This is probably just the fault of the reader, but certain parts of this book really stood out to me, and other parts put me to sleep. I kept expecting to be really interested in the portions about book-burnings in the early 20th century, but I just couldn't get into the facts and numbers without a story to grab onto.

However, learning about the library at Alexandria was fascinating. Of course I knew academically that there weren't printed books back then, put picturing in my mind a library made up of scrolls stacked together, only organized in the vaguest fashion struck my imagination. A person could wander around the library for years and still find little treasures here and there.

Also particularly interesting to me was the final chapter of the book, where the author introduces us to the concept of the geniza, a Jewish tradition where books and paper that had been worn out are pushed through a tiny hole into a storage area, or geniza. All writing was considered sacred because it might contain the name of God, so it had to be buried with care. Battles describes the geniza as the opposite of the library, because it contains all of the writings that weren't important enough to preserve. However, in 1890, when a geniza in Cairo was discovered, it of course shed the sort of light on the Jewish culture that no library can shed, because it revealed the everyday life of the people who lived there. Exercises, journals, notes, lists, lying in piles.

Should I read it? If you like libraries and don't mind a very academic read.


Anonymous said...

I like the concept of considering all writing sacred. This book sounds really interesting. I'll have to check it out.

Nymeth said...

It's too bad some parts were boring - the subject is so interesting! I've heard of another book on this topic called The Library at Night (I think). I'll probably go with that one.

Trish said...

Never heard of geniza before! I think it's books like this that give non-fiction a bad rap. There are good ones out there--but I don't know why authors feel they need to be "academic" or "pedantic" Just my two cents. :)