The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders by Stuart Kells
The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders disappoints. The title and the cover, a picture of the Dublin University library, suggest a look at some of the great libraries of the world. Instead, we get an anecdotal accounting of how books developed and how they came to be housed in special places. We learn snippets of how and why libraries were destroyed or supported.
None of these anecdotes are expansive, giving short shrift to their subjects. For example, the chapter “Free for All” opens with the history of printing in England from 1476 when William Caxton set up his press. In just fourteen pages, Kells addresses printing, the development of paper, erotica, and censorship. A brief discussion of the place of pornography elides into one on censorship and the discovery and influence of explicit sculptures and paintings in Pompeii and Herculaneum. He quickly glides over censorship during this era when books had to receive approval before publication, when the greatest concern was looking for material that might promote “heretical and treasonous works.” There is little context to the point he wishes to make, and Kells is dead wrong when he states, “For people who grew up in the West in the present century, censorship is an almost alien and antique concept. Few books are banned….” Any serious reader of books, especially if one is, or has been, in the field of education, recognizes the stark absurdity of that statement. A quick Internet search disproves Kells.
Each chapter is rounded off by a short coda that is only vaguely connected to text before it. “Curiosities,” the two pages at the conclusion of the aforementioned chapter, centers on the Old English word “mathom.” J.R.R. Tolkien used it to describe things of questionable value that Hobbits kept rather than threw away. Kells then equates this usage with the mathom houses of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: “The striking and grotesque curiosities kept at the Bodleian included a mummy, an Irish skull, a Jamaican crocodile, Chinese books, The Tsar of Russia’s lambskin coat and a whale that had been caught in the River Severn.” These were not things of questionable value to those collectors. They revealed aspects of the world that few were able to see or experience. Remember that mathom originally meant something of value, a definition completely different from the manner in which Tolkien repurposed it.
The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders may be valuable to those who have not read widely about the history of books. Easy reading, it provides an entry point that may well spark an interest that will lead to a deeper study and understanding of the primacy of books in the history of the world.
Kells won the Ashurst Business Literature Prize for his history of Penguin Books, and his biography of Kay Craddock, first female president of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, was critically acclaimed.