Stalking the pages of history

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Agostino Steffani

Donna Leon The Jewels of Paradise
Arrow Books 2013 (2012)

Biographers are akin to stalkers: they remorselessly research the background to their victims, obsessively familiarise themselves with their subjects’ feats and foibles, and lurk around in their vicinity hoping to pick up tidbits of information to feed their fascination. So do historical researchers, and so do fiction writers — but with one major difference. When the subject is deceased, or even imaginary, they are not harmed, nor is their personal privacy invaded or their equanimity threatened.

In The Jewels of Paradise musicologist Caterina Pellegrini finds herself drawn back to her native Venice by the promise of research into the papers left by a mysterious Baroque composer who, she subsequently discovers, is one Agostino Steffani. But that’s not all that’s mysterious about her job. Who are the strange Venetian cousins, Stievani and Scapenelli, who have hired her for this hush-hush job, and what role does the equally opaque lawyer Andrea Moretti have to play in all this? And who is that man following her one evening?

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We Heart Libraries … or whatever

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We ♥ Libraries: one of many visual library memes available online

People who love books love libraries.

That’s a sort of given, isn’t it? Those of a certain age usually see it as a place of hushed reverence, a temple of learning where obeisance is paid to the written word, from where you might even extract some small portion of the hallowed manna to enjoy privately for an extended period of time.

But if, traditionally, the library has been viewed as a “repository of resources” then today that paradigm has changed, evolved, morphed into the concept of the building as a place to support the entire community. The library is no more: the buzz phrase now is community hub. This is a place for the community to link to a global community via Wi-Fi; a venue for groups to meet, socialise or conduct business; a centre for education and training; a site for additional services and other agencies to share. This rebranding foresees a near future when all libraries are to be regarded as facilitators instead of deliverers.

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Stones of eternity

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Public Library, Waukegan, Illinois

As the northern hemisphere nights start to draw in, the crisp air almost crackles and the mist is a miasma creeping over streets and fields, our thoughts turn to things that go bump in the night. In preparation for a review of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, timed to coincide with The Emerald City Book Review’s annual Witch Week, I thought I’d like to share here a few thoughts on aspects of this Halloween thriller. And I shall start with Green Town’s public library, based on the Carnegie library in Waukegan, Illinois that Bradbury knew so well as a child in the 1930s:

Out in the world, not much happened. But here in the special night, a land bricked with paper and leather, anything might happen, always did. […] This was a factory of spices from far countries. Here alien deserts slumbered.

After this passage, which promises exotic experiences to come, the library — though it remains no less enticing — starts to take on a more sinister aspect:

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Shelfmark 400

A municipal library, Prague © Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar / CC-BY-SA-3.0
A municipal library, Prague © Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Sophie Divry The Library of Unrequited Love
Translated from the French by Siân Reynolds
Maclehose Press 2014 (2013)

I wanted to describe the battle between order and disorder, between love and bitterness, between conservatism and revolution. Shouldn’t literature always try to answer these two questions: what does it mean to be human? What is life? — Sophie Divry

Here is a short fiction about books and book-lovers, libraries and librarians, infatuation and infuriation. And how can one not be drawn by a novel with this particular title? Especially one which has been reduced in a sale, with a recommendation from the bookshop assistant that he’d only taken a short while to read it? (Perhaps that’s why it was at a bargain price: it had been ‘pre-read’.)

Other than long-dead authors there’s only one name in this book: Martin. Martin is a serious scholar using the facilities of some municipal library in the Paris region, ensconcing himself in the Geography and Town Planning section (Dewey class 910) located in the basement. He is lusted after by a frustrated spinster librarian who is fascinated by his neck, like the spine of a book. On this occasion she has discovered a hapless reader who while asleep had been locked in by mistake overnight, and takes the opportunity before the building officially opens to the public by subjecting him to a rant. A rant which for approaching ninety pages is one long paragraph.

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No peace for the wicked

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Victorian London, with St Paul’s Cathedral

Genevieve Cogman The Invisible Library Tor 2015

Take a love of books, add a dash of fairytale, blend in some steampunk, season with distinctive characters, add essence of danger and top it off with a garnish of wittiness and voilà! we have The Invisible Library, the first of a projected trilogy featuring the extremely resourceful Irene. She is a Librarian in an extremely unusual library, one which exists out of time and place. From its rambling corridors and innumerable rooms lined with shelved books one can access any number of alternate worlds in different dimensions. The purpose of the library is to acquire, by whatever means, one copy of every book of fiction published in those alternate worlds, even multiple versions of a book where, due to variations in developments in those worlds, the resulting editions may only differ in a word, a paragraph or a chapter.

To complicate matters, the mix of magic and the mundane in each world will be different, and the magic wielded by the Librarians of a different order again. The two worlds that we are introduced to in The Invisible Library have many of the tropes of steampunk embedded in them: technology largely operated by steam power or Victorian mechanics, quasi-Dickensian costumes, detectives and shady characters roaming streets blanketed in smog, structured if sometimes fluid class divisions and, woven through all, the red strand of danger and the blue thread of magic.

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Borrower or lender?

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I’m a great believer in libraries, as you may have noticed. Not just the idea, you understand — though I know many people do love the idea of a place where books are on tap, just because it’s a Good Thing. (Have you noticed, by the way, that whenever there’s a threat to a library locals get aerated about it? Even though it’s often the case that it’s been years since they last entered one?)

No, I’m a great believer in libraries, and not just as places where I can get free wifi, or shelter from the rain, or get my food recycling bags but as somewhere I can actually borrow books. Funded by council tax (what some still quaintly call ‘rates’) libraries are a wonderful resource for accessing fiction and non-fiction, and taking it away with you. And reading it in your own time. Or not, as the case may be.

However, there are times when I think borrowing books is a Bad Thing.
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Tsundoku antidote

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I’ve posted before about tsundoku, the ‘affliction’ that I have apparently been suffering from and that it has taken a change of house to start to address. Don’t worry, it’s not catching, and it’s not apparently pathological. It may perhaps come close to OCD, but it does seem that I don’t need medication or counselling for it, just a good talking to. From myself.

OK. If you don’t want to follow the tsundoku link, this is what it is.
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Unpacking

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Phase I of unpacking an already heavily weeded library

Unpacking books was low down on our list of priorities, but the time eventually came to tackle the waiting boxes. No careful sorting at this stage, just transferring to existing shelves to see if the guestimated storage is adequate. And the answer is (huzzah!) it is! Sadly no “triangular wall of books” but at least it will be a whole wall, in what will be a guest bedroom. Hope guests won’t feel intimidated, just tempted!

There’s more art than science goes into arranging books, I feel, and I’m going to enjoy getting stuck into that when the time comes — though that may not be any time soon. I promise you will be first to get the update. Here’s a last look at how they were crammed into that pyramid.

Now those shelves, I hear you asking, who else had need of so much storage? The answer is Jeff Nuttall, who lived in this house for the last couple of years of his life, and whose books and papers filled all the space when we first came to view. Who he? I will leave that for another post; but if you can’t wait, there’s an informative Guardian obituary of this interesting polymath.

Virtual bookshelves

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How much the world changes in a lifetime! Hands up if you can remember having to physically find a public telephone box to call from (when it worked) if you needed to tell someone you were running late? Or having to wait a few days for your film to be developed and printed by a specialist shop to see if those snaps you took were works of art or a waste of time? Or going into a library and searching through yellowing index cards in catalogue cabinets to see if they housed the book you were looking for?

Sometime in the last century I morphed from a bona fide student to a branch library assistant and I retain deeply imprinted memories of Continue reading “Virtual bookshelves”

On bookmarks

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Bookmarks in a 1922 Missale Romanum

When I worked in public libraries — even contemplating getting qualifications — I became aware of the surprising range of objects people used to show where they had got with their reading. Paperclips, scraps of newspaper, bus tickets, sewing thread, a ladies glove — all supplemented the usual dog-ear solution of folding down a corner of the page. A colleague even recounted the tale of the fried egg bookmark, though I suspected that may have been apocryphal, a bit of urban legend or friend-of-a-friend ‘foaflore’.

Of course, older books had their own built-in cloth bookmarks, Continue reading “On bookmarks”

If this is the answer, what is the question?

Decluttering, discarding, downsizing… You may well be fed up to the metaphorical back teeth with my ongoing saga of denuding my bookshelves in preparation for a move. And yet, if you’re a booklover — I’m assuming you are one if you’re following a blog dedicated to exploring the world of ideas through books — such talk may induce a frisson of fear. It does for me. But confessional posts like this help me come to terms with the trauma of parting with books, and may even help you when your time comes!

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Famous last words

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My last word on bookweeding, I promise. But talking about downsizing a book collection seems to have struck a chord with quite a few bloggers. As I go on to tackle my journal and magazine hoard I was struck by a parable that fellow book blogger Sari recounts which I thought would help firm my resolve. Who knows, it may help anybody else involved in the same painful process of decimation.

In her post, Sari talks about saying goodbye to books. As she sat staring at a particular group of books, an old Buddhist story came to mind.

A student was eager to learn more and more about Buddhism. He wanted to be a great Buddhist master. His teacher told him that Buddhism was like a boat. The boat can only get you across a river. After that, you have a choice; you can either tie up the boat and continue on foot, or you can drag the boat with you everywhere you go. At some point your education must come to an end. At some point the Buddhist principles are a part of you. There is no more reason to try to grasp at Buddhism as you travel through life.

Sari noted that the same held true for the books on Buddhism she had in front of her. They had served their purpose.

Now I can’t at this point entirely divest myself of books; I’m not like that literary creation who had no need of a personal library — save one book, a Bradshaw’s railway timetable and guide. But as I contemplate a hoped-for move I have to think, do I want to drag a metaphorical vessel along with me? The image does help to focus the mind.

And you may like to know — and it’s no joke — that I am really finding it easier to resist buying any more books until I’ve read the ones I’ve already got. Perhaps I’m waiting till I land up in a new port before considering new ones. But for the moment my catchphrase is ‘to moor is less’.

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Boats moored in Solva harbour, Pembrokeshire

Still bookweeding

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The cartoonist and illustrator Tom Gauld is well known for his Guardian cartoons, especially in the Saturday review pages. One of his more popular items appeared on the 9th June this year; entitled ‘My Library’, the books there displayed are colour-coded and categorised under the following headings, to which I’ve here added my own commentary as it applies to my shelves.

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