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A Catalogue of Wonders
Stuart Kells writes about the wonders of the book world, so to call The Library "the Book of Kells" is a temptation this reviewer cannot resist.
Book lovers have a champion in Kells, a Melbourne-based historian of the book who has visited most of the great libraries and delights in their stories. These include the valuable early pamphlet lurking behind the shelves in the Bodleian, the priceless Irish manuscript hidden in the wall at Lismore Castle and the pair of underpants found in a copy of The Dangerous Book for Boys in a Salt Lake City library.
There are also stories of book people such as James Cates, the first clerk at the reading room of the British Museum chosen because of his pugilistic ability which was valuable in dealing with the frequent bouts of fisticuffs among readers and the tale of book thief John Gilkey who earned some immortality when his story was told in the book The Man Who Loved Books Too Much.
The list of the most popular type of books stolen from British libraries (sex, telepathy and foreign languages top the poll) illustrates Kells’ gift for finding unexpected gems. He devotes chapters to imaginary libraries, the cunning tricks of library design and the worst librarian in history (Austrian Wolfgang Laius). They are all topics designed to hook book lovers.
In fact, few topics remain untouched in Kells’ survey of bookish wonders. Christchurch librarians will nod sagely at the reports of libraries damaged by earthquakes as shelves of books crash to the floor like falling dominoes and anyone who has suffered at the hands of the digitalists will delight at the re-telling of the 1980s disaster, the BBC’s The Domesday Book project.
The digital collection of oral history, maps, texts and pictures became unusable as the computer used was no longer available. The entire project had to be retrieved by unpicking the original data and, all the while, "the original thousand-year-old Domesday Book housed in Kew remained entirely readable".
Book people will give a hearty cheer as Kells puts his case for the sheer joy of the "physicality of books". Spines, fore-edges, verticality, shelf-marks, bookcases, stacks, stalls, halls, domes — all these may be read so that we know the histories of the books and the libraries.
The Library is a treasure trove and reaching the last page simply prompts an impassioned cry for more of the same.
- Jim Sullivan is a Patearoa writer.