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Library: An Unquiet History Hardcover – 6 Jun 2003

4.7 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews

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Hardcover, 6 Jun 2003
--This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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Product details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Co.; 1 edition (6 Jun. 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393020290
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393020298
  • Product Dimensions: 21.7 x 15.5 x 2.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,116,970 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


"Fascinating... Eloquently written and genuinely enlightening, Battles's book is a telling testimony to the way libraries can transform lives" (Sunday Herald)

"Performs a valuable service by blowing the dust off our stodgy, conventional conception of the library to reveal the living heart of cultures that beats beneath its stone facade" (Los Angeles Times)

"An erudite, companionable, joyful book... Thrilling" (Spectator)

"Matthew Battles touches on almost all the important subjects, through fascinating stories... The book is full of all sorts of treasures" (Times Literary Supplement) --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Book Description

A history of the library that speaks volumes. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
An easy reading potted history of libraries throughout history and geography. This book reminds one of the somewhat depressing side to the development of libraries; their use and destruction for political ends, often including the users! Especially poignant was the 20th century library destructions, in an age where we should know better. This book suffers from being too short. Just when you want to go delving into the back shelves of a subject, the author moves you on.
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Format: Hardcover
Mr Battles's "Library" is not a study for scholars but for general readers who will be charmed by its old-fashioned character, by the elegant prose of its sentences and paragraphs and by its human portrait of libraries. The recording and transmission of knowledge from generation to generation is one of the greatest achievements of mankind and libraries play a crucial role in this process. And it is certainly disquieting to learn about the destruction of millions of books by the Nazis in the Louvain library or the siege of the Boston National and University Library but then Mr Battles reassures the reader by focussing on the building of outstanding collections and on the central role of libraries in every society. Who would have thought that the books in the infamous "model Jewish city" at the Theresienstadt concentration camp during the Final Solution "cast the ghetto reader into bibliopsychological relief"?

An excellent study which will delight all those who appreciate books. And the next time we enter a library, we should keep in mind that "readers read books; librarians read readers"!
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Format: Hardcover
This is a book of passion-a passion for books and for libraries. Battles' learning is vast and eclectic yet worn lightly, and his anecdotes and information are a mixture of history, sociology, aesthetics wit and romance.
A Harvard rare books librarian himself, Battles reveals the ancient drive to posess and catalogue books, the excesses and eccentricties of bibliophiles and the dramas betwen the stacks. The library is a stage on which great men (sadly, few women, although the great Harvard library was itself endowed by one) from Constantine to Dean Swift, from Gibbon to Hitler all play their part. Here is a history of greed, venality violence, obsession and love. It is a book I should love to have written.
For a book about collecting it is also a delightfully presented volume. Read it and your shelf life will never be the same.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) HASH(0x91eed138) out of 5 stars 17 reviews
78 of 79 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8a5c4378) out of 5 stars Librarians, Libraries, and Library Destructions 2 Aug. 2003
By Rob Hardy - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Last April during the war raging in Baghdad, a mob set fire to the "House of Wisdom," the national library of Iraq. Almost all of its books and ephemera were burned. Burning a library seems a particularly vicious and sad thing to do, but it would not have surprised Matthew Battles. He works at the rare books section at Harvard's library, and he has written _Library: An Unquiet History_ (W. W. Norton), a tour of libraries through history, and what becomes of them. Those of us who frequently use our local libraries and even take them for granted may reflect with pleasure on the anomalous (and deceptive) permanence of our particular library. Battles writes, "There is no library that does not ultimately disappear." Some of them are done in by natural causes, and plenty more are deliberately destroyed to make a social or revisionary point.
There is more to libraries than their destructions, of course, and more to Battles's book. It is full of well-written and surprising paragraphs, brimming with erudition, and part of its attractiveness is that he has not stuck to any structural plan. This is not an attempt at a comprehensive history of libraries, but it does take into account a lot of history. "By bringing books together in one place, cultures and kings inevitably make of them a sacrifice to time." Though the destructions of libraries by Shi Huangdi (who started the Great Wall of China), through the Nazis and into Sarajevo are necessary subjects here, the grimness is lightened by portraits of eminent librarians. For instance, cataloging by means of the famous Dewey Decimal System was invented by Melville Dewey, born in 1851; he was a spelling reformer and changed his name to Melvil. The seventeen-year-old Dewey inhaled a great deal of smoke as he rescued books from the flames when his school caught fire, and the subsequent cough led doctors to predict his death within two years. This taught him he had no time to lose, and though he lived to be eighty, he was always a genius for efficiency. He did not invent the card catalogue; it is a surprise to find that Edward Gibbon did so, putting his library's inventory onto playing cards. But Dewey standardized the catalog, as he did much other library furniture and gadgets such as date stamps. He also pioneered the systematic education of librarians and helped found the American Library Association.
Battles traces the constant conflict about what libraries should contain; some say they must include everything, others say they should include only the best of everything. The arguments on the issue have been spirited, especially when joined by Jonathan Swift, frequently cited here, who insisted not only on the best contents for libraries, but concentration on just the classics. He would have been dismayed by our popularization of libraries. Surely, however, he would have found the modern library a wonderful place to pick out the odd fact, or to wonder at the oddities (lovable or not) of humanity; readers will find _Library_ quite good for this, too.
49 of 51 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8a425f0c) out of 5 stars An Unquiet History That Needs To Be Heard 4 Oct. 2003
By Bruce Crocker - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Although the purposes and processes change, libraries rise and libraries fall and Matthew Battles has given us a short, engaging, and illustrative history of libraries in Library: An Unquiet History. The destruction of libraries isn't always at the hands of human beings [decomposition and disintegration happen whether we help or not] and the destruction of libraries at the hands of humans has not always been as pat as conventional stories relate [I like the Hypatia and the mad mob version of the destruction of the library at Alexandria, but as romantic as the story is, the real fall of the library at Alexandria was far more complex.]. Battles' book can be very depressing at times [especially for the extreme bibliophile], but ultimately ends on a hopeful note. When I donate a book to the library at the high school where I teach, I am aware of the fact that the book may never see any use. This seems to confirm Battles' thought that "the library may seem the place where books go when they die." But every once in a while, one of my students comes up to show me a book and says, "Look what I found in the library!" And so I keep on donating books. I recommend you read Matthew Battles' Library: An Unquiet History and find reason to hope.
39 of 41 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8a56fc18) out of 5 stars From Alexandria To The Internet...Libraries Through The Ages 5 July 2003
By W. C HALL - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Matthew Battles packs a lot of intellectual history between these slim covers. As he notes in his introduction, a comprehensive history of libraries could fill volumes. He does provide, however, a survey of the key points in their evolution. His focus is on the changing role of the library as an intellectual institution, and he explains how someone who shapes a gathering of books, through the selections she makes and the manner of their presentation, is really the author of that collection.
One of the more disquieting themes concerns the library as a target, both in wartime and in peace. The enemy, too often, has not been the Nazis or other enemies of thought; many times it has been someone who at first glance, would be assumed to be a friend of intellectual freedom, but in reality was seeking to contain and control it. It was disheartening to read of the destruction of truly irreplacable collections through the ages; yet the ultimate message, despite continuing challenges, seems to be one of the ultimate triumph of the book as a vessel for ideas and the library as a sanctuary for them.
Battles works at the rare book library at Harvard, and his passion for books and the life of the mind is evident throughout this well-written volume. A most worthwhile and stimulating read!
33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8a56f8c4) out of 5 stars Unquiet indeed! 23 July 2004
By Psyche - Published on
Format: Paperback
Unquiet indeed! This little book touches upon everything from the fires of Alexandria to the book burnings of the Nazis, bargains with devils to the ghosts of literature, the purpose of libraries of the past, the present and what they may be in the future. However, as Battles states from the start, a comprehensive history of libraries throughout the ages could fill countless volumes; instead he offers a fascinating and varied history. From ancient scrolls to the Dewey decimal system Battles flits through the history of books and libraries with ease and grace.
Battles views the librarian as a modern Prometheus who is overwrought with pity and whose boon `ultimately inspires another emotion, hubris, in the hears of human beings', to him, the flaws of the Titan are mirrored in the librarian who harbours `pity for the low station of the reader, and hubris for the possibilities the library offers for the reformation of culture and society' (pg 120). Lofty ideals, but the stories of Thomas Bentley William Temple, Johnathan Swift, Melvil Dewey and countless others whose passion for books and their distribution have helped shape how we think of literature and libraries today.
An easy and entertaining read, and for the uninitiated, library and book-specific terminology is inserted inconspicuously into the body of the text. Highly recommended for those interested in the subject matter.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8a133d50) out of 5 stars Read the first chapter last! 16 Nov. 2005
By Perco - Published on
Format: Hardcover
It is an entertaining and educational book. I was very surprised when I learned that, in ancient times, any book brought to Alexandria was confiscated to be duplicated. I guess since the beginning of time knowledge is assumed to be power.

One complaint is that the first chapter does not belong to the book. It is an incoherent collage of trivia. One should read it at the end. It is unfortunate that the beginning chapter of the book induces such distaste that I almost gave up on the book. Surprisingly, from chapter two on, it picks up and becomes an excellent read.
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