‘The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders’, by Stuart Kells – review

The Library: A Catalogue of WondersThe Library: A Catalogue of Wonders by Stuart Kells

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Libraries are more than boring stockpiles of books gathered, nondescript depositories of books collected frequented by socially gawky individuals we love to call “nerds” or “misfits.” They are symbolic fortresses of our human cultural progresses as collective enterprises. In fact, libraries are precious repositories of our cultural wealth and knowledge inherited from the forerunners of the Humanities with prescient intentions to preserve the intellectual and spiritual prerogatives of the mankind for the posterity. Any book lover sees this magnificence of libraries, and that is the motif of Stuart Kells’s The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders, a vivacious, jocund presentation of histories and development of libraries and an uplifting rhapsody of bibliophile – love of books. What’s more, this book is not a product of armchair thesis of a library as an anthropological institution, but of an empirically telltale account of cultural, aesthetic, literary, and social phenomena dedicated to preserving the writings of Mankind based on Kells’s actual visitations to the libraries he presents to us.

To begin with, Stuart Kells wears many hats in this book: a teacher, a guide, a book-collector, a historian, and a confirmed book-lover. But most of all, the image of him as I follow his narrative is that of a cross between a teacher and a tour guide with erudition and bonhomie. Like peripatetic Aristotle communicating to the minds of his students in the ancient Greek Lyseum, Kells invites the reader to saunter with him in his own mental library of snippets from a variety of literature and history that merit their substratum of textual human cultural artifacts bestriding the shelves of the Humanities ranging from the classical to the contemporary, all in the loving and caring custodianship of the author whose love of books is so deep and passionate that it’s almost physical. It’s personal, historical, academical, and magical in a way that imparts a sense of flitting in the phantasmal reverie of the world of libraries, now and then, existing and extinct, and  real and imaginary, to the reader.

We travel along with Kells playing the role of a likable and knowledgeable cicerone from the Library of Alexandria to the Italian monastery of Bobbio in the Middle Ages that was said to house 666 manuscripts, Germany’s Wuttemberg State Library possessing a 17th century portrait of Vlad Dracul, aka Dracular, and the Abbey Library of Saint Gall, aka St. Gall’s Library, in Switzerland, which is now a UNESCO world cultural heritage site holding more than 400 manuscript volumes produced before the year 1000. And before we know it, Kells also brings us to the fantastic libraries of the famous Hobbits, also known as a race of bibliophile with personal libraries at home, however small the size might be, and the medieval monastery library in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, where lightheartedness of the atmosphere contributes to the joy of knowledge and the elevation of the mind and soul. Although Kells’s Australian identity tells of the superiority of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mathom House, a wondrous library of literary paraphernalia, over the Italian Eco’s monastery library, it’s altogether a magical sightseeing of the mystical libraries conjured up before our eyes by the imaginativeness of Kells, and we can decide which of these fantastic libraries appeal to us.

To conclude, the book is an axiomatic compendium of world’s famous libraries throughout the western civilizations, smartly studded with tidbit information on eccentric librarians, book-collectors/booksellers, and historical figures in between the chapters serving as a kind of delightful intermissions introducing a subject of each new chapter with provocative anecdotes and vignettes, which are pleasingly digressive rests from the tour of the libraries. It’s really a bright book, not a heavy-duty one with lots of footnotes and scholastic priggishness that the reader may expect a book of this subject matter to be. Notably, Kells’s interpretations drew on his impressively eclectic knowledge of these extensive sources as a respectful book-trade historian, but he wears his learning lightly and writes with a general reader in mind. And I believe that just as the famous English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge often kissed the books of the Dutch philosopher Desiderius Spinoza, out of Kells’s passions for books and possession of the knowledge of multidisciplinary studies comes his love child in the form of this jolly, easy-to-read book.  In the end, the reader will come to love this book for simple, pure pleasure of reading and may kiss the book.

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