In The Library (subtitled A Catalogue of Wonders), Stuart Kells explores the history of some of the world’s great libraries, including the Royal Library of Alexandria in Egypt, founded about 332BC.
This marvel reputedly burnt down and, though there is some conjecture about the event, Kells is horrified by the very idea of a library consumed by fire.
It makes him think about how much he loves libraries and books, and also makes him ponder the digital revolution.
“Compare the burning down of a library with how we would feel about deleting an e-book,” he says.
Kells heaves a sigh of relief when he talks about what he has described as the “short-lived e-books scare”.
“Physical books are back in fashion and libraries are the place to be,” he reckons, thankful his book isn’t now just about relics – although there are plenty of relics in his text.
Kells, 45, is one of Australia’s most passionate and knowledgeable bibliophiles. He has dedicated his life to the study of precious and rare books and travelled the world to explore revered collections.
He also deals in rare books and spends his weekends prowling flea markets, fetes and second-hand bookstores for lost treasures.
His last book, in 2015, was Penguin and the Lane Brothers, which told the story of one of the world’s most famous publishing houses, and his next, which will be out next year, is a book about Shakespeare’s library.
To Kells, libraries are almost sacred places. In his preface he points out they “are much more than mere accumulations of books”.
“Every library has an atmosphere, even a spirit,” he writes. “Every visit to a library is an encounter with the ethereal phenomena of coherence, beauty and taste. But libraries are not platonic abstractions or sterile, hyperbaric chambers. They are human places into which humans cry tears, moult hair, slough skin, sneeze snot and deposit oil from their hands – incidentally the best sustenance for old leather bindings.”
Kells offers some fascinating and quite scientific information about the physical reality of books and how they can be destroyed by bugs, as well as fire.
He also thinks about libraries of a different kind and his opening gambit is a musing on libraries without books.
“If a library can be something as simple as an organised collection of texts, then libraries massively predate books in the history of culture,” Kells writes.
He points out some libraries are made up of oral traditions and he cites many cultures, including that of Australian Aborigines. This gives him a segue to discussing Bruce Chatwin’s seminal book The Songlines, which is an interesting diversion.
There are many diversions in this book, which is as much about people as books and libraries. Fellow bibliophiles throughout history are catalogued and famous characters turn up, such as esteemed English literary figure Dr Johnson whose library was, apparently, a dusty disgrace.
He also discusses great librarians through the ages, including some who were also literary figures such as the grumpy, late 20th-century English poet Philip Larkin.
“I’m interested in the human side of libraries,” Kells says. “And the way humans experience books.” The Library, Stuart Kells, Text Publishing, $33 This is a gorgeously written and illustrated book by a mother and her young son, Kate Kelly and Albert Evans. It tells the story of Albert’s initial upset and confusion after the breakdown of Kate’s relationship with her partner, tracing it to his acceptance of finding he has two homes. It has a clear yet gentle message that explains while separation of parents is not easy, there are also good things that can come out of it. This sits alongside other children’s books that are educational but not didactic. The illustrations are lovely and warm and the book is suitable for young readers, or for parents with young children. It is also a book that speaks to the importance of art in the healing process, and this is outlined further at the end of the text. On my first morning in Berlin, not long after the Wall came down, a man flashed me on a city train. Last July, a family member was thrown off a train in the German capital on her first day in Europe. Wrong ticket. If only we’d had the Berlin Style Guide, we might have saved ourselves and made like Hobartians, only in Berlin; known where to find the farmers’ market (Kollwitzplatz), cafe cum bakeries with bread as good as Pigeon Whole loaves (Zeit Fur Brot) and more. What little Hobart can offer by the spadeload on the eat/sleep/shop front, big Berlin can deliver in truckloads. This guide covers a great array of niche shops, from dandy menswear (Dandy of the Grotesque) to sweets from around the world in 1000 varieties (Sugafari). Where it falls down a bit is the absence of a by-storetype index. My top travel tip? Stay off the trains on day one. “This book is a true story. Although the majority of the characters are ficticious,” begins this disparate collection of stories that follow the recent history of people living in Tasmania. As with many histories of the island, it starts after white settlement and traces the lives of various characters and families over two centuries. Characters such as Mannalargenna and Kickerterpoller are bought to life, their voices imagined and interactions plumped out, before they are contrasted with a contemporary family of their descendants. Sitting in a slipstream between truth and fiction, it offers the reader a filter through which to view recent Tasmanian history. While the structure creates a dissonant reading space, the book is well-written and contains some interesting detail.
Sometimes it feels as if shack culture was invented in Tasmania, so integral is the humble beach, lake and bush getaway to the Tassie way of life. But here we have Shack Life: The Survival Story of Three Royal National Park Communities. Its focus is three small beachside settlements in the national park just south of Sydney – Era, Burning Palms and Little Garie – and how the shackies have fought since the 1950s to save their mini abodes from demolition. The book celebrates the proud working-class heritage of the communities, which sprang up in the early 20th century as clusters of fishing shacks built by miners. First-person interviews, evocative fresh portraits and plenty of historic shots of long-term shackies are interspersed with chapters on the broader history of the settlements. Beware: this book will bring on severe shack cravings. It is wonderful.