PHIL BROWN

Mercury (Hobart) - Magazine - - Between The Lines -

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.

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