Some of my most tedious, hence productive, hours have been spent in libraries.
This is nothing remarkable in the career of a (failed, ex-) academic. Those libraries were mere repositories of books, stratifications of printed matter like dead and compressed sea creatures from which you hope, with professional circumspection, one day to squeeze a drop of oil; there is a curious opiate power in the Dewey Decimal system, in the copiousness of an academic library. Go through the doors and it is hard to leave. And so year after year I drowsed and read and transcribed.
Time was when libraries were the clearing houses of the world’s knowledge, when they were the places everything happened. Not for many years now, though. Now, if you are looking for the important stuff happening in our culture you won’t sit in a library. Instead you will attend production meetings at TV channels, design meetings at tech companies in California; you will note anything happening in a laboratory, anything on a trading floor, visit MIT, interrogate think tanks, fly into Mumbai, Shanghai.
I use the word important in an enlarged sense.
Libraries are the oxbow lakes of our civilisation, places of silt and sedimentation; ecologically interesting, perhaps, but hardly dynamic.
Hunter Sidney says that back in the 1980s he used to go in his lunch hour to the London Library and dawdle among its shelves. It was a place, he recalls, where a certain class of individual emerged; people who were displaced, invisible, forgotten in the outside world, in here started to form distinct social groupings, known hierarchies, even though they mostly never spoke to one another. It was, he specifically noted, a place for émigrés who couldn’t get a ticket at the British Library, central European intellectuals trying to maintain contact with whatever it was they had once been.
The residents of the London Library, Hunter Sidney concluded, were hiding. If you want a sense of how little you count for, he says, do not look up at the bewildering stars, look at the shelves of a library. Read a book a day for fifty years and you’ll read 18262 books or thereabouts, depending on the spread of leap years. In your life. No one reads a book a day, you’d never have time to think in all that blizzard of other voices, but just say. 18262 books in a lifetime of mad reading. The London Library, by no measure immense, has, what, a million? Carrying an idea into a space like that is like carrying a candle into the sun. No one will ever find you, or your idea.
Hunter Sidney says that it was sitting there, looking out over this wreck of intellectual humanity that he came to the (for him unpleasant) realisation that a book does not change its reader’s life; at best a book may alter the distribution, move the mental furniture about a little; but in general books are mere ballast to a becalmed soul, and a hall of mirrors to a tortured one.
He concluded that, as a reader, the only rational approach to a library of this sort or to all libraries or indeed to the Idea of library is one of dereliction. You work out, sub-consciously or pragmatically, what you can safely ignore (most things), and when to stop (sooner, not later).
He further concluded, glumly, that there is no analogous rational approach for a writer.
Five years on and he was working on the anti-literature, which is indexed in no library.
Silted up and slow moving they may be, but libraries are not entirely dead places, memorial cairns of the written word; like me, they only appear so.
An ex-colleague of mine from South Carolina, William something Smith the Third, once saw me sitting reading in a corner of a public space at work and when he came back an hour later there I still was, still reading. He hooted with laughter and said that if you set up a camera and filmed for a day and then sped it up there’d be a blur of activity and movement and me, sitting motionless in the middle of it all.
I'm not so sure about that. I think that, like one of those deep sea starfish, if you sped up the camera of my life you’d see me creep along the sea bed, sucking the nutrients off the rock or coral.
I observe that my books, similarly, move around on my shelves over time. Some are grouped together (by chance?), but mostly there is no system. I take a book down, I leave it lying around for a few weeks, I stuff it back anyhow. I never really know where a given book is. Sometimes I start to look for one and just give up. Must get this all sorted out, I think, this is madness. But then what would happen? I’d sit and stare at these static shelves and my life would be no further along, just more obviously psychotic. It would be like nailing down the starfish because each time you looked back you thought it had moved but couldn't be sure. So I don't nail down the starfish and the shelves continue to mutate; if you took Bill Smith’s time lapse film of the room, the books would be flickering around me and I’d just be sitting here, my feet on the desk, wondering how to keep up.
As I say, libraries are where you go to watch the sedimentation of a culture. But this is your culture, your own sedimentation you are watching. It is not uninteresting.
We have in Norbiton: Ideal City a library, known as Solomon’s Library. It is our public library – public in the sense that there are other people there, it is open to other citizens of the Ideal City. In material terms it is not extensive, but then it is not a repository of books so much as a place where stuff pertaining to books happens. You can talk, read, yawn, scratch, drink tea and doze. And in that rich somnolent state appropriate to the culture of books, some other bit of you is waking up, is hyper-aware, attentive to the cockroach scurry of thought and memory.
Our library is not copious, then, but it is rarefied. What happens on the shelves is not a backdrop to the rest. This is a place where things happen, and one of the things that happens is the slow filtering and sorting and sifting of the books on the shelves.
Borges wrote a story about the universe as a library of all possible books. Each book is 410 pages long, and of a uniform format. Each is made up of a random (unrepeated) sequence of twenty-five characters – twenty-two letters, the comma, the full-stop, and the space. Given the restrictions on length and format, and the limited alphabet, it is not infinite. But we can nevertheless say that it contains all possible books that ever have been and ever will be written (stretched, if need be, across multiple volumes), all possible variants on those books, all possible translations into all possible, actual, imagined language; and in between each book, or variant of book, an almost infinite series of gibberish books, like endless irrational numbers filling the spaces between their rational counterparts. Somewhere in this near-infinity, there will be a true catalogue of the library’s contents, a true explanation of its organisation, and no end of false catalogues and explanations.
A library, then, with an informational content of, approximately, zero.
Who would bother to set off, in such a library, in search of legible books? How would you recognise such books when found? Such a pursuit would correspond to a Kabbalistical word-turning, or to an alchemical combination and re-combination of all the world’s substances under all conceivable conditions in search of a goal or a truth both ill-defined and half-forgotten in the process itself, an endless iteration like a compulsive disorder.
No, you would potter about in whichever cell you happened to occupy, the books so much unregarded ornament or decoration, a baroque curiosity.
Or, by another measure, you might set off in search something to read, simply so that through movement you might counter the tedium of sitting on your arse in a library.
The libraries of the quattrocento, like our library but unlike that of Borges or the London Library, were in the first place spare, sparse, even; and in the second were ambulatory spaces.
Bruce Chatwin in the Songlines discusses the rhythm of walking and maintains that, each of us at bottom being a nomadical pastoralist manqué, we are at our happiest walking, our most reflective. Without bothering to give this too much thought I find it to be convincing; and I discover that very rhythm reflected in the intercolumniation of, for example, the library of San Marco in Florence. This is a cool place where thought can go for a stroll in the heat of the afternoon.
The library, commissioned by Cosimo de’Medici, was designed and built by Michelozzo Michelozzi, who was also responsible for the Palazzo Medici. It is a place of deliberate austerity – the library dates from the 1430s, and the difference between the solid, mercantile 1430s and the physically sumptuous, intellectually superheated 1480s cannot be overstated – as witness the capitals to the columns: a plain ionic, none of that composite sculptural flourish so common in Michelozzo’s other work – for instance, the capitals in the courtyard of the Palazzo Medici:
It is, then, a paradigm of clarity, but also of proportion and rhythm.
A place where the thinkable has its rational limits.
A place, moreover, where each co-ordinate of knowledge – each book - is not merely a relational point in a extensible system, but a known, substantial object.
So, the Renaissance library is a form of thought – clear, discriminating, organised. And ambulatory.
Solomon’s library, similarly, is built to a super-discriminatory specification. But this is not at first apparent. The downstairs - the bookshop - is a space overwhelmed by a tide of a printed matter, a clearing house of unwanted publication. There are local topographies and technical journals in amongst the graceless embossed covers of cheap thrillers and throwaway biographies; there are sporting annuals and pointless old black-and-white art books from the days when colour printing was expensive, and ancient books on collecting porcelain and furniture that can be relevant to no one (surely?), and a few nice editions of this or that thrown in among them.
in the back office, where Solomon sits at his desk hunched over some book or other, is a glass cabinet with whatever comes in of antiquarian interest. It could be, in short, one tiny random fragment of Borges’s library of everything – so random and insufficiently coherent that it would not much signify if the books were filled with letters arranged at hazard.
Upstairs, however, it is different. Upstairs, for one thing, the shelves are uniform. They are not expensive, or of antique design; they are solidly constructed of plain wood, pine, it might be. The books are not at first sight of any special value (although they are, as mentioned, dizzily overpriced). But this upstairs area, where books are rarely sold, is the fruit of two coinciding projects in Solomon’s life. His re-reading project, and his proof-reading project.
Solomon is an autodidact. He did not attend university but worked for a few years after school in some unspecified capacity in his father’s wine-import business. When his father died he sold his share in the business and started to study, buying the bookshop in Norbiton, reading, studying; he had a wide range of inexpensive intellectual interests, and otherwise modest tastes, and so, with the bookshop, he has been able to eke out his inheritance over a lifetime.
He is now in his late sixties, or perhaps early seventies. When he was in his mid-forties, having read particularly widely in the fields of literature, history, art and philosophy, and having tried and failed to publish articles on various subjects in semi-scholarly journals, and one slim book on varieties of pagination in the incunabula, he was struck by the thought that, if he set himself to re-read everything he had so far read in life, he would just about have time.In a way not untypical of the autodidact he had kept a record of everything he had ever read since he was a teenager, in an alphabetized notebook. He had always read good books, meaning, he had for the most part only had patience with classic titles or titles of repute; there were a few books he still wished to read, but he reasoned to himself that he had no desire to spend the rest of his life reading books that were less good than those he had already read, and that since, as a young man, he had not understood how to read, or rather, how to organise his reading so that book spoke clearly to book, there was every reason to go back and start again, this time imposing order and clarity on what had, the first time round, been but virgin jungle to him. He went through his list of books, excising those he thought unworthy of his time, multiplying translations of foreign texts where necessary, and drawing up a secondary list of key books he would like to have read but had not, and for these he allowed himself one year (like Noah, looking at his watch as the rain starts to fall, to see which last bedraggled creatures might make it up the ramp); he then worked out a loose and flexible plan of groupings of books, and natural progressions from one area of reading to the next - for now, for example, he was reading nineteenth and early-twentieth century European fiction - necessarily flexible, because he wanted to take account of any unexpected and unforeseeable connections that might be made; he allowed himself a percentage of time for new texts that would have to be added, and a (much smaller) percentage of time for texts that had yet to be written which he might need to read.
And then he started to busy himself with editions, which led him to supplement – he says enrich, but replace might be more accurate - his re-reading project with the proof-reading project.
Solomon is now twenty to twenty-five years into the re-reading project and it is not, by his own admission, going all that well.
As a young man Solomon had read whatever editions he could find, good, bad and indifferent. He had survived the experience, just as a man might all his life eat perfectly well without ever really eating well. But now was a time to eat well. He looked into the history of each book on his list, and chose his edition accordingly. Some he already had, some he needed to search out via inter-bookshop search facilities, some he could wait on as he was not due to read them for another twenty years. So he assembled his editions – always second-hand - and started to read.
But he rapidly became absorbed in another problem. All texts, however good, are subject to the possibility of typographical error. It was inevitable, but typographical error came for Solomon to overlay editions like flickering mirrors of doubt. Solomon had a sharp eye for detail and a typo made him wince. He began therefore, here and there, to make his own judgements, and pencil his emendations in the margins of the books he read (which he ensured were otherwise clean) in his precise 2H hand, and this practice became an obsession, so that he ceased to trust even the best editions, could not restrain himself, by his own admission, from just running the rule over them.
And so every book on the shelves in the upstairs of his shop came to be assessed, vetted, annotated in this way. He was prepared to sell them, he told me, because he kept a faithful record of every change he made in a separate catalogue of notebooks which he kept in a fireproof safe under his desk. If a book was sold – and there was now a pricing based on his own labour costs – he would simply search out a new one, copy in the emendations, and pocket the difference, meanwhile putting the new version up for sale at a newly-inflated price to take into account the trouble of sourcing and re-annotating the volume. In the process, he said, he was able to reacquaint himself with whatever book it happened to be, however briefly.
Each day he would arrive at the shop, open it up, make a cup of what he calls Hong Kong milk tea (a Lipton’s tea bag and Carnation condensed milk – very refreshing, he claims), open the safe, take out the notebook relevant to the edition he was currently working on, and begin to read, running a piece of stiff white cartridge paper under each line as he went. This was Solomon in his sensorium.
He said on my first visit to his shop that in the days of manual typesetting existed individuals who had made a hobby of reading first editions of new fiction for typographical error alone, racing to be the first to send lists of errata to the publisher. This was a dead hobby, he supposed. And while he deplored the competitive aspect, he said that he felt increasingly the loneliness of his occupation, policing by himself, as he put it, the fractal indentations in the borders of knowledge.
I suggested to him in return that he was an inheritor of the humanist instinct towards philology, accuracy of copy-text, clarity of transmission; that this was bound up, in the case of the humanists, with an instinct to strip out the excrescences of medieval Latin, to restore the purity of the classical language; that the whole stile nuovo with its exposing of the classical roots of gothic forms was, according to Gombrich, evidence of humanistic cross-fertilisation.
He nodded to humour me and we drank our tea. Upstairs, later on, looking at some of his editions, and talking about the arrangement of the space, he said, without preamble as though there had been no lapse of time between my point and his, that his work ultimately was not one of correcting or putting right or purifying, but merely pointing up – that all typographical error, in his view, was a form of parapraxis; that as parapraxis is a sort of vent to irrational desire, so in misprints and typographical error we could, if we had sufficient data, sufficient patience and sufficiently accurate sensibility, trace the subconscious desire of a civilisation. As the age of reason imposed greater strictness and orthodoxy on spelling and punctuation and typesetting, it also imposed greater straightjacketing on desire, and more precisely drawn margins between acceptable and unacceptable, compared with the looser configuration of, say, 17th practice, or oral tradition – which he secretly suspected to have a miscopying parapraxis of its own.
If cultures evolved, he said – and there were those who talked of cultural evolution, of memes and so on - then here perhaps was your mechanism. Here was your genetic mutation. People misreading, mishearing, misunderstanding. Non-random errors in the transmission code, a willed evolution, a culture wrested unconsciously but not irrationally in a direction – we all know what direction: call it the Entropic Will.
Like an inhabitant of Borges library, what he had embarked on was a Talmudic search not for the book of his own life nor for the true name of God, but the bifurcating fault lines of chaos.
Étienne-Louis Boullée, Norbiton: Ideal City's Paper-Architect-in-Residence (deceased), designed a library in 1785 for the King. As follows:
The library was a space so immense that that the countless books lining its lower walls are near-enough invisible. But is it, we wonder, merely a craven kow-tow to priapic power (the King’s Library indeed! Off with his head!)? Or is our Paper Architect-in-Residence cannier than that?
Let us imagine. The King needs a book to read, so he goes into his library. Perhaps he is wearing his dressing gown and slippers. In this homogenous, undifferentiated space, he is nothing. The enclosed space is so much the point of the building that what we shall call the ornamentation – the coffering of the Pantheon, the mammoth Ionic capitals - are the only thing the eye or the memory can latch on to. In any case it is dark, there is only an immensity of blackness out beyond the imbecile candlelight, and the immenser blackness of the books beyond that. So the King is nothing, the books are infinite but insignificant, space is all. His Highness shuffles to a shelf, takes the first book his hand will reach - a novel, perhaps - and returns to the more comforting confines of his bed-chamber, pursued by the cacophonic echo of his own slippered footstep.
And here, you feel, is the real insight, the real genius of this (never built) structure: it is an essay not on the space, but on the acoustical properties of a library. Turning over one crackling leaf of a book would be an explosion of sound. Coughing, shuffling, wheezing, muttering, the sounds of a thousand people drowsing and studying, would accumulate through the day, float up and aggregate like dense and louring airs under that coffered vault. A jobbing contemporary architect would never build such a space, for such a purpose, but if he did he would place a trickling fountain somewhere or other, a white noise generator to absorb the particular sounds.
Étienne-Louis Boullée is no jobbing architect. He understands that in this space you - reader, academician, king - are nothing; but your merest thought is an act of reverberating magnitude; this library he made was a relentless and unforgiving amplifier of the effuvia of the mind.