Weekends in my childhood meant visiting three places. First, after the slow death of Friday and with it the passing of another school week, I went to my dad’s house. Second, on Saturdays – after a luxurious extra hour in bed and no one screaming about lost uniforms or being late or forgotten homework – my dad took us to the local library. And third, on Sundays, we went to church.
Those two mornings were not dissimilar: books (multiple on Saturdays, singular on Sunday); gatherings of people; discovering things and overhearing conversations that were nothing about the ordinary boredoms of the week (Horrible Histories was more exciting than history class, and clapping and dancing, rock music Christianity more interesting than RE lessons); myths (Greek and Roman on Saturdays, Judeo-Christian on Sundays); and a sense that although there were books of cartoons and posters of superheroes on the walls, something deeply important and mysterious happened here, and I might understand it when I was older.
As I grew older, the similarities deepened: hushed respect (except from young children, tolerated in their expenditures of energy for so long, before taken to another room to learn and leave the adults their calm); remembrance of what it is to slow down, how it feels to forget the mundane, and how refreshing it is to focus on those things that feel more important than our weekly preoccupations and yet seem harder to justify spending more time on; communing with those who share our passions and sometimes introduce us to new ways of seeing; and buildings that in no way indicate transcendence of the ordinary or the depth of experience and breadth of history contained inside (the library being a red brick Lego assembly of a cube, the church a spare room in the local leisure centre). It is not surprising that in my mind the place of books and the place of The Book became entwined.
Libraries are often held up as modern cathedrals, places of secular worship. While they certainly are more than utilitarian warehouses of data, the comparison with churches gives too much credit away. The need for a common place of shared values and communion precedes religious institutions: Libraries vastly predate cathedrals, and secured their place in civilisation long before Christian churches, by several thousand years. Still, there is something to the notion of the library as a temple that is worth making use of.
The language of the sacred and the numinous* lends itself aptly to placing the library at the heart of culture. Cicero reportedly said that a room without books is like a body with a soul; the same can be said of a society with no place for literature. This is increasingly difficult for many people to understand, as their everyday lives leave less room for books, and the library becomes that old, musty place once visited in childhood. But it need not stay this way, and there are ways to reimagine libraries – public and personal – as a space for something sustaining.
“I had found my religion: nothing seemed more important to me than a book. I saw the library as a temple.”
~ Jean-Paul Sartre
In the city where I am currently living and writing, the local cathedral houses what is called the Chained Library, named for the fact that its medieval manuscripts are literally chained to the shelves, a theft-prevention device common in European libraries up until the 18th century. The name also speaks, more figuratively, to the control of information practised in this library’s heyday, when the contents of those hallowed pages were available only to the select.
Leave the cathedral, turn left, and walk no more than a hundred feet across the street, and you find the public library. This short stroll of less than a minute takes the curious reader across the chasm of centuries in time and cultural privilege. Just as the Protestant Reformation championed the idea that the Bible should be available to all, improved literacy and wider concern for the dispossessed has opened not just the “Book of Books” but all books to a vast audience. Libraries are centres of this egalitarianism where every book is free to any person – a place that welcomes everyone, young or old, literate or analphabetic, seeking books, company, wi-fi, shelter from heat or rain ...
The history of libraries binds within it a history of culture. To follow the trials and triumphs of our houses of literature is to chart the values held by societies through time and place. The first collections of our earliest writings mark something profound about us as a species, and it is also clear that the closures of libraries throughout the UK today is about more than the loss of particular buildings. Alberto Manguel once wrote:
“Symbolically, the ancient world ends with the destruction of the Library of Alexandria; symbolically, the twentieth century ends with the rebuilding of the library of Sarajevo.”
This is not to say that the destruction of art and literature is long behind us and we are now irreversibly more civilised – after all, the library in Sarajevo only needed rebuilding after it was shelled during the siege of 1992. And what greater destruction can be imagined than the Holocaust and gulags of the last century? Manguel’s symbolic view of history is all about where we place our emphasis and what we set our sights on. Those of us who love literature symbolically unite with those who rebuilt the National Library in Sarajevo in our stand against those who would desecrate our public libraries today. After all, bombs are not the only way to destroy them when you have budget cuts.
The shift from private to public is just one way in which the concept of a library – and the purposes of reading itself – has changed. The stereotype of the shushing librarian, rooms full of readers silently following the lines of text with their mouths shut, would be unrecognisable to earlier readers. The ancient Greeks and Romans, lacking punctuation to end sentences or allow for pauses, read texts out loud. This continued into the early Medieval Period. In his Confessions, Augustine tells us of his shock at seeing St. Ambrose reading silently:
“... his eyes scanned the page and his heart explored the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still.”
For a believer like Augustine, reading out loud not only aided comprehension but channelled the very source of the Scriptures, the word of God, which spoke the world into existence. But this power has not been lost. Just as the word brought our shared cosmos into being, our silent incantations of a text within our own heads bring private worlds to life. Such solipsism is a necessary counterpoint to reading becoming a public affair – a room of people each reading out loud from different books would soon end the project – but it can be a lonely endeavour in a room of one. It’s glibly said that you are never alone when you have a book, but the truth of this can only extend so far; book groups, online reading forums, and libraries all attest to the necessity of sharing our literary experiences.
Reading together (even in silence) invites a social connection that is often overlooked. My partner and I regularly have “reading days” on which we make pots of tea, curl up together, and read for hours as if we are each totally alone – and these days always leave me feeling closer to her. There are obvious ways in which we feel each other’s presence: the snort of derision or snigger at a funny phrase; the line she reads to me when I place my book face down on the arm of the chair and get up to stretch, use the bathroom, or pour some more tea; chapters finished, we both look up, deep breath, swap a comment on how it’s going.
Then there is the silent, deeper bonding that forms out of the fact that our interests align and that I am truly being myself while in the company of someone else. Finding a person or persons with whom you can be silent is an underrated joy. Libraries are full of such people.
“Your library is your paradise.”
What about our collections of books at home, however small, which in spite of size or scope is a library? Our personal libraries reflect the same principles in microcosm of placing art, empathy, and learning at the centre of our lives. Or, at least, they can.
You can find an endless supply of lists online detailing exactly the best way to house, display, and cultivate your own books. I am uninterested in that and won’t do it here. I have my preferences (I like books to surround me, so they line the walls of the room in my home; I try to keep an author’s books together; I organise books by those I have read and those I haven’t, as reading and re-reading are very different acts) but the preferences of others (books in pride of place, TV tucked in a corner; alphabetical organisation; grouped by subject or language or size) also make sense to me. The point is that those with the most valued and valuable libraries are those who focus on keeping books high on their list of priorities. The manner in which they achieve this is secondary, the route to the destination.
Just as the faithful meet regularly in their shared holy places, I continually come to my books for a carved out period of time in which I can benefit from everything literature offers. The space for this, like the way in which books are kept, is important only as far as it creates the right space for getting what I need out of the book. My experience of reading Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse for the first time would have been qualitatively different without the sun-baked balcony and cigarette, and one of my simple pleasures in life is reading Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in an armchair beside a window during a storm. Apart from those books that benefit from special conditions, most of my reading happens laid out on the sofa with a cup of tea to hand. I have heard others insist “serious reading” must be done sat upright beneath a lamp, with no music or other distractions. Whatever works for you.
There are two schools of thought about what libraries house, although they are not mutually exclusive. There are those for whom the physical book is intrinsically tied to its value, that what is important about literature is inextricable from the body that manifests it. I land further towards the other camp, seeing books essentially as containers for the important essence within. I am a sort of literary dualist in this sense. The book serves a purpose and should never impede that vital use, so if a note must be made, I make it in the empty front or back page without worry. If a cover becomes worn by keeping the story inside protected within a backpack or pocket, so be it – in fact, aesthetically speaking I prefer slightly battered books to the often characterless quality of a pristine new novel.
Both ways of thinking value the abstract literary content of books, but one extends this respect from the soul to the body. As long as we’re not talking about rare or culturally significant books (first editions, those with notes from the author, others with historical importance around their physicality) I don’t think it matters what view you take regarding the books in your own library. You can set up your collection according to your own needs, organising books by whatever associations your mind makes between novels, novellas, short story collections, dictionaries, encyclopaedias, and all other kinds of literature. By definition, this is not a public library; it doesn’t matter if you are the only one who can follow a path through it.
The principles fought over in this disagreement about the value of the book as a physical object extend to the value of the library as a physical space. Certainly, there are reasons as I have suggested for protecting the buildings in which we congregate to read, communicate, reflect, and grow, and our most beautiful and historically significant libraries – the literary cathedrals – are comparable to rare first editions that hold separate and great value beyond their contents. But there is also a level at which it is what libraries signify that takes priority, and it is the concept more than the manifestation that matters.
“The existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man.”
~ T S Eliot
Like the ongoing battle over the state of our public libraries, everything I’ve outlined here is about much more than budget cuts and buildings. It’s about ourselves, because when we talk about libraries, we talk about who we are and who we want to be, as individuals and as a culture.
The twentieth century has hosted a war against shared narratives, against a sense of place and time, against a cohesive culture that joins us in our differences. To the extent that any group identities or values are offered, they are most often supplied by dogmatists and reactionaries. While intellectuals wring their hands and feel guilty for ever suggesting we had some answers to any of life’s questions, white nationalists are in no doubt as to what (and who) America is, Brexiteers push on with conviction towards an isolated nation, and fundamentalists pry at the weaknesses in modern life with the crowbar of absolute faith. Meanwhile, the centre, attacked on all sides, cannot hold and mere anarchy threatens to be unleashed.
It is the library – symbolically and physically – that can be where we come together to face the challenges of life. Libraries are where all sacred scriptures sit together, in defiance of a zealous insistence on the need for only one holy book. Libraries are where our histories can be read and re-learned, the lessons of the past chastising today’s stupidity about nationalism and dogmatism. Libraries are where everyone has a voice and the right to hear other voices, where demagogues have no special platform. In these temples, there is no hierarchy, no pulpit, and no excommunication. In libraries, there are spaces to cultivate what matters most, and that’s not a bad way to be spiritual.
* I use the term numinous as in Rudolf Otto’s description of it, a wondrous feeling “whose primary and immediate object is outside the self” and leaves the individual “utterly abashed”. I also like the Collins English Dictionary definition of it as something “arousing spiritual or religious emotion; mysterious or awe-inspiring”.
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• Cicero, quoted in ‘On the Pleasure of Reading’ by Sir John Lubbock in The Contemporary Review (1886)
• Jean-Paul Sartre, The Words (1963)
• Alberto Manguel, ‘St. Augustine’s Computer’ in Into the Looking Glass Wood (1999)
• St. Augustine, Confessions (397–400 CE)
• Erasmus, unsourced
• T S Eliot, unsourced
• Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy (1923)