Jun 20 2008

Theodore’s study

A library should reflect the personality of its owner. Theodore’s study–one of the few bookish scenes in the whole of Gerald Durrell’s ouevre, reflects the eccentricities of its owner perfectly.

During the last days of the dying summer, and throughout the warm, wet winter that followed, tea with Theodore became a weekly affair. Every Thursday I would set out, my pockets bulging with match-boxes and test-tubes full of specimens, to be driven into the town by Spiro. It was an appointment that I would not have missed for anything.

Theodore would welcome me in his study, a room that met with my full approval. It was, in my opinion, just what a room should be. The walls were lined with tall bookshelves filled with volumes on freshwater biology, botany, astronomy, medicine, folklore and similar fascinating and sensible subjects. Interspersed with these were selections of ghost and crime stories. Thus Sherlock Holmes rubbed shoulders with Darwin, and Le Fanu with Fabre, in what I considered to be a thoroughly well-balanced library.  At one window of the room stood Theodore’s telescope, its nose to the sky like a howling dog, while the sills of every window bore a parade of jars and bottles containing minute freshwater fauna, whirling and twitching among the delicate fronds of green weed. On one side of the room was a massive desk, piled high with scrapbooks, micro-photographs, X-ray plates, diaries, and notebooks. On the opposite side of the room was the microscope table, with its powerful lamp on the jointed stem leaning like a lily over the flat boxes that housed Theodore’s collection of slides. The microscopes themselves, gleaming like magpies, were housed under a series of beehive-like domes of glass.

–Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals

Jun 18 2008

the magician’s study

This was my favorite of the Narnia series, and the Dufflepuds possibly my favorite creatures in the book:

It was a large room with three big windows and it was lined from floor to ceiling with books; more books than Lucy had ever seen before, tiny little books, fat dumpy books, and books bigger than any church Bible you have seen, all bound in leather and smelling old and learned and magical. But she knew from her instructions that she need not bother about any of these. For the Book, the Magic Book, was laying on a reading desk in the very middle of the room. She saw she would have to read it standing (and anyway there were no chairs) and also that she would have to stand with her back to the door while she read it. So at once she turned to shut the door.

It wouldn’t shut.

-C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Jun 17 2008

tricks in the library

Harriet Vane thinks of libraries as places of refuge. But her refuge at her alma mater is under attack:

The New Library was a handsome, lofty room, with six bays on the South side, lit by as many windows running nearly from the floor to the ceiling. On the North side, the wall was windowless, and shelved to a height of ten feet. Above this was a space of blank wall, along which it would be possible, at some future time, to run an extra gallery when the books should become too many for the existent shelving. This blank space had been adorned by Miss Burrows and her party with a series of engravings, such as every academic community possesses, representing the Parthenon, the Colosseum, Trajan’s Column and other topographical and classical subjects.

All the books in the room had been dragged out and flung on the floor, by the simple experient of removing the shelves bodily. The pictures had been thrown down. And the blank wall-space thus exposed had been adorned with a frieze of drawings, roughly executed in brown paint, and with inscriptions in letters a foot high all of the most unseemly sort. A pair of library steps and a pot of paint with a wide brush in it stood triumphantly in the midst of the wreckage, to show how the transformation had been accomplished.

“That’s torn it,” said Harriet.

– Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night

Jun 16 2008

the labyrinth

Every library should have a secret room that guards a long-lost text. I hate what the movie did to Umberto Eco’s creation, because its labyrinthine nature was much more beautifully demonstrated by the Latin quotes that graced every arched doorway. To navigate by means of endless amounts of string may have been easier to show, but was rather anticlimactic:

The room, as I said, had seven walls, but only four of them had an opening, a passage flanked by two little columns set in the wall; the opening was fairly wide, surmounted by a round-headed arch. Against the blind walls stood huge cases, laden with books neatly arranged. Each case bore a scroll with a number, and so did each individual shelf; obviously the same numbers we had seen in the catalogue. In the midst of the room was a table, also covered with books. On all the volumes lay a fairly light coat of dust, sign that the books were cleaned with some frequency. Nor was their dirt of any kind on the floor. Above one of the archways, a big scroll, painted on the wall, bore the words “Apocalypsis Iesu Christi.” It did not seem faded, even thought the lettering was ancient. We noticed afterward, also in the other rooms, that these scrolls were actually carved in the stone, cut fairly deeply, and the depressions had subsequently been filled with color, as painters do in frescoing churches.

-Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

Jun 15 2008

the library of quinta da soledade

A book about a lost manuscript and fanatical book dealers is bound to have plenty of library scenes. The best is in the nearly emptied, dilapidated house of Victor Fargas – Quinta da Soledade (The House of Solitude):

Corso nodded vaguely, but Fargas didn’t notice. at one end of the vast room was an enormous fireplace with logs piles up in it. There were a pair of unmatched armchairs, a table and sideboard, an oil lamp, two big candlesticks, a violin in its case, and little else. But on the floor, lined up nearly on old, faded, threadbare rugs, as far away as possible from the windows and the leaden light coming through them, lay a great many books; five hundred or more, Corso estimated, maybe even a thousand. Many codices and incunabula among them. Wonderful old books bound in leather or parchment. Ancient tomes with studs in the covers, folios, Elzevirs, their bindings decorated with goffering, bosses, rosettes, locks, their spines and front edges covers with gilding and calligraphy done by medieval monks in the scriptoria of their monasteries. He also noticed a dozen or so rusty mousetraps in various corners.

-Arturo Perez-Reverte, The Club Dumas

I’ve worked with books most of my life, but not as a collector. I had to look up a couple of terms in the description above. “Elsevirs” are books published by a famous family of Dutch booksellers. “Goffering” is a decoration of ridges or pleats produced by a hot iron.

Jun 14 2008

the restricted section

I actually think JK Rowling was rather brilliant in NOT making books very central to her series. (The book signing scene in Flourish & Blott’s in Chamber of Secrets is hilariously spot-on!). But the library in Hogwarts is a thing of beauty:

The Restricted Section was right at the back of the library. Stepping carefully over the rope that separated these books from the rest of the library, he held up his lamp to read the titles.

They didn’t tell him much. Their peeling, faded gold letters spelled words in languages Harry couldn’t understand. Some had no title at all. One book had a dark stain on it that looked horribly like blood. The hairs on the back of Harry’s neck prickled. Maybe he was imaging it, maybe not, but he thought a faint whispering was coming from the books, as though they knew someone was there who shouldn’t be.

He had to start somewhere. Setting the lamp down carefully on the floor, he looked along the bottom shelf for an interesting-looking book. A large black and silver volume caught his eye. He pulled it out with difficulty, because it was very heavy, and, balancing it on his knee, let it fall open.

A piercing, bloodcurdling shriek split the silence – the book was screaming!

-J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Jun 11 2008

dracula’s library

There are several great library scenes in this book, but the best has to be the one in the crypt. If Hell has a library, it would be like this:

By the sparse light of our candles I began to see things I had not been able to see before – wonderful things. I could now make out long tables before me, tables of ancient solidity. And on these lay piles and piles of books – crumbling leather-bound volumes and gilt covers that picked up the glimmer of my candle flame. There were other objects, too – never had I seen such an inkstand, or such strange quills and pens. There was a stack of parchment, glimmering in the candlelight, and an old typewriter supplied with thin paper. I saw the gleam of jewelled bindings and boxes, the curl of manuscripts in brass trays. There were great folios and quartos bound in smooth leather, and rows of more modern volumes on long shelves. In fact, we were surrounded; every wall seemed to be lined with books. Holding up my candle, I began to make out titles here and there, sometime an elegant bloom of Arabic in the center of a red-leather binding, sometimes a Western language I could read. Most of the volumes were too old to have titles, however. It was a storehouse beyond compare, and I began to itch in spite of myself to open some of those books, to touch the manuscripts in their wooden trays.

Dracula turned, holding his candle aloft, and the light picked out the glow of jewels on his cap – topaz, emerald, pearl. His eyes were very bright. “What do you think of my library?”

“It looks like a – a remarkable collection. A treasure-house,” I said.

–Elizabeth Kostova, The Historian

Jun 10 2008

Stevenson Under the Palm Trees

It feels not so oddly appropriate to be reading Stevenson Under the Palm Trees by Alberto Manguel (Canongate, 2002) at the moment—it has been a hundred degrees in the shade for several days; so hot even the mosquitoes can’t be bothered to fly. The book is only a hundred pages long but it has seeped into my thoughts like the heat. This happens to me a lot when I read—my imagination will get caught by a scene or a phrase and I am there with the story for the rest of the book. Even if the story goes completely downhill from that moment, I won’t abandon the novel—I read on, waiting for the promise implied by that first feeling of excitement to be fulfilled. Here is the moment that caught me in this story:

“He remembered his first year in Samoa and the yard covered in fallen papayas – the bright yellow skin turning dark, the fruit opening its many folds and exposing its sensuous, fleshy inside, smelling of saliva – and how he and Fanny had turned away without saying a word, as if they had unwittingly come upon a private and lewd spectacle.”

I don’t think it was the background smell of the over-ripe bananas on my kitchen counter that made me stop at this passage and think “I’m going to like this book,” but I read it, and I knew I was there—there for the rest of the story, wherever it went.

This is a literary mystery—meaning there is a murder, but the resolution of the crime is secondary to the effect the act of violence has on the surrounding society and the characters in the novel—specifically, Stevenson, who is Robert Louis Stevenson, the author.

R.L. Stevenson is someone for whom I’ve always had a secret, guilty fondness; secret and guilty in the face of the scorn a very hoipolloi ex-boyfriend used to heap scorn upon me for my pedestrian tastes. (He was a fan of William Faulkner and William Burroughs and other such Williams).

Why did I fall into the novel so quickly, so completely? Partly because of the heat, no doubt. My brain felt as sluggish as the writer’s in the book, as susceptible to fantasms as Stevenson seems to be. (There is more than a hint of Jekyll and Hyde in the plot) But really, I think it’s because Alberto Manguel’s re-imagination of the author and his last days on a faraway, hot lush island is so vivid, it took me right back to the first time I ever read an R.L. Stevenson story—Treasure Island. This contemporary little novella managed to evoke an important readerly moment– I mark Treasure Island as the first book that ever scared me. It was Long John Silver that first taught me the villains of stories are usually more interesting that the heroes. Even now the refrain is echoing in my head with each description riotous color and fetid, intemperate scene in the book; a parrot’s voice screeching in the back of my mind “Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!”

Jun 10 2008

the library at Hurtfew

Gilbert Norrell’s library at Hurtfew Abbey is the library I always wanted to have–with loved carved wooden book cases, and large fireplaces crackling in the winter evenings, and strange, dark-eyed mysterious servants to conspire with.

“Mr. Honeyfoot and Mr. Segundus, being magicians themselves, had not neded to be told that the library of Hurtfew Abbey was dearer to its possessor than all his other riches; and they were not surprized to discover that Mr. Norrell had constructed a beautiful jewel box to house his heart’s treasure. The bookcases which lined the wall of the room were built of English woods and resembled Gothic arches laden with carvings. There were carvings of leaves (dried and twisted leaves, as if the season the artist had intended to represent were autumn), carvings of intertwining roots and branches, carvings of berries and ivy – all wonderfully done. But the wonder of the bookcases was nothing to the wonder of the books.”

–Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jun 9 2008

the cemetery of forgotten books

The Argentinian writer/philosopher Jorge Luis Borges once wrote an odd piece imaging all the knowledge of the world contained in a vast edifice he called The Library of Babel. Many, many people have attempted to describe or draw this construct, but I think Zafon’s Cemetery of Forgotten Books comes the closest in spirit.

The man called Isaac nodded and invited us in. A blue-tinged gloom obscured the sinouscontours of a marble staircase and a gallery of frescoes peopled with angels and fabulous creatures. We followed our host through a palatial corridor and arrived at a sprawling round hall, a virtual basilica of shadows spiralling up uder a high glass dome, its dimness pierced by shafts of light that stabbed from above. A labyrinth of passageways and crammed bookshelved rose from base to pinnacle like a beehive woven with tunnels, steps, plaftorms, and bridges that presaged an immense library of simmingly impossible geometry. I looked at my father, stunned. He smiled at me and winked.

“Welcome to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, Daniel”

–Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind