Friday, February 19, 2010

The Great Libraries by Konstantinos Staikos

the great libraries cover

The Great Libraries: from Antiquity to the Renaissance 3000 B.C. to A.D. 1600*

I think I should get a degree in library science just for reading this book.

This massive book is filled with the story not just of libraries, but of books and reading and learning.  I don't know why I was surprised by this, since it makes sense; but learning, books, and cities have had a parallel relationship since the first civilizations in Ancient Sumeria.  There is amazingly detailed information even about the first libraries, thanks to writings from scholars--whose admonisments to students make it clear the trials and tribulations of going to school haven't changed at all in the last 6000 or so years.  Here is an example cited in the book:

This chronicle is moralistic in tone and was evidently very popular, to judge by the fact that over twenty copies of it have survived.  It opens with a question: "Where did you go as a small child, young one?"  And the pupil answers, "I went to school."  Then follows a description of the start of the day, with the pupil snatching a hurried breakfast so as to get to school on time and escape a caning from his teacher or another member of the staff.  However, having avoided the first pitfall of unpunctuality, the unfortunate child incurs one punishment after another, for standing up in class without permission, being caught talking in class or running through the Great Gate in an unseemly manner.  Then, as if all this were not enough, his teacher takes him to task for carelessness in copying out his exercise and he receives another beating.

Even though modern-day punishments might be less harsh, the rules seem almost exactly the same!

You might be intimidated by the sheer size of Great Libraries, but the writing is actually the perfect mix of accessible and scholarly.  The translators did a great job of keeping Staikos' personality in the prose, and that's what really makes the book readable.  Plus, there are tons and tons of pictures.  Not just of libraries, but of their most famous and valuable books.  There are gorgeous shots of places like the Biblioteca Laurenziana, which has a staircase famously designed by Michelangelo; Duke Humfrey's Library in the Bodleian, which served as the model for Hogwart's library in the Harry Potter movies; the Vatican libraries, Bibliotheque Nationale de France--just about every great library you can think of.  It's enough to make my bibliophilic heart go all a-flutter.

How much do I love this book?  I want to write a fangirlish letter to Konstantinos Staikos that goes something like this:

Dear Konstantinos, ZOMG your book about libraries is the greatest thing that has ever happened to my life!!!11!!  Your brain must be huge.  Can I hug you?  Love, me.

But he probably doesn't speak English so he wouldn't understand it.

I love libraries and books, but I never thought the story of libraries could be so interesting and full of so much art, science, philosophy, politics, and drama.  I appreciate my small local library even more now that I know about the great libraries it was modeled after.  If you're at all interested in books, you really need to check out Great Libraries--and I know the price is really steep ($125 is the lowest I could find), but I think for this book it's actually worth it.

*This is an Amazon Associates link.  I will earn a small commission if you purchase this title after clicking on the link, which I will promptly spend on hookers and cheap booze.  So click away!
I got this book, appropriately enough, at the library.  I am considering not returning it.  But that would probably make me feel guilty.

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