Tom Carson's Reviews > Library: An Unquiet History

Library by Matthew Battles
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's review
Dec 26, 2011

it was ok
Read from January 02 to 06, 2012

In Library: An Unquiet History, Matthew Battles attempts to do something that, to a great many people, may seem nearly impossible: He attempts to make the history of libraries interesting, and surprisingly, he mostly succeeds. Writing with great free-flowing flare, he turns this book into a journalistic endeavor that borders on narrative and takes the reader on a journey from the times of ancient Mesopotamia to the twenty-first century, doing so in a concise and relatively brief manner, which does well to maintain the readers interest in a subject that some would most likely find to be drudgery.

Ironically, however, this quality that makes the book so readable, can also be viewed as one of the book’s greater flaws, and to be honest, this reviewer has not quite decided how he feels about it. The phrase “borders on narrative” was chosen intentionally, as the use of this devise is sometimes inconsistent. The discussion of history, though generally chronological (but not always), jumps around a bit in terms of geography, shifting from ancient Egypt to China to Renaissance Italy to the rise of Islam to France to England to the U.S., sometimes in the same chapter. It is understandable that this can be necessary for the author to thoroughly discuss certain themes, but the manner in which it is done sacrifices the reader’s ability to get thoroughly engrossed in a subject. All in all, it gives the book a feeling of a lack of focus. The greatest level of focus is exemplified in, among others, the discussion of Jonathan Swift's satire "The Battle of the Books", which supports the author’s point but perhaps lends itself too much to recapitulation and heavy quotation.

Despite this, Library is a fast read and does well to give the reader a glimpse into a world that he or she may not normally have explored. In the first chapter of the book, Battles states, "What I'm looking for are points of transformation, those moments where readers, authors, and librarians question the meaning of the library itself,” and he explores this avenue well, making this work more of a theoretical piece than an historical one, but perhaps that is its greatest asset. That said, it may have benefited from better presentation, perhaps as a series of more focused essays rather than an attempted cohesive narrative.

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01/02/2012 page 23
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