Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Reveries of libraries, the twenty-seventh : BOOKWHEELS AND SCROLLWHEELS

 A book as long as your arm needs somewhere to rest. Opened by hand, the book becomes a table, imprinted with all known knowledge. Oceans may come up between us, while the leaves are close as touch. And another book, seemingly more wondrous than the first, purchased by subscription from a city of snowstorms and cobble streets and candlelight. And another, yet larger, as though we could sit all day and night at our table of pages, absorbed in their longer and longer contents, with no thought of going outside again.

Agostino Ramelli (1531-ca. 1610), inventor of overinscribing fountains and hurling engines, saw the need for the management of such armloads of books, that may only be shifted one at a time, due to weight. His own book of inventions has never gone out of print and may be viewed on the patient websites of august institutions. This next generation Leonardo who, like Leonardo, made his living as a military engineer, produced invention upon invention for the benefit of someone or other. The distance between practicality and impracticality, as witnessed in his bookwheel, is hard to measure with an instrument. For who knew if the bookwheel, which in one century went into overdrive, would not in another turn into a slowly turning shiny timber ferris-wheel, with its own label: Do Not Touch.

The trays rotate like seven continents on an axis, each one subservient to gravity. The floor wheels move in parallel the length of the library, reminiscent of the wheels of constellations in Renaissance star charts. Even now, in Ramelli’s time, when the world is conclusively round, and permanently so for the time being, the continents of trays offer up their bookladen meanings in a room of increasing cross-reference. The bookwheel acts, too, as a prototype photocopy feeder, landing pad for paper darts, and a ballroom for mice.

Mexico took delivery of a brand new bookwheel. The Americas absorbed machinery at a rate. The Bishop of Puebla, Juan de Palafox y Mendoza (1600-1659), established the first public library in the Americas (some say), the Biblioteca Palafoxiana. He was a lover of books and wished to circulate the joy. “He who succeeds without books,” said Palafox y Mendoza, “is in an inconsolable darkness, on a mountain without company, on a path without a crosier, in darkness without a guide.” No bishop would be without a crosier. Nor without a bookwheel to speed up the rate of learning. The bookwheel (pictured) increased the borderless conversation that books engender and inspire. In a minute you could read what each continent, even each island in the stream, said on the matter at hand. Big wheels and little wheels took their turn as discoveries clicked into place.

You wonder what theses were constructed by scholars, as they turned the pages of one after another of seven folio volumes lying open flat on the turning trays of the wooden wonder. The conversations that must have ensued. Their hands turned thick pages of confronting fonts. Their fingers scanned the rubrics and quills inked the margins where they freely roamed. You wonder which volumes went through the wheeling motions in that time before climate change and freeways and electric light.

The bookwheel is the equivalent of keeping seven windows open on your computer at the same time, though even more manoeuvrable as each book can contain thousands of pages. These windows are kept open with the aid of a scrollwheel, which is the spine bump in the back of your mouse. The scrollwheel is no longer than your fingernail. You dance with this mouse night and day. Even the folios known to Agostino Ramelli, or his imitator the Palafoxiana bookwheeler, are searchable in digital that takes only the whorls at the tip of the index finger to display. Ramelli’s profuse inventions image with resolution on a screen the width from thumb to elbow.

But two things made the bookwheel a museum piece: broad tables and a book as long as from your wrist to your fingertips. The handbook and all its practical kind dispensed with the need for machinery. And a table broad enough for seven books did away with cumbersome contraptions, the talking point of Renaissance scholars. The bookwheel is not currently available in most trade catalogues of library furniture. It has come to rest in its special place amidst other rarities rarely returned to.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Reveries of libraries, the twenty-sixth : FIVE HUNDRED SHADES OF FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

Book forts, book counters, book tables, book pyramids, and other book furniture are being bricked into place all over the globe. These solid constructions made from hundreds of copies contradict the prophecies of academics and marketeers about the death of the book, even if some resemble a mausoleum. The tower of babel never looked so much with us as when we encounter it firsthand in the foyer of a public library, each paperback neatly lodged on top of another.

Celebrated amongst these constructions is the wall of ’50 Shades of Grey’ (a soft porn bestseller by E.L. James) devised by the staff of the second-hand seller Goldstone Books of Ammanford, Carmarthenshire in Wales. Plainly this is not a novel that readers care to keep on their shelf for the long term, as dozens of copies kept arriving at Goldstone on a regular basis. Faithfulness to the author is not in their make-up. Repetitiveness, I am told, is a weakness of this book, hence seemingly the repetitive arrival of second-hand copies, none of which are likely to be going anywhere else in a hurry. The book was picked up, perved through, then indiscriminately chucked away. Confronted by this avalanche of grey, Goldstone staff made a feature of what they could not hide.

Over five hundred years of the printed word have contributed universally to the black-and-white views of generations of readers, as well as every shade of opinion in between. The earth gives and the forests turn into books, explaining the fairy tale that is supposed to have a happy ending. Earth wakes again and birds lend their quills to the unending retelling of migration and nesting and song. The earth provides the taproot of ink to impress, as birds’ feet in wet sand, the picturesque alphabets of generations. That which was born incunabula grew into a hydra.

Unquestionably the outcome of immersing this heady and colossal, indeed unquantifiable, heritage of print in water would result in fifty shades of grey pulp. This soggy misfortune would never be rectified by a pre-planned digitisation program, which would be like watching fine sand drizzle through an hourglass forever. When Prospero determines to drown his books does he rid himself of Hamlet’s pretty text? Even then, words would bubble to the surface somewhere, oxygen for the listener keen for a sign, or just a bit of haiku in a grey world.

Libraries know that, along with insects, mould, and fire, water is one of the enemies of books. Their practice is not to celebrate profligacy or prolific excess. Even the very largest of libraries came that way through precise selection, the preference for one book and not the other, the compilation of the best that is thought and said (they think), requiring further storeys or extensions across the whole precinct, across the river and into the trees. How many poems are made in praise of the airiness of libraries? They whisper the whispers in the stacks, the convoluted conundrums of the carrels, the revolutionary repartee at the front desk, with its five hundred shades of novel. They catch fire, and in unexpected displays.

Fire of my loins, fire of my being, fire of nights and days, pants ’50 Shades of Grey’, hot pants being the disposable poetry readers want more of. The shades of ash resulting in this two day incendiary romance lack the colour we hoped for in the reading relationship. Disillusion leads to acceptance that this relationship was destined for the church book fair, thence to wash up as a brick in a Welsh bookfort. Or worse, the flames of the home fire, deep in the snowy depths of winter, where the printed pages are kindling for an evening of unsurpassed pleasurable warmth. Some people call this wisdom.

The night is a black beauty and day a white wonder, yet nothing is quite so black-and-white. Staff at Carmarthenshire return to work, their counter starting to curl at the corners, sagging here and there from neglect. The stock that moves has more bite, more oomph, more colour, and something else to say. It has broken out of prism. The something else, it seems to be saying, is get out into you element, figure out how it works, learn from others, turn your alphabet to effect. Don’t add to the waste of affairs that end up on the shelf, or end up a shelf.

Monday, 14 January 2019

Reveries of libraries, the twenty-fifth : THE LIBRARY AT THE END OF THE WORLD

The End of the World Museum in Ushuaia, Argentina 

Alberto Manguel’s faux eulogy to his life of book-collecting, ‘Packing My Library’  makes reference on page 127 to “the collection of travellers’ accounts held in the Library of the End of the World in Tierra del Fuego.” We think of Ferdinand Magellan and Sir Francis Drake, we think of web surfers and global changes.  This library sounds like a library that is too good to be true, and online searches tend to confirm this first suspicion. Perhaps he means the End of the World Museum in Ushuaia at the southernmost end of Argentina. What is Alberto, an Argentine-Canadian, talking about? Answers start in the now and then go other places.

Perhaps the library at the end of the world is not in Patagonia, but closer to home. ‘The Library at the End of the World’ is the title of a book of natural history works in the Royal Society of Tasmania, including early Tasmanian flower illustrations. Leaves and petals, painted and stored away, reassure the colonial colourists this is not the end of the world. They dip the brush in watercolour to apply some future to their newfoundland. The lending library is not far away, the mechanics’ institute, and there are book parcels on the water from Charing Cross Road. They can start up their own library as if it were the first day of creation, a short walk down the passageway of their climate-controlled Hobart villa.

The sense of closure pervades the book, that finite object of infinite possibilities. The idea of an ending stops being an idea when we reach the last page. Finality has all the emotions we can imagine: surprise, despair, relief, envy, expectation. The ending provokes responses that imagine possibilities beyond the book, beyond its ending, and even beyond the idea of an ending. There must be something more than this, and when we find it we will place it in a book and there make an end of it. The index is but an exercise in retrospective appraisal; it too will come to an end. That is the way it was, the book seems to say. Or the way it is, says the library. Or the way it will be, as more are borrowed out, whatever the papers say. The author applied layers of finish to the text before sending it out into an unwitting world.

Though what it would look like, a library at the end of the world, is more a metaphysical provocation than it is a geographic conjecture. While our cosmologies keep changing, even as they describe the same thing as the ancients saw, our questions and their imports add new books to supersede the sturdy metaphysics currently on display. The library is an ever-expanding rare book collection, when even the book itself is a threatened species. Increasingly rare first editions are stand-offish. Rare titles, many reduced to a single copy, turn their backs on the unforgiving ocean and the sun’s severity. It all stacks up, as certain as the entries of a philosophe, as uncertain as you and I as we innocently read the works we have borrowed, our intention to know even more than ever. The reminder that all of this is only ever on loan rarely enters our heads, watchful as we are to avoid coming to our wit’s end.

And even though the library at the end of the world is a website of science fiction apocalypticism, we merely stop by this website through accident, there to pass some leisurely minutes. As we would at a roadside café, just passing through to more sensible places, to sites that avoid indulgent dystopias; that operate deliberately to feed us whole food. Yet we notice at this roadside café how each one of us contrives our own worst and best case scenario for the end of the world. How, given enough time and lined paper, we could contribute our own colourful addition to the library at the end of the world. Our tendency to think the worst, to play with the worst for hours as though it were an amusement, vies with our priority for survival, our trust that normal transmission will shortly resume.

The Book of Revelation intimates that such libraries are the future, whether in a monastic scriptorium or the bookmart of all Gotham bookmarts. There are not the libraries in the world to contain everything that could be written about the end of the world. Patagonians and Tasmanians will have to wait their turn to absorb the meaning of the end times, just like everyone else. The last book of the New Testament is kept open at the page that infers judgment to be a closed book. Carpenters and metalworkers have kept a roaring trade constructing more shelves for this kind of establishment. Translators burn the midnight oil inscribing the words of the Book of Revelation in multiple tongues. The book is here to stay, it seems to be saying, until a better metaphor comes along, or the end of the world, or both. Libraries tend to serve as positive proof of this saying.

However (or therefore, if you like), the library at the end of the world is one we just entered, or exited last week, and will return to again sometime soon. Our craving for more closure seems to know no end. Like our craving for possibilities, for the world to be one where tomorrow is sanctioned. There ought to be legislation to secure tomorrow in perpetuity. There should be international conferences to finalise tomorrow as a given. Recommended venues for such a conference include Ushuaia, Argentina and Hobart, Australia.


Alberto Manguel. ‘Packing My Library : an Elegy and Ten Digressions’’ (Yale University Press, 2018)

Anita Hansen and Margaret Davies (editors). ‘The Library at the End of the World : natural science and its illustrators’ (The Royal Society of Tasmania, 2014)