Monday, October 22, 2012

The World Within Reach- The Library by Jacques Bonnet

Phantoms of the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet, translated from the French by Sidn Reynolds, introduction by James Salter; The Overlook Press, New York, N.Y. 2008-2012.

The library protects us from external enemies, filters the noise of the world, tempers the cold wind around us – but also gives us the feeling of being all-powerful. For the library makes our puny human capacities fade into insignificance: it concentrates time and space. It contains on its shelves all the strata of the past. The centuries that have gone before us are there. ( “Writing is great, very great, in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and space” – Abraham Lincoln.)

The past haunts libraries, not only in documents bearing witness to past ages, but through scholarly works, literary reconstructions and images of all kinds. But my library is also a concentration of space. Every region on earth is represented there somewhere, the continents with all their landscapes, their climates and their ways of life. Even imaginary countries like Swift’s Lilliput, Musil’s Cacania, Buzatti’s Desert of the Tartars, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Or places little known to humans but explored by authors – Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, Dante’s Inferno, or Cyrano de Bergerac’s Voyages to the Moon and the Sun. I can be transported there in an instant, change my mind immediately, or even find myself in two places at once.

All this has something divine about it – which is perhaps why when we talk about libraries, we so easily think in religious terms. Borges parodied Nicholas of Cusa: “The library is a sphere, of which the true center is a some kind of hexagon, and the surface of which is inaccessible.” Umberto Eco uttered this strange pronouncement: “If God existed, he would be a library”. And surely that must refer to the way it enables us to overcome time and space.

And here – since my intention is not to write about the authors who matter most deeply to me – I will not be talking about what it means to be living in daily contact with them. (“With few books, but learned ones/ I live in conversation with the dead/ And I listen to the deceased with my eyes” – Francisco de Quevedo.) For beyond books themselves, there is everything they have to tell us about the human condition. Pointing out that the past allows us to put our own present into salutary perspective is something of a truism, yet surprisingly many people seem not to know it. To cite just one example, which touches me nearly, if you delve into history, you see how individuals come into and out of focus as fashions change:

J.S. Bach was forgotten for a century until he was rediscovered thanks to Mendelssohn; Shakespeare was unknown in France until Voltaire and above all the romantics; Georges de la Tour had vanished from memory for two hundred years – and the same was true of Vermeer! Jean Cocteau relates in his Journal that when Jean-Pierre Melvile’s film Les Enfants terribles came out in 1950, the soundtrack contained a keyboard piece by Vivaldi, but he could not find a single recording of The Four Seasons in any Paris record shop.

To take some recent examples, it is easy nowadays to express a liking for Impressionism, Cubism or abstract painting, since our age has assimilated what was once new and shocking. But who is to say whether in 1880 I would have preferred Manet and Renoir to Bouguereau and Cabanel? More seriously, would I have been a pro-Dreyfusard when it really mattered, or opposed to the Munich agreement in time to make a difference? People more intelligent than I came down on the wrong side. Lucien Febvre writes somewhere that anachronism is the mortal sin of historians, but it is also a common failing among ordinary people, and one has to be aware of it and try to fight it.

But to return to the library. Once it has been established, it tends to become an unavoidable transit zone for reality, a sort of vortex that sucks in everything that happens to us. That catalogue you want to find a place for on the shelf becomes an integral part of a visit to the exhibition or museum, as does the documentation about a town and its monuments discovered in the depths of Portugal, Italy or France. What bliss it is, after a day in a city you have always meant to visit, as you sit in your hotel room at the end of the afternoon, looking through the books, postcards and brochures destined to find their way top your bookshelves, all giving you the comforting feeling that you are taking home some tangible elements of what has already become the past! It gives you the impression of safe guarding some fragments of lost time, whereas everything else, the emotions and sensations of the journey, will be fleeting memories. . .

The library is governed by a wider economy, to do with one’s relation to the outside world. To play its part properly, the library must be left behind from time to time, so that one can miss it and then gradually rediscover it. From a distance, it becomes idealized, and helps one to bear the discomfort of traveling. It is waiting for s at home and is already being enriched with the things we are bringing back with us. . .

Would I ever have put together the same library if I had been born into the internet generation? Almost certainly not. If we are to believe the statistical surveys of the time spent on average in front of a computer or television screen, when does anyone have time to read? The internet and the many television channels have driven out the boredom which was always the prime motive for reading, but should we regret it? What is more, we now have the convenience of being able to order books online (new or second-hand); and the availability of the basic texts, along with the digitizing of others, has made it far easier to locate a particular passage.

These novelties have unavoidably transformed the status of the library: it is only one among many ways of acquiring knowledge. And they have changed the status of the book, which is just one method among others, and not the most accessible, of finding “entertainment.” But the art book, for example, will not be much affected by the phenomena. Even if there are more and more images on the internet, they aren’t always the ones you want, and the screen is not really adapted to consulting text and image at the same time. As for reading War and Peace or leafing through numbers of L’Os a Moelle (The marrow bones) edited by Pierre Dac (Omnibus edition, 2007), the hard copy version, as they say, probably still has a future.


In fact, for my generation, the internet is a valuable extra, but it is only an extra. For example, a few months ago, I had to identify about a thousand French film titles relating to “noir” films, mostly American in origin, referred to in an Italian book. Without the existence of several Italian film-buff websites, I would never have managed it. And I found up-to-date information there which none of the books on my shelves could manage – obviously, since they could only cover the period up to three or four years ago What is more, I have benefited from a classic book-based education, which means I have a particular view of the internet.

What will be the approach of the generations who are growing up with it? Who knows whether it will be better or worse, but it will certainly be different. I am not very good at using search engines, but they fit into a specific, pre-established scheme in my head. It’s the same for figures: I learned mathematics in the days of the multiplication tables and mental arithmetic, so I don’t need a calculator, but on the other hand, my mental calculations are certainly slower than a machine. As Robert Musil put it, “All progress forward is at he same time a step backward. History shows that you never escape unscathed from a beneficial form of progress.

Oddly enough, the infinite source of information which the internet provides does not have for me the same magical status as my library. Here I am in front of my computer, I can look up anything I want, jumping even further in time and space than through my books, but there is something missing: that touch of the divine. Perhaps its something physical: I’m only using my fingertips: the whole process is outside me, going through a screen and a machine. Nothing like these walls lined with books which I know – almost –by heart. On the one hand, I feel as if I have a fabulous artificial arm, able to move about in that interstellar space outside, while on the other, I am inside a womb whose walls are my book-lined shelves – the archetype in literature would be the inside of the Nautilus, 20,000 leagues under the sea. As you see, it is not always a rational matter.

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