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Soul Food

By: Evan Peter Smith
November 12, 2018

“Medicine for the soul”
—The inscription above the door of the Library of Thebes.


t’s probably not an accident that the first few pages of the historian Stuart Kells’s new book could easily be mistaken for the opening chapter of a children’s fantasy novel.

The scene is at least thematically familiar: a young man, working dismal days at a boring job, stumbles upon a used book sale one day while on his lunch break. Within the bins of old paperbacks and tattered, dog-eared hardcovers, he finds a most curious book indeed: a slim volume, shaped not like a rectangle but a square, with dark blue binding. Upon flipping open the title page, the young Stuart Kells is amazed to read the book’s publication date as 1814, meaning this flimsy little piece of bound paper has been floating around in existence for more than a century and a half before Kells himself even drew his first breath. 

The title of the book, too, is somewhat mysterious, even in its mundanity: Pieces of Ancient Poetry from Unpublished Manuscripts and Scarce Books.

As for the publisher, none is listed. And in the spot where the author’s name should be, Kells finds only the letters: N.Y.

If this were the opening scene of a fantasy story, we might then expect Kells to embark upon a fascinating journey to uncover the identity of the elusive “N.Y.” and, by so doing, reveal a far more grand and magical world than he could’ve ever imagined while listlessly ticking away those dull days at his desk job.

And, for the most part, that’s pretty much what happens in Kells’s new book The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders.

The magic Kells unspools for readers does not, however, take the form of spells or enchantments, but rather is comes in the form of humanity’s remarkable capacity for striving. Kells wants us to appreciate how amazing we are, to remind us that we should celebrate something so mundane as a library as an achievement equivalent to the birth of flight, the panorama of steel cityscapes across the world, and the moon-landing.

Through Kells’s misty eyes, the library as concept is an admirably bold human endeavor: an attempt to accumulate all the wisdom and knowledge the world has to offer. Such an attempt is, of course, doomed to fail from the start, whether by political whirlwinds, natural disaster, human folly, or (God forbid) paper-hungry grub worms.

But Kells doesn’t get downcast by the futility of the endeavor. Instead, he positively relishes the fact that we keep on trying. He’s the kind of guy who could look upon Sisyphus heaving that great boulder endlessly up the hill and say, “Boy, now that’s what I call dedication!”

The irresistible energy in Kells’s voice makes a book that would seem boring on the outset—a scholar’s aggregation of historical events loosely related to libraries—downright delightful. Those who are allergic to longwinded historical accounts can rest easy, because Kells is not interested in providing a full history of the library as a concept, as the title might suggest. No, he’s just leisurely strolling through the endless bookshelves of history, so to speak, and plucking dusty old tomes off the racks, flipping open to select pages, and, in an endearingly gleeful tone throughout, regaling us one of his favorite tales. Then that story is slid back on the shelf and Kells shuffles onward, waving for us to come along so he can show us something else he thinks is extra cool.

Kells’s areas of interest, though thematically connected, are varied and, in many cases, borderline goofy.  Have you ever wondered what the ideal length is for a bookshelf?  What the secret library tucked inside the Vatican contains?  What strange lengths Londoners took to save books during the Great Fire of 1666?  What was the first online pornography video filmed inside a library during public hours?  Or do your interests veer toward the more macabre, in which case might you be interested in a litany of famed characters throughout history who have dropped dead in libraries?  Perhaps a primer on how many people have been killed by toppling bookshelves? Kells is more than happy to oblige.

If the subtitle of the book—“A Catalogue of Wonders”—gives you any indication, Kells would have us look upon these proverbial shelves with as much wide-eyed wonder as our predecessors did upon first gazing up at the stacks of the great lost libraries of Thebes, Herculaneum, or Alexandria.

But when you spend your life living in a skyscraper, it’s easy to overlook a windmill. And in these modern times, in which the full extent of humanity’s knowledge is literally floating in a digital cloud over our heads, it can be just as easy to forget the splendor of those ancient libraries.

Where Kells succeeds most is when he manages to connect the impulse behind those ancient libraries with our modern endeavors. For him, a library is not necessarily confined between physical walls, but is something far broader, almost nebulous.

“If a library can be something as simple as an organized collection of texts, then libraries massively pre-date books in the history of culture,” Kells writes. “Every country has a tradition of legends, parables, riddles, myths, and chants that existed long before they were written down.”

From ancient carved stones created by the first people to inhabit what is now Australia, to songs passed down through the centuries, Kells is arguing that libraries are not merely physical collections but are, at the risk of sentimentality, downright spiritual. Perhaps it is the best form of immortality we can manage as a species, imperfect though it is. Buildings may burn, pages may crumble, glue may be devoured by hungry grub worms, but the driving impulse behind each library ever constructed—behind these “catalogues of wonders,” as Kells would have you see them—is the same impulse that today allows you to read these very words on your phone, tablet, or computer screen, words that float as pixels in a magical pool of light, not unlike the stars the ancients once gazed up at with wonder, before they set about marking down those elusive celestial arrangements with sticks in the dirt, stubbornly trying to determine their true meaning.