The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders

The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders

by Stuart Kells


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"Excellent . . . Tracks the history of that greatest of all cultural institutions." —The Washington Post

Libraries are much more than mere collections of volumes. The best are magical, fabled places whose fame has become part of the cultural wealth they are designed to preserve. To research this book, Stuart Kells traveled around the world with his young family like modern-day "library tourists." Kells discovered that stories about libraries are stories about people, containing every possible human drama. The Library is a celebration of books as objects, a celebration of the anthropology and physicality of books and bookish space, and an account of the human side of these hallowed spaces by a leading and passionate bibliophile.

"The Library . . . abounds in fascinating tales." —The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781640092266
Publisher: Catapult
Publication date: 03/12/2019
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 313,748
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

STUART KELLS is an author and historian. His history of Penguin Books, Penguin and the Lane Brothers, won the prestigious Ashurst Business Literature Prize. The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders was short-listed for the Australian Prime Minister's Literary Award and the New South Wales Premier's General History Prize, and has been published around the world in multiple languages. Find out more at

Read an Excerpt


More than twenty years ago, when I was a young academic working glumly at a social research institute, one of the university colleges held a lunchtime book-sale. As soon as I arrived I found a smallish, squarish volume, handsomely printed in old-fashioned type. The binding was distinctively English: dark-blue, straight-grained morocco (a type of goatskin), the spine boldly gilded and segmented with raised bands in the style of Charles Lewis, the great nineteenth-century bookbinder.

The title page revealed the publication date, 1814, and identified the book as Pieces of Ancient Poetry from Unpublished Manuscripts and Scarce Books. I knew 'ancient' meant the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, and 'poetry' covered a breadth of ballads and verse. Otherwise, the book was a little mystery. Just two letters appeared where the author's name should have been: 'NY'. Nor was the publisher identified.

A footnote revealed ninety-six copies had been printed, plus six 'specials' on blue paper. The book in my hands was one of the six. I turned to the back and read the 'Disposition of the copies'. Though the book kept secret its author and publisher, it named Sheepshanks, Peckover, Pople and the other subscribers who had agreed in advance to buy a copy. Several of the listed men were Roxburghers, members of the world's most illustrious and exclusive bibliophile society: Sir Mark Masterman Sykes (a blue copy and a white copy), Sir Francis Freeling, Archdeacon Francis Wrangham, and (enjoying another book purchase before his imminent bankruptcy) George Spencer-Churchill, Marquess of Blandford.

Here, then, in pristine condition and with exceptional pedigree, was a beautifully made and exceptionally scarce collection of rare texts from the time of Shakespeare. In some quarters, leather-bound books are out of fashion. They are 'brown books' to go with 'brown furniture'. But finding Pieces was a perfect life moment, the kind of discovery that explains why bibliophiles spend much of their lives at flea markets, book stalls, car boots and garage sales. Walking home that day, I looked forward to showing the prize to my fiancé Fiona. We were living in a tower block that used to be a hotel; our apartment still had a minibar-fridge and a wall-mounted hairdryer. Fiona and I grappled with how best to accommodate our VIP guest. Archival box? Shelf to breathe? Would steam from the kitchenette bother the morocco?

Over the following weeks I researched Pieces, consulting in the Baillieu Library the Dictionary of Anonymous and Pseudonymous Literature and a nineteenth-century edition of the Dictionary of National Biography. 'NY', it turned out, was John Fry, a young bookseller from Bristol: N and Y are the terminal letters of his first and last names, a common device of ceremonial anonymity. (Fry's final book was even less anonymous: it identified its editor as 'J–N F–Y'.)

Fiona and I saved our money and searched for other Fries. Soon, in our tiny flat, we had the world's best John Fry collection (the Folger Shakespeare Library contained his other works but not Pieces) and we were beginning to appreciate fully our book-sale find. In strictly monetary terms, Pieces was the most valuable thing we owned. But it was more than an asset we could liquidate if we had to. It became for us a talisman. We had found the nucleus of our future library.

Pieces was also a treasure map, and a portal into multiple strands of a bookish life. John Fry admitted Fiona and I into the circle of gentlemen who, during the reign of King George III, preserved rare books and documents from centuries past. He tutored us on the pillars of good bibliographical method, and exposed us to the most sublime forms of bibliomania. He introduced us to black-letter men, gilt toppers, rough edgers, tall copyists, broadsiders, Aldusians, Elzevirians, Grangerites, pasquinaders and tawny moroccoites. He initiated us into Elizabethanism and invited us to celebrate the edgy side of Shakespeare's work. And he enlisted us into the search for Shakespeare's missing library.

The discovery sparked an epiphany somewhere between On the Road and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I became a student again, determined to learn everything I needed to become a bookman. Nearby universities offered no degrees in vocational bookmanship. Inspired by Fry and his circle, I improvised my own course, plucking units from literature, psychology, philosophy, art, commerce, curatorship, history, law, logic, mathematics – a mixture that made no sense to anyone but Fiona and me. When eventually I graduated, I walked away with a book about bookselling, a masters in book auctions, a doctorate in law, the untidiest transcript in Christendom, and a bespoke qualification in bibliophilia.

On weekends I started 'running' books: driving around with a car full mostly of paperbacks, wholesaling them between bookshops. Fiona and I issued catalogues of highlights from our stock. Every book we bought to sell was a puzzle, a judgement to be backed. We relished the chance to work with objects, not just ideas. For Fiona and I, this was the beginning of a career in books that saw us working side by side in a publishing house, and issuing with delight a series of books about books. We exhibited at bookfairs, and sold books to venerated libraries such as the Bodleian, whose users must swear not to remove or deface the objects therein, nor to set them on fire.

In the course of our work we visited hundreds of libraries. Libraries tidy and chaotic, dry and damp, fragrant and malodorous, welcoming and dangerous, containing nearly every kind of book: loved and neglected, meritorious and meretricious, read and unread. We explored national libraries, working men's libraries, subscription libraries, scholarly libraries, corporate libraries, club libraries, plush private libraries and very modest ones, like the collection of 'found' books amassed by a demolition man in the course of his labours, every volume methodically catalogued and lovingly preserved.

We ventured 'off-catalogue' to make exhilarating discoveries on library shelves, like mislaid pamphlets, overlooked signatures, legendary variants, extra-illustrated rarities and hidden fore-edge paintings. We explored restricted spaces inside libraries, like the exquisite Shakespeare Room in the State Library of New South Wales; the super-tight spiral staircases deep inside the State Library of Victoria; and the panopticon cavity above the vaulted glass dome of the nearby parliamentary library, modelled on the original Reichstag.

We studied the crimes of book owners, such as the farmers who stored in a woolshed a priceless set (forty-one elephant-folio volumes) of John Gould's marvellous zoological illustrations; and the farmers' town cousins who stored a unique collection of books and manuscripts in a fireplace. We called on the hoarder who cut an indoor pathway to his bathtub, where his most prized possessions were kept. And we swooned over medieval libraries with books shelved spine-inward and attached to chains to prevent escape.

We learnt that libraries are much more than mere accumulations of books. Every library has an atmosphere, even a spirit. Every visit to a library is an encounter with the ethereal phenomena of coherence, beauty and taste. But libraries are not Platonic abstractions or sterile, hyperbaric chambers. They are human places into which humans cry tears, moult hair, slough skin, sneeze snot and deposit oil from their hands – incidentally the best sustenance for old leather bindings. How much of themselves did Shakespeare, Donne, Hemingway and Woolf leave behind in their libraries?

And how much of their personalities is discernible from their books? Creating a library is a psychically loaded enterprise. In gathering their bounty, booklovers have displayed anxiety, avarice, envy, fastidiousness, obsession, lust, pride, pretension, narcissism and agoraphobia – indeed every Biblical sin and most of the pathologies from the American Psychiatric Association manual.

When visitors called on the seventeenth-century Welsh bibliophile Sir William Boothby, he wished they would hurry up and leave. 'My company is gone, so that now I hope to enjoy my selfe and books againe, which are the true pleasures of my life, all else is but vanity and noyse'. John Hill Burton described a book collector whose nervous temperament was so sensitive that he could not tolerate an alien book in proximity to his library; 'the existence within his dwelling-place of any book not of his own special kind, would impart to him the sort of feeling of uneasy horror which a bee is said to feel when an earwig comes into its cell.'

Collectors, having acquired and arranged their books through whichever means and by whatever schema, have used every kind of simile to describe their beloved possessions. Garden flowers, verdant leaves, precious fruit, flowing fountains. Ships, houses, bricks, doors, nails, bullets, daggers, windows, voices, songs, chapters, memories, scents, elixirs, cogs, coins, countries, toys, birds, worlds, meteorites, gems, friends, offspring, prisoners, tenants, soldiers, lovers, wraiths, devils, bones, eyes, teeth. John Baxter imagined the books in his Graham Greene collection rustling and rubbing against each other every night like a colony of insects.

Libraries provide ideal habitats for real insects, which are attracted to quiet, darkish, starchy places. Fiona and I have seen whole shelves of books destroyed by burrowing worms. For me now, the mounds and trails they left behind are the stuff of genuinely horrifying nightmares. We've also seen whole collections ruined by grazing silverfish, the bibliophile's nemesis. Those monsters relish pulpy paper and the crunchy starch in book glue and book cloth. Seemingly preferring richer inks, they devastate dust-jackets with tracks that look fiendishly deliberative.

From our visits to libraries we've also learnt much about the integrity of shelves. Smooth, strong and open are best. Sagging shelves deform books into painful, non-Euclidean shapes. Abrasive shelves wear away at leather bindings. Books behind glass get sick from breathing their own air.

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