Sunday, September 14, 2014

Quincunciall Lozenges

Oliver Sacks' personal history in libraries (courtesy of Dave Lull), with a call for keeping books on shelves. This piece should be read in its entirety by anyone who loves books - it is heavenly - but I was especially captivated by this bit, for obvious reasons:

But the library I most loved at Oxford was our own library at the Queen’s College. The magnificent library building itself had been designed by Christopher Wren, and beneath this, in an underground maze of heating pipes and shelves, were the vast subterranean holdings of the library. To hold ancient books, incunabula, in my own hands was a new experience for me—I particularly adored Gesner’s Historiae Animalium (1551), richly illustrated with Dürer’s drawing of a rhinoceros and Agassiz’s four-volume work on fossil fishes. It was there, too, that I saw all of Darwin’s works in their original editions, and it was in the stacks that I found and fell in love with all the works of Sir Thomas Browne—his Religio Medici, his Hydrotaphia, and The Garden of Cyrus (The Quincunciall Lozenge). How absurd some of these were, but how magnificent the language! And if Browne’s classical magniloquence became too much at times, one could switch to the lapidary cut-and-thrust of Swift—all of whose works, of course, were there in their original editions. While I had grown up on the nineteenth-century works that my parents favored, it was the catacombs of the Queen’s library that introduced me to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature—Johnson, Hume, Pope, and Dryden. All of these books were freely available, not in some special, locked-away rare books enclave, but just sitting on the shelves, as they had done (I imagined) since their original publication. It was in the vaults of the Queen’s College that I really gained a sense of history, and of my own language.
(Note to my mother: make sure you read this one, you will like it in any case but the Willesden public library makes a star appearance!)

1 comment:

  1. Yesterday, when I had a sudden desire for an escape novel, popped into the library, and walked out with one three minutes later, I thought, libraries are the best thing in the world. Then of course I started to think about other candidates for best thing in the world, but I decided to stick with libraries. B