The wise philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus was extremely curious and according to biographer Diogenes Laetius (Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, circa 250 AD), taught himself by asking himself questions. In this regard, Heraclitus (for the prurient-minded, the correct pronunciation is: “HARE-ah-clie-tuss”) had a very unconventional — not to mention low-cost — education; he was a walking classroom, absorbing everything around him: “the things that can be seen, heard, and learned are what I prize the most.” But the greatest teacher for Heraclitus were the books he discovered in the libraries of Greece; his famous statement, which has resounded throughout the centuries, is the ultimate testament to libraries: “I am what libraries and librarians have made me, with little assistance from a professor of Greek and poets.” Astute readers will note Heraclitus’s subtle dig at the academe — which explains why you will never see this quote on a college recruitment brochure or website.
Heraclitus, and any bibliophile, would welcome the stunningly beautiful coffee table book that honors the glorious library, the temple of books: The Library: A World History by James Campbell. In the introduction, Campbell, who is fellow and director of studies in architecture and history of art at Queens’ College, Cambridge, notes the critical role of libraries in culture: “Libraries can be much more than simply places to store books. Throughout the ages, the designs of the greatest library buildings have celebrated the act of reading and the importance of learning. They have become emblems of culture, whether it be for an individual, an institution, or even a whole nation.” Campbell’s oversized book is full of engravings and lush photos (by London photographer Will Pryce) of some of the world’s greatest libraries from the Middle Ages to the modern age. The author introduces the reader to the very first libraries of the ancient world, established between 5400 BC to 600 AD, that were lost to the sands of time: the library at Ebla, the library of Ashurbanipal, the Temple of Horus, the Attalid library, the library of Pergamum, the library of Celsus, and the legendary library of Alexandria that housed up to 700,00o works. The book concludes by showcasing the libraries of the modern, digital world: the Shiba Ryotaro Memorial Museum (Japan); the Information, Communications and Media Center, BTU Cottbus (Germany), the Ultrecht University Library (Netherlands); the National Library of China (China); the Bodleian Library (England); the Grimm Center (Germany), and the very humble, by comparison to the others, Liyuan Library (China). After reading this book, you cannot help but develop a profound appreciation for Heraclitus’s remark about libraries. This book, awash in a sea of thousands of ebooks, is truly remarkable and belongs on the bookshelf of every bibliophile.
For further reading: The Library: A World History by James Campbell, University of Chicago Press (2013)