Profile of a Book Lover: Richard Macksey

alex atkins bookshelf booksOne of the most inspiring professors and book collectors is now exploring the Great Library in Heaven; perhaps it similar to the fantastical, vast library conceived by Jorge Luis Borges in his famous short story “The Library of Babel.” The professor’s name? Richard Macksey, a beloved professor who taught courses on the humanities, comparative literature, and film at Johns Hopkins University for more than 60 years. Sadly he passed away, at the age of 87, on July 22, 2019. The obituary that appeared in The Washington Post gives you a glimpse into his impressive erudition and dedication to the humanities: “Dr. Macksey was a wide-ranging scholar and polymath whose expertise extended from ancient and modern literature — in at least six languages — to medical history, biophysics, critical theory and film. He had joint appointments in Johns Hopkins’s School of Arts and Sciences and the medical school, where he helped design a curriculum that included writing and the humanities. He developed the university’s first courses on African American literature, women’s studies, scholarly publishing and film studies… [He] helped found the Humanities Center (now the Department of Comparative Thought and Literature), for the interdisciplinary study of literature, history, art and philosophy… Dr. Macksey wrote poetry and fiction, edited scholarly journals and published academic papers on everything from Hungarian revolutionary poems to mathematics to French literature… He also was a founder of what is now the Maryland Film Festival in Baltimore.” As one student reflected on Macksey’s profound influence: “You’re lucky if, in your lifetime, you have one or two teachers who inspire you the way he did. I think he approached teaching in the way someone creates a work of art. If you think about the way art is created, it comes from some mysterious place. Macksey’s approach to teaching comes from that mysterious place.” Another student said, “You could never mention an author, historian or book that he did not have an expert knowledge of. He had such a capacious mind.”

But of course, in addition to his tremendous intellect and insatiable curiosity, Macksey was a quintessential book collector. His capacious mind was mirrored by an equally capacious library. Over the decades he created a wondrous private library with more than 70,000 books that filled just about every room in his house as well as a converted garage. Several of his colleagues believe it to be one of the largest private libraries in Maryland. Commenting on this, Dean of libraries at Johns Hopkins, Winston Tabb, remarked: “I’m almost certain that that’s true. I’ve been in many, many private libraries, but never one like Professor Macksey’s.” If you are a true book lover it is as spectacular as it is inspiring. Fortunately, there are several videos that provide a tour through the labyrinth of bookshelves (one led by Macksey himself). The viewer will be guided through packed bookshelf after bookshelf, with books in just about every language, piled on every flat surface that is available. Perhaps the organization could be best described as controlled chaos (book lovers know that there is always a method to the madness). Perhaps if Marie Kondo came across this library she would have a heart attack — but that is no matter for Macksey who believed that every single book sparked joy. Take that Kondo!

There are two remarkable videos shot (each about 20 minutes long) by a student, identified as Omda M, titled “In the Library of Richard Macksey” that allow you to step into Macksey’s magnificent library and poke around the stacks. Omda introduces the viewer to his process: “The following is a recorded walk through the Richard Macksey library in an effort to see the books sitting on shelves, chairs, tables, stands. The manner of walking, the logic of focusing on this or that title or tableau rather than the other, has to a great extent to be arbitrary, but the invitation and the seduction to which this walking takes itself as an answer is very much necessary and real.” Interestingly, seduction is one of the guiding principles for book collecting for Macksey; Omda elaborates: “Books, or certain books, seduce and you are drawn to them. To the common question of whether he had read all of these books, he would tend to give two answers. First, he knew all of them, their places, their histories and associations. Second, some books are to be devoured, some tasted, some consumed, some taken like medicine, and others used as garnish. They were all like people to him. Except for letting through light and providing seats, he wouldn’t spare any place for his people. A third answer could resort to an ancient metaphor. Just as you don’t go around in a garden smelling all the flowers each by each, a personal library is populated by books that ought to be left sitting in rest and summoned only when necessity spontaneously calls. His little cosmos remains disorganized in appearance, but it has its own structure through and through. Plus, if you want to have a library of your own, by necessity it has to grow ever larger and larger, because one book leads to another, and why should you stop following the lead?”

What will happen to Macksey’s library? you ask. Fortunately it will be find a permanent home in the libraries of Johns Hopkins.

Search for the following videos on Youtube:
A Rare Collection: Lessons Learned from Dick Macksey
In the Library of Richard Macksey: Take 1
In the Library of Richard Macksey: Take 2

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For further reading: Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/richard-macksey-hopkins-professor-with-capacious-mind-and-library-dies-at-87/2019/07/26/bcca86e2-af01-11e9-a0c9-6d2d7818f3da_story.html

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