Libraries are astoundingly triumphs of order. Most alphabets have around 26 letters. Arranged in different combinations, these letters form books that can then capture the breadth of the human condition. But the complexity with actually writing and making sense of a text is just the beginning.
Charting the Maze
For libraries to be useful, you need to find what you’re looking for. Libraries instil this order further by cataloguing accordingly. The University Library, like most others, uses the Library of Congress Classification system. Letters specify the subject area- B for Philosophy and Psychology, P for Language and Literature and Q for Science for instance. Further letters subdivide into specific areas, like PR for English Literature, QE for Geology and so on.
Before we set off on our expedition, I feel the need to point out that this list isn’t made up of what I think are the best books – indeed I believe there is no such thing. They are merely the more unusual ones that sit undisturbed for decades, their pages like fossils shielded from the light.
Répertoire Des Sources Historiques Du Moyen Age Ulysse Chevalier
Shelf No: D113 .C45 1894
Some books are outstanding because of the scale of what they set out to do. Ulysse Chevalier’s book is a catalogue, and that in itself seems pretty boring. It however, is a catalogue that contains all the names of all the people and all the places that were mentioned in printed books throughout the Middle Ages, together with precise references to indicate where they were mentioned. Chevalier spent 28 years compiling the book that would become his principal work.
This book isn’t just here because of the epicenes of its scale however. It exhibits one of the most popular decorations in Victorian publishing: marbled endpapers. Endpapers are pasted onto the back of the cover; they form the front and end of a book. Paper marbling is when ink is applied to paper submerged in water. The end result is mesmerizingly beautiful, and similar to what you might find on a smooth marble slab.
Shelf No: PR1175.W43
1938 was a simpler time. Unless you were a Nazi making plans for war, your weekends tended to be dull affairs. Perceiving a niche in the market, Penguin came out with The Week-End Book.
With 200 pages of poetry, 70 pages of hymns and folk songs and 50 pages of games, your 1938 weekend is all set. But it wasn’t all fun and games of course. Should you need them, there are helpful chapters on ‘traveling with donkeys’, ‘giving first aid in diverse crises’ and how to break the law, should you need to.
The Tea Ceremony Seno Tanaka, Sendo Tanaka and Edwin O. Reischauer
Shelf No: GT2910.T36
The Tea Ceremony is an interesting book for two reasons: its subject matter and its binding. Printed by the Japanese publisher Kodansha, this book is gorgeously constructed, and features elaborate photography of not only the tea ceremony itself, but also of the Japanese aesthetic manifested through utensils, bowls and gardens.
So what’s special with making tea you might ask? Chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony, is a complex ritual, teeming with elaborate symbolism. Based on Zen Buddhism, it seeks to promote oneness with nature and a purification of the mind. Anthropologist Jennifer Anderson wrote that ‘Even those who participate in the most abbreviated of tea rituals and lack any knowledge of its symbol system sense that it fulfils deep human needs.’ That humans can create abstractions and ceremonies within which they can be moved to the sublime just by pouring hot water on powdered tea leaves is of note, and that is why this book is here.
Calligramme Ou Ecriture Figurée : Apollinaire Inventeur De Formes Pénélope Sacks-Galey
Shelf No: PN45.5.S23
You’ve probably heard of surrealism. What you probably don’t know is that the man who coined the term, in addition to being a great art critic, was also one of the most creative poets in the first half of the 20th century. Guillaume Apollinaire’s work on this list has to be paraphrased somewhat.
Our library does not have his Calligrammes. But fortunately, it does have a book about his calligrammes, with most of them faithfully reproduced. What is a calligramme you might ask? It’s a poem where the arrangement of the words themselves contributes to meaning by the creation of visual images. The poem ‘Il Pleut’ for instance has words dripping down the page like raindrops on a glass window, while his most famous work, in the shape of the Eiffel tower pokes fun at the Germans (Apollinaire fought for France, and subsequently died, in the First World War).
Sacks-Galey’s book is entirely in French, but thanks to that classification system we were talking about, books about the same thing are grouped together, and immediately to their left, you can find several monographs in English that translate and comment upon Apollinaire’s poetry.
Exercices De Style Raymond Queneau
Shelf No: PQ2633.U43 E93
If you think Apollinaire’s work is creative, just wait till you get a hold of this. Spoiler alert: Our narrator boards a bus, and sees a scuffle break out between two fellow passengers. A couple of hours later, he comes across the same passenger seeking advice on how to add a button to his coat.
Except, I didn’t spoil the story for you, the book is the same story told 99 times, in 99 different styles. Besides the obvious ways, like varying the tenses, and using all the poetic formats (Haiku, Ode, Sonnet), Queneau also uses Dog Latin, Blurbs and Negative speech. Another work of Queneau that deserves attention isn’t found in our library. A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems really is just that. 10 sonnets, each with the same rhyme scheme and sounds are printed on cards where each line of the poem ends up as a separated strip. One can then proceeded to mix and match various lines from various sonnets. The total combinations amount to 100,000,000,000,000 poems. Attempting to read them all would take you 200,000,000 years of continuous reading, 24 hours a day. Try an interactive version here.
Shelf No PQ2676.E67V5
Last book from a French author I promise. What does Perec do in this book? He takes a Parisian apartment block, frozen in time just before 8pm.
Then, stairs by stairs, room by room, Perec examines the frozen characters and their individual stories. It also features intricate puzzles involving math and logic, as well as numerous illusions, but above all, it is an exceptionally brilliant expose into human life.
Shelf No: GR176.C34
This next book is probably the prettiest one in this list. Fiabe Italiane was published by the renowned and now defunct publisher Einaudi, which published authors like Primo Levi, Cesare Pavese and of course, Italo Calvino. Influenced by Vladimir Propp, who had broken up Russian folk tales into elements, which he found recurred over and over again, Calvino set about collecting 200 folk tales of his native Italy.
Fiabe Italiane is a remarkable book. Not only is it wonderfully illustrated with watercolours throughout, but Calvino, an accomplished storyteller, also engages in a retelling of stories as old as time that take us back to the enchanted forests, Saracen slaves and magical peacocks of Medieval Italy. This book was also translated into English by George Martin, and subsequently was chosen as one of the top ten books of the year by the New York Times. You can find one of the stories, The False Grandmother in an animated format on YouTube.
Cosmicomics Italo Calvino
Shelf No: PQ4863.A45C6 1970
Cosmicomics, like most of the other books on this list, is a testament to the capacity of human creation especially in one of its oldest mediums: the casting of narratives.
I hope this list has served as an introduction to the variety of books in our library. Next time you are there, do step away from that cubicle and take a stroll along the bookshelves. Who knows what you might find?