Libraries & Humility

Some great passages in this Los Angeles Review of Books essay on Umberto Eco and “dietrologia — literally, “behindology,” the art of deciphering the hidden meanings of things.” I thought the following passage worth quoting in full, on the relationship between libraries and epistemic humility:

Humility is often thought of as a behavioral virtue — a matter of how we relate to God or to our neighbor. But it should also be an epistemic virtue — about how we relate to what we can — and cannot — know about the world, ourselves, and others. Any self-reflecting scholar sooner or later reaches a point where, for all her knowledge and understanding, she realizes the immensity of that which she can neither know nor understand. Indeed, the more insightful she is as a scholar, the more terrifying the dimensions of all that ignorance and incomprehension. Dwarfism is the natural condition of the scholar honest with herself.

This revelation is often prompted by a very specific space: the library. Surrounded by shelf after heavy shelf of “giants,” we may feel crushed. Gradually, however, we become used to our crushed condition, and even attracted to the place; in time, our fascination with it grows and so does our compulsion to linger. We end up making the library our home, taking leave of the world. And before we know it, we end up in a seriously perverse relationship with the library.

Umberto Eco knew the situation only too well. He was enthralled with libraries, their sworn devotee and happy slave. Libraries fill his books. The best part of The Name of the Rose takes place in one, “the greatest library in Christendom,” whose absolute ruler, appropriately enough, is a monster and a deranged mind: Jorge de Burgos (Eco’s tender gesture toward Jorge Luis Borges, whom he greatly admired). Eco’s personal libraries were the stuff of legend; the one in Milan alone allegedly had around 30,000 volumes.

But the numbers, however big, are not the point. For what the library tells you is not that there is that much to read, but that there are no limits as to how much there is to know. The essence of the library is its limitlessness. The more time you spend in it, the more you realize that no time could ever be enough; no matter how hard you strive, you will never know it all. The revelation of your finitude comes with embarrassing pain. And when you have realized that you cannot live without that pain, your perverse relationship with the library has reached its climax. A “normal” relationship with a library would be no relationship at all.

To say, then, that Eco — or, for that matter, anyone like him — was a “voracious reader” would be to miss the point. If anything, he didn’t devour books, he was devoured by them. What a library primarily offers is not learning (you can get that online), but a sense of profound existential disorientation. The function of the library is not to give you answers, but to overwhelm you with ever more questions. You may go to the library for enlightenment, but all you do is get lost. “The library is a great labyrinth, sign of the labyrinth of the world,” Brother William of Baskerville observes in The Name of the Rose. “You enter and you do not know whether you will come out.” You walk in glowing with self-confidence, enamored of books, and you come out — if you ever do — all in shatters, the shadow of your former self.

And that’s the best part of it. For being shattered may be the finest thing to happen to you if you are on a quest for meaning, as Eco always was.

Modern Architectures in History: A Review of Australia, by Harry Margalit

Harry Margalit History of Australian Architecture

In Sydney recently, browsing the wonderful Architect’s Bookshop in Surry Hills, I came across this new history of Australian architecture. Strictly speaking, it’s just about Australian modernism—part of a Reaktion Books series on “Modern Architectures in History.” Margalit chooses the federation of Australia in 1901 as his point of departure, so there are no discussions of terrace housing or “Old Australian Houses” here.

The book is engrossing: a perfect mix of architectural description with discussion of the wider forces in Australian society that contextualises architecture. Margalit’s social history approach is masterfully executed, blended together into a narrative that never segues awkwardly or drags on too long, as is a risk of these kinds of histories.

There are descriptions of all the key buildings and personalities in Australian modernism, and from what I can tell (being a newcomer to Australia’s architectural history) the book is spread geographically across all states, not just concentrated in NSW and Victoria.

I thought it would be useful here to draw out some of the moments when Margalit’s analysis proves incisive to all modernisms outside Europe and America. For instance, writing early in the book about different interpretations of modernism immediately after Federation, Margalit describes how three architects “represent three parallel streams that have been constants in modern Australian design”:

“The first stream, typified by Wilson, is that of the nativist, a position that emerged surprisingly early and shows the quick remaking of English social conventions within a generation of colonial founding. As it matured it viewed the experience of Australia as unremarkable, but its paradox lay in seeking validation of the local through news and comparisons from beyond its borders.

The second stream is that of the globalist, in modern terms, whose loyalty is to the most advanced experiences available, regardless of provenance. This had its roots in the concept of Empire, where loyalties have a transnational character, and it seeks validation in good sense… The paradox here is that this imperial vision must be realised locally, a source of some frustration.

The third stream is that of the immigrant or outsider, like the Griffins. This view continually sees Australia afresh, adding its interpretation as the same time as it accepts the limited appeal of this material to the historical flow it attempts to join. This stream has added enormous interest to the country, but its products serve as repositories of possibilities, rather than viable broad alternatives.

I think this analysis is fruitful for New Zealand and other English settler societies with burgeoning modernisms. It shows how approaches to the nation itself informed architectural style, and I can imagine “Griffins, Wilson and Taylor” being replaced by three archetypal New Zealand architects in a slightly later period. Of Harry Seidler, Australia’s arch-International Stylist, Margalit says “[his] reception in Sydney exposed the layering of architectural influences along the dual axes of internal self-definition and international validation…”

Some of the most interesting moments in Margalit’s history are when he focuses on geographic differences in Australia, exploring how different states responded to the three trends I quoted above. On Sydney and architect Peter Muller, for instance:

“Muller’s early works in Sydney are thus among the earliest examples of that distinctive coalition of geographical awareness and anti-modernity that has been identified with the architecture of the time [1950s]. It nonetheless arose within an architectural tradition espousing craft as a critical component in opposing mass production, a value that can be traced back to the Arts and Crafts movement. Thus a recurrent anti-modernity in the English tradition, remade in Australia through cultural transplantation, re-emerged in the guise of a local movement centred on the Sydney region.

Peter Muller House Sydney 1955 Margalit Australia
Peter Muller, Muller House, Sydney, 1955.

There are elsewhere brilliant passages on the contortions of “authenticity” in modern architectural style, a phenomenon that I think still needs to be explored in the New Zealand context:

“The sentiment for authenticity was nationwide and has sometimes been so loosely identified with the Sydney School that it is possible to identify representative buildings in all cities. This is the result of conflating an intention with its manifestation, and while Sydney may have been an incubator, the same three tendencies can be found across the country. It was occasionally identified as regional, as in the assertion of a local identity over a national, or international, one, but the fracturing of national identity into progressive and conservative camps undermined any expectation of a cohesive cultural voice…

My only gripe with the book? The photographs are all printed in black and white, and colour would have made a big difference.

Who will write the New Zealand account of our Modern Architecture in History?

What’s really at stake in book-culling decision [Newsroom Essay]

This essay was originally published on Newsroom, February 10, 2020.

Festina lente. Make haste, slowly.

This was the motto of one of the Renaissance’s greatest publishers, whose most famous book the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington in fact owns a copy of.

The motto implies that we must make progress, that we must move forwards, but always with the wisdom of the past. Move forward, but with care; with attention; and with the knowledge that we today could be wrong. The motto has always seemed perfect for a library’s vision statement, summing up its central role. Yet in its decision to deaccession more than 600,000 “overseas” books, our National Library seems to have done us a disservice. “Shortsighted,” Helen Clark said of the cull. All New Zealanders should care deeply about the Library’s decision, because it strikes to the heart of how insular or open we are as a nation.

The Library is culling books from its “Overseas published collections” to “make room for New Zealand, Māori and Pacific stories”. The books being “rehomed” or destroyed (whichever it is, the effect is the same for National Library users) encompass philosophy, religion, arts, science, languages and a great deal more. In public announcements, Library staff keep trying to emphasise the irrelevance of the books they’re culling, like old computer guides from the 1990s. But time and again, even the books they cherry-pick as irrelevant examples seem deeply relevant. We may not learn about how to use a computer from an old computer manual, but we might learn about the ephemerality of new technologies—something the Library itself should be thinking deeply about as it gets rid of physical books. (A line from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 comes to mind: “The books are to remind us what asses and fools we are. They’re Caeser’s praetorian guard, whispering as the parade roars down the avenue, ‘Remember, Caeser, thou art mortal.’”)

We should remember too that what seems niche and irrelevant now may not be in the future. I’m 25, and I have been continually surprised by the turns and detours my interests have taken, leading me deeper into books I had never thought I would be interested in—and I know this is true for many other young people. The idea that young people will read digitally and not need print books is itself a patronising attitude, failing to take into account how technologies fall in and out of favour. Many now see the beginnings of a rejection of technology in young peoples’ lives, and it would not be surprising if this translates to a return to reading physical books.

The Library’s public announcement was good PR—it turned a negative into a positive, because which New Zealander doesn’t want more books about New Zealand? But that decision to cull internationally-published books to make room for New Zealand ones belies a deeply unsettling idea at the heart of the National Library and its master, Internal Affairs. It implies a ‘little New Zealandism’ that many thought we dispensed with decades ago. It’s a form of nationalism: an unsettling one at a time of growing nationalism around the world. In essence, it’s about whether we see ourselves as an insular, navel-gazing nation, concerned only with ourselves and our own affairs; or whether we see ourselves as shaped by and part of a global community, continually learning from the world.

Where the discussion should be centred is on the role of the National Library. The institution has decided that its role is to focus exclusively on “New Zealand, Māori and Pacific stories,” at the expense of the world around us. I expect Library staff might point to the impossibility of our National Library collecting deeply in international materials, or to the British Library’s own emphasis on British collections. But in the first case, the impossibility of collecting everything does not mean we should throw out those international resources we already have. And we simply cannot afford to take the same approach as the British Library, because we are a different nation with different needs. Our geographic distance still affects us daily, and it will always mean we need to go out of our way to connect ourselves to the world.

How will the culling affect New Zealanders? A few examples.

First, the growing number of migrants coming to our shores, who are already and who will become New Zealanders, need a library that contains their own cultural histories too. What might now appear niche, foreign and irrelevant is to someone else their very culture—it might just be the book that connects them to themselves and to others, providing inspiration and social connection. A decision to throw out all the books that might link to our new citizens’ origins is a cultural handicap at best.

Second, New Zealand’s historians, academics and researchers do not study only New Zealand. From New Zealand, they study the world—all corners and all cultures of it. To deaccession any book that does not relate to New Zealand is a severe restriction on the kinds of thought our researchers can do. It throws us back into the days of staid cultural nationalism, when it was thought that New Zealanders were only good for studying New Zealand; and it says to every aspiring New Zealand thinker and researcher, from the start, that all that matters here is that which is within our borders. We should be wary of the current tendency for countries to turn in on themselves.

Finally, a decision like this slowly works its way into the national psyche. Our collective sense of possibility is shaped as much by what knowledge is absent as that which is present. This can be seen clearly in our arts and literature of the 1930s and 40s, when artists and writers struggled to obtain international books. At worst, it forces young people to go overseas—ensuring New Zealand remains a kind of frontier from which intelligent and interested young Katherine Mansfields and Frances Hodgkinses feel they must quickly escape.

No book is obscure to the person who needs it. Many will know the experience of discovering a book that seems essential and necessary to one’s life or studies. You may well be the first person to have requested the book from the library in 30 years, but to you it’s essential, the most important book in the world. A library should exist for those moments, for the intangible, unmeasurable power that even one book can have on an individual life and on a nation’s culture. Right now, if such a book was published overseas, there’s a good chance it has been or is soon to be culled from our National Library. And that thought is a crushing reality to any New Zealander who believes our country must be large enough to encompass at least some of the world, and not just the world within our sandy borders. In the words of John Beaglehole, one of our great historians: “The tradition of an island need not be insularity.”

Two Books on Returning to New Zealand

Paula Morris On Coming Home BWB Book Review
Kirsty Gunn Thorndon Wellington and Home My Katherine Mansfield Project BWB Book Review

“Is it the end of things, really, to come home?”

Two books caught my eye recently, both published by Bridget Williams Books (BWB) in 2014. Both are short; both are published by expatriate New Zealand writers; and both deal with a return to New Zealand. For those aware of my own recent return to New Zealand, the attraction these books immediately had will be entirely unsurprising.

Who was it who said that “Should I stay or should I go” is New Zealand’s unofficial national song? If our literature all stems in some way or another from Katherine Mansfield, then this isn’t too surprising: her youthful clamour to return to London from Wellington is an essential part of her Hero’s Journey, as is her late longing (and failure) to return to Wellington from Europe. From even before Mansfield, pakeha New Zealand’s dilemma has always been a kind of ‘grass is greener’ syndrome. And it’s this syndrome, though never directly named, that both these books end up dealing with most deeply.

Kirsty Gunn’s Thorndon: Wellington and Home: My Katherine Mansfield Project picks up on Mansfield directly, drawing parallels between hers and the authors’ lives. A return to Wellington for the first time since childhood is the premise of the book, enacting a kind of hypothetical: what would have happened had Mansfield managed to return? Paula Morris’ On Coming Home, on the other hand, is a kind of anthology of writing about the return. From Mulgan and Mansfields’ lifelong longings to return, to Rilke and Rushdies’ exiles, New Zealanders’ arrivals and departures are made significant.

Gunn’s book wears its problems on its cover, with that double-colon title. Hypothetically a book about Thorndon, Wellington, returning to New Zealand and Katherine Mansfield, the book touches on all of these subjects but never quite gets to the heart of them in its 120 pages. Throughout, you can see the books begun and left unfinished, hurriedly stitched together with often-awkward segues (Gunn calls the book a “sketchbook,” implying the real work lies in the future). But despite this, there are lyrical and poignant moments throughout, as when Gunn meets an English broadcaster who has been in Wellington for many years:

“He looked out the window and said that the thing about Wellington was that you couldn’t really leave, the geography of the place forbade it. Oh I know there’s a road, he’d said, two roads to take you north, and the airport… But none of that really counts. The place itself is designed to keep you in.

Or when she muses on the unregarded significance of domestic life:

“Why should it be, I wonder, that other dramas are deemed more important? Why matters of church and state must eclipse the family, and over and over again fiction that takes as its subject the domestic should be sidelined and trivialised? For houses are like theatres. They give light and atmosphere. Every day the curtains at the window are opened and closed to drama and play and scene setting and the endless rich interplay of language and human affairs that’s the everyday, every day. Where we live is surely who we are.”

Passages like these, and others dotted throughout the book, add up to make a memorable chapter in Wellington’s literature and New Zealand’s literature of return.

I wish Morris’ book, on the other hand, had been longer—and it should have been titled The BWB Anthology of Returns to New Zealand. I wanted more throughout! Morris’ deep and cross-cultural reading on the psychology and literature of return adds up to a wonderfully rich, but all too short, compilation of quotations.

“‘It is dangerous to abandon one’s own country,’ James Joyce wrote to Italo Stevo, ‘but it is more dangerous still to return to it, for then your fellow countrymen, if they can, will drive a knife into your heart.'”

“In New Zealand, writes James McNeish, ‘there exists a curious state of tension with the rest of the world, in part because we do not like our sons and daughters to go away… We boast of our infantry going to fight abroad but not our artists and intellectuals whose fight for recognition, out of the great loneliness of being a New Zealander, may be rather more difficult.'”

And Morris’ own lines add up to some of those to be quoted in the Anthology of Returns to New Zealand, whenever that does eventually come out:

“Coming home was the thing; it made you a real New Zealander. You only went away to splash yourself with the heavy cologne of Old Culture before suffocating in it: that’s when you turned back to the bracing fresh air of home.”

Suffocate in that cologne of Old Culture I did: sometimes after a day of reading at the Bodleian my hands and pores would be coated with the thick orange grease of disintegrating leather, from mouldy book bindings. And now that I’m back, I’m still rather enjoying the bracing fresh air of home. Some tell me it will wear off soon, but I wonder if things have changed; as when I sit here at Devonport Library, surrounded by young people from England, Germany, Sweden and the US, tapping on their keyboards and reading books about NZ. The dilemma of “should I stay or should I go” is theirs to deal with now, not mine.

Anyway, does anyone still wear cologne? And maybe the bracing fresh air of the Hauraki Gulf or the Cook Strait is what the world needs these days.