Saturday, 11 April 2015

Unreadable Books

Not long ago, I visited an independent library. I had a very enjoyable time. As well as enjoying the atmosphere, I found a number of nineteenth books about subjects in which I am interested. It was particularly interesting to see how these subjects were treated in the past - not least by amateurs. For example, I came across Philip Henry Gosse's Evenings at the Microscope (or, researches among the minuter organs and forms of animal life) which approached microscopy in a very different way to that I encounter nowadays.

There was one book I happened upon which was published in 1887. I don't remember its title or its author. I know that it was not about a subject in which I am particularly interested but for some reason it caught my attention and I took it down to have a look. What was most memorable - more so than either its title or its author - was the fact that it cannot have ever been read. That is, that particular copy could never have been read. The pages of this book were left ragged and uncut as was often the case back then. Significantly, the folds along the top edges of the pages had not been cut either meaning that the pages could not be fully opened and could not therefore be seen in their entirety.

This has got me wondering about the point of a book that cannot be read. It may have value as a collectors item. Being largely unopened, it must be in almost pristine condition. It may even have value as a curio; an unreadable book. There was a book plate in the front with an inscription naming who had given this book to the library. He may well have been a collector who have donated this book from his collection. He certainly could not have been a reader of the subject matter of that book given the impossibility of opening the pages.

So, is there any point to an unreadable book? And what of a library with an unreadable book? Or, a library of (nothing but) unreadable books? If a library is going to have one on its shelves why not any number of such books? Why not an entire library of them? A library in which none of the books can be read must still be a library, by definition, or is it? Is a library primarily a repository of books or of the ideas within them?