Saturday, January 22, 2005


The Dustiest Shelf in the Library

Speaking of odd titles (see the previous post), here's a splendid one rediscovered by Tom Stoppard in his wonderful paean to the London Library, appearing in the Sunday Telegraph (reg. req.):

Arthur Koestler, John [Wells] said, had been commissioned to report the Fischer-Spassky chess match for the world championship in Reykjavik. To prepare, Koestler went to the London Library to borrow books on chess and on Iceland. In the entrance hall he hesitated. Chess first or Iceland first? Chess was nearer. On the Chess shelf the first book that caught Koestler's eye was Chess in Iceland .... Its full title is Chess in Iceland and in Icelandic Literature by Williard Friske, published in Florence in 1905. It was presented to the London Library by Cornell University Library in 1910. Koestler had the book out from May to September 1972. It was taken out twice during the next 21 years, and twice more 11 years after that. On average it has been borrowed every eight years since Koestler brought it back from Iceland.

What I'm drawing attention to, of course, is the volume's active career. Compared to some, Chess in Iceland and in Icelandic Literature is a flibbertigibbet for ever dashing in and out of 14 St James's Square. Personally, I have a soft spot for the availability of books for which the demand is as yet entirely notional.

There was a court case not too long ago where a library thief -- a fellow caught razoring rare illustrations out of books, or some such evildoing -- mounted the novel legal defense that nobody was reading those books anyway: therefore, it wasn't much of a crime. Perhaps for punishment that gentleman should have been smacked in the face with a hardcover copy of Chess in Iceland.

Like most haunters of libraries, I've often had that experience of picking up old books which not only prove to have never been checked out, but in fact still have uncut pages. It would be interesting in this age of circulation databases for a library to determine what the proportions of books frequently read, read once a year, once a decade, or never read at all are.

Then again, who knows? I often pick up books, peruse them or even photocopy them, and that's it: they never leave the library. I found in my brief career working a reshelving cart in a library that my duties didn't include keeping track of this less visible internal circulation. Just as the seemingly lifeless bottom of the ocean hides more than one would imagine, so might the darkest, dustiest depths of a library. Might there be, as Wired recently put it (props to Rodes Fishburne for the link) a "long tail" present when both external and internal demand is graphed out? -- or, if you prefer, a faint but persistent pulse felt in even the dustiest of books?

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