I have too many books.

I know this because  a) books go missing and remain lost and b) 2014 was the year I lost control of the TBR (I couldn’t keep my catalogue on librarything up-to-date) and c) I face analysis paralysis deciding which book to read next and then when I do, I can’t find it, bringing me full circle to a).

I was going to post a picture of my physical library to demonstrate the sorry state of affairs, but it is a disgrace, a battleground no less. Gone are the days of the pleasant reading space.  These days I must cut a swathe through the book stacks, risking life and limb, or more likely concussion, just to find a reading seat.

Woodcut from Swift’s Battle of the Books

In 1704, there were similar scenes of aggression in St James’s library, although the battle was not between books and reader.  It was a civil war between ancient and modern books. Did the Ancients contain everything one needed to know, or did one need the Moderns?  Could the Moderns claim superiority when they were standing on the shoulders of giants?  Were the Moderns deserving of the shelf space they occupied in the King’s Library? 

Jonathan Swift satirises the controversy then raging in European circles by pitching the books and their authors against each other in an epic battle, replete with sabre-rattling, insults and side skirmishes. The argument had started in France with Fontanelle arguing for the Moderns.  Sir William Temple countered robustly on behalf of the Ancients.  Considering he was working as Temple’s secretary at the time, Swift showed considerable panache/courage/bravery satirising the controversy, and you might think that the outcome was a given.  Indeed the narrator does at times show Temple’s bias: The army of the  Moderns

Consisting chiefly of lighthorse, heavy-armed foot and mercenaries – whereof the foot were in general but sorrily armed and worse clad, their horses large, but extremely out of case and heart. However, some few by trading among the Ancients had furnished themselves tolerably enough.

However, Swift gives his text the feel of an ancient manuscript, feigning missing lines, sections and ultimately, leaving the battle unfinished.  The argument is for others to win, not the satirist.

Now I’m no expert on either the Ancients or Swift’s 15th-17th century Moderns, and so I cannot comment on the outcomes of the duels as they occur in The Battle of the Books.  Nor can I say I’m particularly curious to investigate in detail.  However, it strikes me that the argument is timeless.  In my library, contemporary literature could well be slugging it out with the literature of the 18th-20th centuries.  I might spend some time during 2015 setting up a similar battle. A mini tournament of books if you will. But first I have to identify (and find) the champions for either side.

I have girded my loins and donned protective headgear.  I’m going in …

… guaranteeing carnage in the form of a cull.

 

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