The beauty of the printed word is quickly becoming a distant memory, but there is still so much to appreciate in books and their majestic havens around the world
When I was six years old, Beauty and the Beast was the best thing I’d ever seen. It was the first film I saw in the cinema, it was the first film to inspire any real emotion in me, and I like to think of it as one of the things that sparked my love for libraries. Beauty and the Beast has since remained one of my favourite films, and those of you who have seen it will know which library scene I am talking about. All my life, I have yet to come across a better gift than that which the Beast gave Belle – the beautiful castle library, embossed in splendour and lined with books from ceiling to floor, and wall to wall.
An unashamed lover of books for as long as I can remember, I empathised greatly with all those Matilda-esque bookworms who would choose reading over television any day. I was, however, largely alone amongst my friends with this stance. This has continued to be the case, and in the last few years there has been a marked decline in the frequency with which people just sit down to read a book. Being at a reputable university, and studying a highly academic course, I would have expected something more than ‘Reading? I read the Metro’ as a response to questions about books. The advent of widescreen televisions, Sky boxes, consoles and gaming, smartphones and iPads, pushed the common book into a corner reserved mainly for ‘geeks.’ And then came the e-book. Because why turn pages when you can scroll? It’s such a chore.
But the beauty of books is in the paper. It’s in the print, sometimes too small for comfort, and the illustrated covers, your only insight into a world you will then fashion out of your own imagination. It’s in going to a library, getting lost amongst the shelves, and finding the book you want. Libraries – havens of the printed word. Somewhere along the way, the government forgot to promote libraries, and they stopped being cool and relevant. And along with it went reading. And along with that went a large part of everyday education.
On a recent trip to Cuba, I was struck by how prominent reading was. I expected propaganda to be more akin with other dictatorships I’ve visited – instead, much of it promoted education as the key to advancement. This was a country with 198,000 mobile phones to its 11.3 million inhabitants, and bookshops on every street corner in Havana. Personally, I see that as more developed than a country where much of our everyday reading comes from Blackberry messenger. Libraries have transformed – once sanctuaries for literature, they’re now almost exclusively places to study, associated with the stress that comes with academia. Although good comes out of it, this in itself is a pity – when was the last time you went to a library just to read? Or even just to admire some of the beautiful libraries in this world? As students, we have access to some wonderful ones. King’s College London students will be familiar with the Maughan library – it looks like a castle from the outside, and has an equally epic interior:
London is also home to the British Library, Senate House Library, and the small but adorable Wellcome Trust library, housing book upon book on the specialist topic of History of Medicine, with the names of prominent figures embossed around the balconies:
But let’s look further. The world has some majestic libraries, some straight out of antiquity, holding tomes both old and new. It would take a lifetime to read everything in there. The prospect of that alone makes them special. Sit back and allow yourself to be taken on a library tour of the world.
The Austrian National Library, founded by the eminent royal house of Habsburg, is in the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. Originally in the Prunksaal building, it was divided, after the original list of the books, into a “war” and a “peace” side, which is also reflected in the wall frescoes. Tasteful as ever, the mythology depicted on the walls amidst the collections of papyri, ancient and rare books, maps, portraits and the like make for a library sprung straight from literature itself:
Austria also houses this beautiful gem – The Library of the Benedictine Monastery of Admont. Amidst a mountainous National park and on the River Enn, it is in an area of extraordinary scenic beauty, and remains the oldest monastic library in the world.
When mentioning libraries, one has to include the Library of Congress, research library and de facto national library of the United States. Located in Washington DC, it’s one of the most well-recognised libraries in the world:
Portugal, Germany, Italy, Spain all house beautiful libraries, and this is my personal favourite – the 868-year-old Strahov Monastery Library, in Prague.
The Philosophical Hall can hardly be bettered in terms of lavish decoration, ornate marquetry or heroic statues, nor in the abundance of rare manuscripts and books that it holds. Another of its crowning glories is the Theological Hall, containing 18,000 religious texts:
With 42,000 volumes in the Philosophical Hall alone, it is exhilarating to envisage standing amongst what is essentially the entire sum of human knowledge at the end of the 18th century. Historians, scholars and travellers would flock here. A thirst for knowledge would draw people to libraries. Perhaps that desire to learn of their own accord will once again be sparked amongst the youth of Britain. If the government want education, where better to start than with a book?
I shall leave you with this. A library so perfect it can only be fictional – THAT library from Beauty and the Beast.
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