Monday 6 June 2022

Picture Post #75 The Calm of the Library

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be
neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Martin Cohen

What makes this image particularly striking to me, is the quiet and earnest way the figures regard the books even as they stand amidst a scene of utter devastation. The man on the right nonchalant, hands-in-pockets browses the shelves seemingly oblivious to the collapsed roof just behind him; while another visitor to the library (in the left background) is clearly lost in the pages of one of his finds…

So, what‘s the back story? And this is that on the evening of 27 September, 1940, the Luftwaffe dropped 22 incendiary bombs on London's Holland House - a rambling, Jacobean country house, dating back to 1605, destroying all of it with the exception of the east wing, and, incredibly, almost all of the library.

The picture was originally used to make a propaganda point about the British shrugging off the Blitz, and that’s fine too, but today, stripped of its wartime context, I think it contains a more appealing message about how books and ideas can take us into a different world.


Thomas O. Scarborough said...

I can imagine a bomber's report-back to high command, 'We destroyed everything of any value or utility, Sir.'

My house was raided once. They didn't touch the books. The real treasure was still in my hands.

Keith said...

Three thoughts came to mind, based on this compelling image …

First, that the unencumbered flow of ideas is one of the key pillars of democracies’ strengths and endurance, distinguishing democracies from dictatorships, which tellingly fear ideas other than safe, sanctioned orthodoxy.

Second, that books and their preservation are key to the chronicling of a nation’s culture, people, intellectual treasure, and history — underscored by the literal book burning by dictators, and the metaphorical ‘book burning’ by those who want to ban select book content from schools and other pubic venues.

And third, how the three poised browsers in the hull of the bombed library dignify the British brand of a ‘stiff upper lip’ in the face of danger and devastation, a defiant composure forged in the fires of the Nazi Blitz.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

You pick up some good thoughts here, Keith. I would add a consideration. Non-literate societies, or those which in their recent past were non-literate, or those which are largely non-literate in practice.

Martin Cohen said...

Ah, these are very dignified thoughts, but not really touching on the image? Which to me is not about `"stiff upper lips" but rather about the strangeness of life. The image is surreal, even as it is all too real.

Keith said...

I believe one’s lived experience matters profoundly as to how someone reacts to an image like this. One thing I omitted in my comment above is that my parents lived firsthand through the trials of the London Blitz. I recall the harrowing, raw, grim accounts they shared. All very different than what one might imagine many decades later, approaching this as a somewhat fun Rorschach exercise.

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