The smallest library in the world

In Antonio Iturbe’s (2012) book, ‘The librarian of Auschwitz’ we learn something about the extraordinary story of Dita Kraus, who was imprisoned by the Nazis in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Whilst there, she meets an older fellow prisoner, Fredy Hirsch, who appoints her as his librarian. When he does so, he remarks: ‘But it is dangerous. Very dangerous. Handling books here is no game. If the SS catches anyone with a book they execute them.’ Dita, who is aged just 14, is then shown the library. It consisted of eight books. That was all. She encountered the particular books – the sum total of the library – in the following order:

An unbound atlas, with a few pages missing
A Basic Treatise on Geometry
A Short History of the World’ by H. G. Wells
A Russian Grammar
A French novel (which turns out to be ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ by Alexander Dumas)
New Paths to Psychoanalytic Therapy’ by Sigmund Freud
A second Russian novel lacking a cover
and finally, ‘The adventures of the good soldier Svejk’ by Jaroslav Hasek

In this horrifyingly dark place, these eight books served as a reminder of less dreadful and sombre times; and, despite the sheer misery and relentless suffering endured by the prisoners, the books also reminded their readers that words had a magic – and a power that was ultimately louder than guns. Later in the text, Iturbe tells us that:

When they are lined up, the books form a tiny row, a modest display of veterans. But over these past months, they’ve enabled hundreds of children to walk through the geography of the world, get close to history, and learn maths. And also to be drawn into the intricacies of fiction and therefore to amplify their lives many times over. Not bad for a handful of old books.’

As I dwelt on the content of ‘The librarian of Auschwitz’ I began to think about the prospect of creating a library containing just 8 books. More specifically, I began to think of eight books that might, taken together and with no others available, be sufficient to lift people’s spirits and enrich their consciousness. In short, I thought about creating the smallest library in the world. After thinking about this carefully for two days or so (and clarifying the purpose of my ‘library’) I reached a temporary conclusion: This is what I chose:

The Republic’ by Plato
The Odyssey’ by Homer
Anna Karenina’ by LeoTolstoy
Swann’s way’ by Marcel Proust
The glass bead game’ by Hermann Hesse
Men of Ideas’ – a collection of discussions between Bryan Magee (the editor) and a number of leading philosophers
An illustrated guide to Japanese gardens
A letter for Tiger’ by Janosch

Jo, my wife, has also been addressing this question. The eight books she chose book are:

‘A survival guide’
‘A book on the human body and cures for ill health’
Learning to live’ by Luc Ferry
A thousand splendid suns’ by Kaled Hosseini
‘A compendium on world architecture’
The God of small things’ by Arundhati Roy
‘A book about travel that is filled with humorous anecdotes’
The adventures of Alice in Wonderland – a pop book

(She is still to ‘track down’ some of the exact titles and authors.)

I think that the choices different people would make in addressing such a question would make for a wonderful documentary. But that, for the moment is an aside. I have asked one of my friends, Peter V. which books he would choose. I am pretty certain that amongst his 8 texts would be something by Joseph Conrad and another by Thomas Hardy. Perhaps he might include a play by Shakespeare or a work on military history or one of the ‘war poets’ …

In fact, I would be very interested to know which 8 books anyone would choose. But, I realise that it’s not an easy question and it is made more difficult because it is not entirely clear what purpose the library is to serve. At this stage I am thinking that the ‘smallest library in the world’ is for people who do not have access to any other reading – and who might benefit from and be enriched by the range of content in the books. I suppose it is up to the person making the choices what books they think may, taken together, express that which is valued (or useful and uplifting) in human affairs. I should add that I have long been influenced by Freud’s recognition that words were once thought to be magic and that words have the power both to create frames of mind and to ‘conjure’ up all sorts of emotions – both positive and negative. I have also often wondered at the way great stories – such as Homer’s Odyssey – can provoke the delights of imagination, and in so doing, make life simply wonderful.

(Posted on behalf of Robert Adlam by R.M.A.)

1 thought on “The smallest library in the world”

  1. Dear Lisa I hope this makes sense. Rob Adlam, with whom I used to write books, is working on this. Please take part if you wish, either to me or Rob or his website. I suspect that my eight choices will prove to be of men and women who have influenced my character and approach to life-or perhaps, stories of people who have reinforced the ideas I was already forming. So far, authors will include Jane Austen, Jack London, and W C Sherriff… Kind regards Peter V

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