When I walked through the carved double doors into the Baroque library of St Gallen, Switzerland I noticed an oval shield above the polished wooden threshold. It says in Greek ‘Sanatorium of the Mind’. Isn’t that a wonderful way to welcome a visitor into a repository of books. What a perfect introduction to a library. A place where you can go and bathe your mind in the warm, gentle light of ideas. A place to exercise and heal your brain.
THE LIBRARY of St Gallen is an elegant galleried room, designed and decorated in a ‘High Baroque’ style. It is all celestial blue ceilings, gilded carvings, cherubs and complicated paintings representing church gatherings from long ago. More than 1400 years worth of manuscripts and rare books are stored here. The oldest date from the 7th century. This is a treasure trove of information. A living history of the ‘written word’ where scholars and academics can study ancient manuscripts and absorb ideas and philosophies from medieval times.
As a present day visitor to the library I gaze up at this spectacular building and feel insignificant in the general scheme of things. The silence reigns supreme. A handful of ‘readers’ work away quietly at desks arranged around the outside walls of the lower gallery. Some researchers will spend a lifetime working on a small number of manuscripts, seeking to decode and understand their contents.
ESCAPE – For me a library has always been a place of escape and freedom. A place to immerse myself in books, ideas and thoughts. I like going into a library and picking a book off the shelf and seeing where it leads me. Unfortunately that is not allowed in the Library of St Gallen. The books are too rare and valuable. However, I did recently select a book, at random, from a shelf in the Gladstone Library in Wales and found myself discovering a 19th century record of the Greek Islands and their ports. There were hand-written notes in the margin, recording the likely welcome a Royal Navy ship would receive in each place! Gladstone was British Prime Minister four times during the reign of Queen Victoria, a scholarly character and a man of principle. In old age he left his personal library of several thousand books, to the local community. The story goes that he and his valet moved the collection from his home at Hawarden Castle down to the local village by wheel-barrow.
UNIQUE STORIES – Every book, in every library has its own unique story. It’s interesting to consider the authors of all these books. What were their motives and concerns when putting pen to paper. If you take a character like Casanova, the famous Venetian socialite and womaniser the answer is simple. He wrote his memoirs because he wanted to be remembered. He was proud of his escapades, his wit, charm and resilience. He was exiled from Venice three times for his degenerate behaviour. On one occasion he was imprisoned in the cells of the Doge’s Palace, a notoriously gloomy, flea-ridden place and he managed to escape. He was an intelligent man; a writer, gambler, charmer and spy. Without his autobiographical ‘Histoire de ma vie’ printed in Germany in 1822, his name would have been forgotten. He lived his life enthusiastically, then in old age he recorded the details meticulously, to ensure that his legend lived on after his death. I can’t help but have a sneaking admiration for the man who saw himself as the 18th century’s most eminent lover. He ensured that his view was carried forward to future generations with the writing of his memoir.
POWER – To truly understand the power of the written word consider Winston Churchill’s six-volume ‘History of the Second World War’ published between 1948 and 1954. It rapidly became the most influential account of the conflict and remained so for generations. Churchill received the Nobel Prize for his work. This is a perfect indication of how a single version of historical events written by a highly respected political leader can define our views forever. It also demonstrates the overwhelming authority of a well-written book.
LIBRARIES are filled with these life stories and histories. Each book unique and different. Just waiting for readers to uncover them. An opportunity to read about ideas that are different from our own and encouraging us to consider other ways of thinking. As Aristotle observed, ‘It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it’. From the grandeur of St Gallen to the welcoming hearth of the Gladstone, every library offers a treasure trove, a wealth of information, concealed within the leather spines of its books.
FOR ME the ‘Sanatorium of the Mind’ never fails to weaves its magical spell. I find myself calm, serene and thoroughly engaged with the library, and its contents. I day dream about the monks translating these books from Greek into Latin. The writing room or ‘scriptorium’ buzzing with industry, as the monks translated and copied out (by hand), each and every word from rare and priceless manuscripts. I think about the blood, sweat and tears that went into these precious volumes. The Library at St Gallen is one of the finest repositories of knowledge in Europe. The collection has survived for many hundreds of years. Should you find yourself in Switzerland, I urge you to visit the Library and discover for yourself a true ”Sanatorium of the Mind”.
For related and background reading by the same author I would suggest:
- Library of St Gallen article – The Library of St Gallen, Switzerland
- Gladstone Library article – Sanatorium for the Mind – Gladstone’s Library, Wales
- Radcliffe Camera – article – Oxford – A series of unexpected events…
- Scriptorium – article and definition – Scriptorium
Written: June 2018