Roberto Calasso has devoted his entire life to books—reading, editing, translating, publishing, organizing, and simply being in their presence. He is director of a prestigious Italian publishing house and author of many books, including the international best seller, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony.
In an interview in the latest issue of the Paris Review, he is described as, “a writer on esoteric topics, a book collector, a translator of Nietzsche and Karl Kraus, and an editor who oversees the publication of some ninety books a year, in every domain from the scientific to the poetic…”
Calasso’s father was an attorney, a learned legal scholar and most of the books is his library were Latin texts on the theory of law, published between the 16th and 17th century. Calasso recalls how he felt when he was there. “Just to be around them, with their obscure titles and authors, was far more useful to me than reading so many other books later on.”
As they are sitting in his study in Milan, the interviewer asks Calasso to describe it. (What a good question, I thought.) He replies it is like being in paradise. It requires a big table, upon which the books and papers and dictionaries are set in separate piles. Each wall has a different them, one Greece and Rome, another on India, where he has studied Vedic sacrifice.
He is then asked how he organizes his library or to be more exact, his libraries, containing about twenty thousand volumes located in three separate locations in Milan. He replies that to answer the question properly would require an autobiography.
“For me there are several criteria—practical, aesthetic, capricious. The essential thing is to obey what Aby Warburg [founder of the Warburg Library in London] called “the law of the good neighbor.”
Calasso is said to “stand for a lost ideal.” One hopes that there will always be individuals who cherish their books as much as he does, who quite simply want to be around them and enjoy their sensory dimensions. The books I read on a screen have none of that appeal. And I miss that a great deal
One also hopes that there will always be libraries that house books on their shelves, not in the basement or underneath the football stadium. Where are the books in the emerging digital libraries? What will we lose when there are gone?
Here is what will be lost, a collection of some of the most inviting libraries in all the places where they still remain.