Traveling with books – on your mind

In only one day, I came across two just hilarious examples of how books and minds, across time and space, mock our funny lives as book worms.

I currently tour German publishers with a group of US editors, courtesy to the German Book Office of the Frankfurt Book Fair. This morning, after a nice meeting at Hanser Verlag in Munich, we were shown the villa of Thomas Mann.



Well, to be entirely honest, this is not exactly what the picture to the left shows. The house is in fact a life size replica of the building that the German writer had constructed from the royalties of his thundering success of “Die Buddenbrocks”, a novel about a German mercantile family, and where he lived until he went into exile from Hitler and the Nazi, to Switzerland, and then to California.

After 1945, we have been told, the house was acquired by a local drugstore owner, partly torn down, then adapted, refurbished, later, by 2000, owned by two brother Internet start up millionaires until they went bancrupt, then entirely torn down, and now reconstructed from scratch by an investment banker who made his fortune most recently by brokering, on behalf of Goldmann & Sachs, the merger of Daimler and Chrysler (another big failure of financial adventurism). Here we were, puzzled and in awe at the villa of Thomas Mann, yet now, allegedly with an indoor swimming pool in the basement.

Today, no income from literary work could buy such a house in the first place, of course.

Later this afternoon, over a beer, I read the newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and found the report (unfortunately not online) of Franziska Augstein, who was also accompanying a group of book people across Germany, in her case Muslim librarians.

They were shown, for instance, the destroyed Baroque jewel of what used to be the Anna Amalia library in Goethe’s Weimar, burned down a few years ago and now reconstructed in an amazing effort, painstakingly – to the puzzlement of a librarian from the Gaza strip where libraries also burned down, under Israeli bombardment, but no such effort is even conceivable, as even the acquisition of every single book must now be allowed by the occupying military.

One visiting librarian was intrigued by the pre-eminent role, here in Germany, of a certain Martin Luther, mentioned by the tour guide over and over again. The visitor from Saudi Arabia was familiar, of course, with Martin Luther King – but learns only here about the name patron of the gunned down US civil rights activist, the German reformer and translator of the Bible into local vernacula in the 16th century.

He likes the story, and yet that same guest is appalled in the Baroque environment by those mural paintings of naked bodies, even of children (meaning: angels, in Baroque fashion) – only to be told by a fellow Muslim traveler that this must be some mural against child labor.

Of course it is much too easy to marvel at such misunderstandings while omitting our own misreadings of “cultural discoveries” when on unfamiliar terrain.

In Afghanistan, a Kabul librarian explains that the Taliban did not even need to destruct all the libraries. The largest library of the capital, with some 300.000 books, or the size of an average faculty library in Germany, was not even cataloged, so finding a given title was almost impossible anyway.

Which puts an entirely new light on the importance of one more library visited by the group, called the Middle East Virtual Library, or Menalib in Halle.

Being busy with my group and with keeping up with my work, I couldn’t even check out properly that initiative aiming at digitizing and easing access to books and other documents from across the Arab world and the Middle East. But at a first glance, the initiative looks impressive indeed.

With the reconstructed Thomas Mann villa and the burned down and re-invented Anna Amalia library, and the many misconceptions and sheer misunderstandings in the most simple exchanges when traveling and seeing new things, I feel pretty humble – and, frankly, I like the idea that there is more and more of a back up available, even an imperfect one, yet accessible from almost everywhere, and by anone, of those books that we have and want to consult and read, and which may get lost otherwise by just some stupid accident.

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