This is a library of exile. A storied space, one created for reflection.
The library contains two thousand books written by those who have been forced to leave their own country, or exiled within it. This is a history from Ovid, through Dante, to Voltaire and Victor Hugo. It is the history of the twentieth century. It is also the history of our times too: the recent decades of extraordinary writers from Lebanon and Syria, the literature of exile of Iran, Palestine, Tunisia. The perpetual pulse of repression and the answering response of new literature. On the walls of the library I have written a new text –
a listing of the lost and erased libraries of the world – from Nineveh and Alexandria to the recent destruction of Sarajevo, Timbuktu and Aleppo and Mosul. It includes the Madrasah libraries and the rabbinical libraries of Lublin and Warsaw. I write down the library of my great-grandfather. I write the words of Heine ‘Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen,’ ‘Where books are burned, in the end, people will also be burned.’
Inside this library is psalm, a quartet of new vitrines that echoes Daniel Bomberg’s great edition of the Babylonian Talmud, printed in the early sixteenth century when this building was new. He worked with Jewish scholars and copyists to make books that hold the Hebrew text, Aramaic translation and commentary within a single page. These beautiful texts were ordered by distant Jewish communities from Aleppo to Frankfurt. Venice was the centre of the world.
This new library has books from fifty-two countries.
Come and sit and read. There is a book plate in each book – add your name. There are readings and conversations about literature, about history and translation, a new dance work, storytelling for children, music. This library celebrates the idea that all languages are diasporic, that we need other people’s words, self-definitions and re-definitions in translation. It honours the words of André Aciman, himself an exile from Alexandria, that he understands himself ‘not as a person from a place, but as a person from a place across from that place. You are – and always are – from somewhere else.’
– Edmund de Waal