Off to Einsiedeln early on Wednesday – to see the magnificent abbey and its library of course, but for half the group the day began with a visit to the Werner Oechslin Library Foundation, also in Einsiedeln. No particular thoughts on what to expect, although people who build libraries in their back-gardens are always going to be interesting and a little unusual.
Werner Oechslin is a retired Professor of Art and Architectural History, with wide experience of the universities of the United States, Germany and Italy, as well as Switzerland. Also a book collector on a very large scale. (Who was it who told me earlier in the week that academics didn’t buy books?) His collection of some 50,000 books has now metamorphosed from private library to public institution – an exquisite research library, the new building designed around his ideas in conjunction with the Swiss architect, Mario Botta.
The insistence is on the primacy of the original editions, the not always recognised sine qua non of serious research. Only just out of hospital, Dr Oechslin was there to greet us, talk to us, and insist on this point – pulling out books to demonstrate in immediate and obvious ways just how you could be misled by not looking at the original edition. He charms us too, by saying that he has learnt far more from booksellers’ catalogues than from many an academic text. But it was when he said something like, “Do you know, there are still people who believe in digitisation”, that I began to realise that here was an exceptional mind. Every rare book librarian in the world should be made to go and sit at his feet. That goes for booksellers too.
Not just the first editions, but the seconds, thirds, fourths and lifetime editions – what author has ever completed a book without realising that something has been left out, something needs modifying, something needs refining? The second thoughts can be more valuable than the first.
The books begin in art and especially architecture, but spill over into the science, philosophy, logic, history and mathematics of five centuries. The governing principle is one of the connectivity of knowledge, the interdependence of all the disciplines – the revelation of contexts – and beyond that the science of method and order – the organisation of information. There are limits to the amount we can absorb in one lifetime – how do we arrange the most useful parameters of what we need? The theory of libraries itself is here put under examination. The placement of the books itself a form of knowledge. The physicality of the books and the physicality of the library themselves a form of meaning. An organisation adopted that harks back to the mnemonic and associative theories of the ancients. A division between precision and practice – the known knowns – on straight shelves, and the imprecise and the struggling towards order on gently curving ones. All here is symbol and metaphor, the individual and the whole. The library steps a Trojan Horse. The library literally at the crossroads of the Germanic and Latin worlds, bridging the pathway of the pilgrims’ route to Santiago de Compostela. The real path a metaphor for the conceptual one.
The man fizzes with ideas, spilling out in the never-ending spiral so aptly etched into the floor. I seldom make notes, but here they become illegible – too much, too fast. Here’s a man I could listen to for hours. Ended all too soon.
Somewhat breathless, we adjourn for another lunch. Fabrizio Govi and Alain Moirandat reminisce over the first books they sold Werner. Two hard-headed Americans speculate on the value of the collection – interestingly coming up with precisely the same figure.
And then the baroque magnificence of the abbey. We pass first through the monastery school where Werner Oechslin was educated. Tour of the library, exhibition of maps and plans. Tour of the abbey – the Black Madonna. A restful and undemanding afternoon. Coach back to Lucerne to prepare for the farewell dinner. Not sure I can actually eat any more – one last push.
Back to the Hotel Montana high above Lucerne. Plain and simple fare. Some of you like details of these things. A wasabi risotto with roasted scallop and a topping of ginger (and strangely pink) foam is one course I’ll not easily forget – nor will my waistline, such as it is. Pause while the top table do the badge and medal thing again – this time with addition of some large plaques.
Final words from our genial and so engaging host, Alain Moirandat, who then leads off the dancing at dervish pace. A presentation to the company of some Swiss chocolate (mine got ‘mislaid’ – I have my suspicions) and a Victorinox peeler (Swiss design classic) apiece. But a relatively early night – most of the company heading for the Zurich Bookfair early in the morning.
A grand few days. Sincere and heartfelt thanks to our Swiss hosts. A superb programme.