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The Library At Night is perfect reading for those who enjoy "books about books", or books about the pleasure of reading. After his excellent A History of Reading, Alberto Manguel has now presented us with what is effectively a history of libraries in The Library At Night and the effect is equally as satisfying.

Perhaps "history" is not quite the right word, for in his 15 chapters, Manguel writes of not only the history of libraries, but also the impact and meaning of libraries through the centuries.

Everything is covered here, from the history of the great library of Alexandria to the development of the most modern libraries such as the British Library or the library of the Freie Universität Berlin. The book considers location, cataloguing systems, themes, and great librarians (Gottfreid Leibnitz of Hanover, Andrew Carnegie who created over 2500 libraries, Aby Warburg of Hamburg and many others). But the book is far more than history, containing many digressions on the nature of literature itself, and the process of reading.

At times the book has an almost magical or mystical feel to it. Manguel has created a library of his own in the Loire Valley, and indeed the title of the book, The Library at Night is derived from his feeling that,

". . .at night the atmosphere changes. Sounds become muffled, thoughts become louder . . . time seems closer to that moment halfway between wakefulness and sleep . . . the books become the real presence and it is I, their reader, who, through cabbalistic rituals of half-glimpsed letters, am summoned up and lured to a certain volume and a certain page".

It is these almost whimsical passages which give the book its charm, for after all, libraries are not merely collections of physical objects, but have atmosphere, cultures, accumulated historical usages which have almost sunk deep into the walls and shelves creating an experience unique to each one.

In the chapter "The Library as Shadow", Manguel covers book-burning and the destruction of libraries. Many times through history, libraries have been destroyed, or at very least whole categories of books have been sent for destruction. Caliph Omar, who issued the order to destroy the Library of Alexandria, had a typical attitude of the fundamentalist,

"If the content of these books agree with the Holy Book, then they are redundant. If they disagree, then they are undesirable. In either case they should be consigned to the flames".

I did not realise that Europeans Catholic leaders destroyed the great libraries of Mexico and Central America, eliminating the histories of the Mayan and Aztec civilisations so that they are forever lost to us. Similarly, in the 16th century, the Ottomans destroyed the Great Corvina Library, said to be one of the jewels of the Hungarian crown. Manguel raises the issue of the American Patriot Law which allows federal agents to obtain records of books borrowed from public libraries, which has caused some libraries to reconsider their acquistion policies. Libraries can be subversive and dangerous to a wide range of governments.

I enjoyed this book greatly. It is beautifully produced by Yale University Press and is richly illustrated with photographs and other drawings. I cannot think how a book on libraries could be more comprehensive, and yet totally readable, and I would recommend it to any lover of books and respecter of the concept of libraries, whether private or public.
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on 4 October 2013
The Library at Night is a book by one of my favourite readers, a man who has made a career writing about us and our obsession, in the process creating a series of books that highlight the joys of books and all that would relate to them.

In this particular one, Alberto Manguel's subject is libraries, taking us the reader from his own, created in an old stone barn beside his 15th century home in France, through the centuries to Alexandria, via places such as China, Greece, Egypt, and Rome.

This book although seemingly inspired by the creation of his own library, and his obvious passion for books, is also a call to arms. Although Manguel knows he is calling from the ramparts of a castle already stormed and taken, that libraries as repositories of physical books are on the decline, this doesn't stop him passionately defending libraries & books against the digital onslaught. This book is also a prayer, and love letter, calling all of history - real or imagined - to present it's case.

The Library at Night, is divided into fifteen chapters, each one an essay on an aspect of the library as seen by the writer, they range from The library as Myth, as Order, as Power, ending with The Library as Home. These headings provide a starting point, a diving board for Alberto Manguel, to regale us with anecdotes, stories, quotes, ransacking his own wealth of knowledge & historic documentation to allow the reader to consider the impact this repository has had on civilizations and how in times of darkness it has been a safe-holding, awaiting the next period of enlightenment.
Ranging from the doomed library of Alexandria to the personal libraries of Charles Dickens, Aby Warburg and Count Dracula, this personal and deliberately unsystematic book defines the critical role that libraries have and must continue to play in our civilization as deep repositories of our memory and experience.

In the game where you imagine people from the present or the past, sitting at a dinner table with some wonderful repast & inspired banter, or at some quaint bar a glass of something warm and golden, the conversation flowing the same way, Alberto Manguel would be one of my guests, I love how he writes, how his thought process seems to work, how he somehow adds warmth & passion to subjects that could appear dry & dusty.

This is the fourth book by him that I've read and like the others they somehow manage to be both page turners, and something you just want to relish, the writing is something you want to wallow in, to savour, repeating sentences whilst grinning inanely knowing you have found a likeminded soul & one that has the words to communicate how you feel.

"The Ideal Library symbolizes everything a society stands for. A society depends on its libraries to know who it is because libraries are societies memory" this quote comes from A Reader on Reading, it works just as well to define this book and probably Alberto Manguel's world view.
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on 20 March 2017
I have a soft spot for books about books so I was excited to read this! It was a very informative read and sometimes seemed a bit heavy for a leisurely read but this was not how I felt for much of the book. I loved Alberto Manguel's reverent tone when he discusses his own library because I would probably speak of my books in a similar manner. I certainly learnt about the history of reading which is of great interest to me so I closed this book much more informed on my favourite past-time which was great!
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on 4 January 2010
Manguel has written a book whose writing and 'bookness' reflect the baroque sophistication and maturity of the medium. If writing style is one example of Heideggerian 'being in the world', Manguel models what it is to be fully alive both in history and in the present, firing on all synapses and infatuated with the physicality of 'the book'. As the web takes over the ethereality of 'content', the materiality of 'the book' (the smell of the ink, the crisp dryness of the paper, its resistance to our fingers as we turn the page, the abstraction of the shapes of the typographer's choice of type) becomes more exciting and primal. Manguel understands this and revels in it. The breadth of his cultural references could hardly be wider but is never pretentious. He carries his erudition and self-consciousness lightly so we don't feel intimidated or belittled by him. His position on the world wide web is one of the most best I have ever read: 'If the Library of Alexandria was the emblem of our ambition of omniscience, the Web is the emblem of our ambition of omnipresence; the library that contained everything has become the library that contains anything. Alexandria modestly saw itself as the centre of a circle bound by the knowable world; the Web, like the definition of God first imagined in the twelfth century, sees itself as a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere' (p. 322). Manguel (like anyone who buys their books through it, or writes/reads book reviews on it!) is not 'against' the Web - he simply has reservations about it (in comparison with physical books or 'codexes') and suggests that it is helping create a way of thinking and social organization that is perhaps (by comparison) not as good. Clearly this view or this book is not for the many, but he is not a snob or an elitist. Let those from any culture - the breadth of his examples is dazzling - simply buy, read and enjoy this book.
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on 29 December 2009
If you really love books and are buried in books (like I am here at home) this book will make you envious at the author's superbly housed library. He takes you on a labyrinthine tour of some wonderful and obscure tomes that he has collected and cherished over the years. His enthusiasm for reading is infectious and it's good to hear someone give voice to the pure sensuousness that can be got from a decent book. Yes, we probably are a dying breed. You can stuff your Kindles. Whoops, sorry Amazon!
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on 11 September 2013
So Alberto arranges his library alphabetically (p51) does he? How dashed unimaginative - it wouldn't work for me. My library, if I may so dignify it, is more like Professor Branestawm's (see The Adventures of, Chapter 3). A jolly handsome book, largely because sumptuous margins are privileged over spindly columns of text (nine words per line) - should this worry us?* - and a tad over-written for my taste: the rather-too-pleased-with-itself title should perhaps have alerted me. Al gets Japanese nomenclature wrong - Kenzaburo Oe would surely file under 'O' whichever way you wrote the two components - and writes absurdly of the Library of Alexandria that, 'having set itself up to record everything, past and future, [it] might also have foreseen the chronicle of its own destruction'; spot the baneful influence of Borges!

* 'Books as objects have often been granted spurious authority' (p92)
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on 1 September 2009
Simply brilliant in so many ways, not only is this book an introduction to the world of quiet calm, but it also brings the reader into the "private reading space" that is often looked for, and found in libraries.
This is obviously a subject close to the author's heart, and hence meticulously researched. There are many surprises found on these pages, to be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in, or just plain love of books. For example it may not be common knowledge that "the oldest known printed book in the world" is the Diamond Sutra, bought from a Daoist monk, and now in the British Museum.
Or, one might enjoy reading about Melvil Dewey, who began the decimal system now commonly used in the categorising of library books.
A personal favourite of all of the snippets in this book, might have to be that of the new Library of Alexandria in Egypt, "whose first stone was laid in 1988"...."the completed building inaugurated in 2003."
There are too many points of interest to mention here, but suffice it to say, this book is stuffed with gems.
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on 4 April 2009
There are books designed for learning and there are books designed to give you a pleasant reading experience. You always learn something from a literary work and I suppose there is always some degree of pleasure in reading a textbook. But intense pleasure and learning very rarely mix in a single book. And even rarer is the transformation of this into a literary genre in itself.
The Library at Night is one of these rare books and Manguel a real master of the genre...
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on 1 May 2010
This book, like the libraries Alberto describes, is enchanting, inspiring and heartbreaking. Alberto writes superb prose and provides a stunning defence for the power of the library, whilst illustrating its protean form. Alberto argues that the library, like the Tower of Babel and the Library of Alexandria, encapsulates what it means to be human in that we always attempt to outreach our grasp that each library reflects the differing aspects of humanity, from the children's library of a Nazi concentration camp, to the horror of Hitler's own library; Alberto argues that the library is a reflection of the best and worst of us. Alberto weaves a stunning history of Western Civilisation encapsulating our greatest achievements in trying to contain the universe in a collection of books, to the darkest hours of censorship and book-burning at the hands of Totalitarian states. A beautiful read.
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on 19 October 2014
Bought this because Penelope Lively recommends it. It is a brilliant literary read.
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