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.
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!
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.
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.
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...
on 1 July 2008
Alberto Manguel's The Library At Night is a curious confection: ostensibly a love letter to bookishness, it rejoices in collections of books and their owners through many prisms; how they're collected, how they can be arranged (as many different ways as you like), how they represent knowledge, time or space - even how the space they occupy can express the personality or idiosyncrasy of their collector.
It will instantly appeal to those, like me, who aspire to have their own "real" library one day (I am hoping mine evolves from its current status as a mere collection of books on a few dusty shelves, though I don't know - and this is one aspect Manguel doesn't delve into - what it takes for a merely juvenile collection of books to matriculate to a mature library).
Manguel also describes libraries through the content of the books they hold, and his range is eclectic, from Greek poets, Arab philosophers and Jewish philanthropists to Anglo-Saxon fantasists like Shelley and, memorably, Stoker. Each new vista builds a new perspective, but curiously after these multiple shafts of light, while one is well illuminated, the general impression is no more specific than that libraries - physical libraries - are pretty neat and we'd be worse off without them.
Which, for a while, made me ponder what the point of the book really was. After all, who could disagree with that?
But then it occurred to me, as surely it did to Manguel, that *we* could, in the same way we've, collectively, disagreed that it's strictly necessary to have a record collection or a even a television any more. Books may not have succumbed quite so easily to the digital ether as did music or film - yet - but there's no reason to suppose that state of affairs is irreversible, and if dear old Amazon would kindly (!) sort out its Kindle supply chain, we might yet shortly see a precipitous decline.
Manguel's subtext is that this would be a frightful outcome. He is certainly more equivocal about digital libraries than he is about physical ones, and sees the advent of the electronic book as a threat to the legitimacy and, possibly, longevity of his bibliophilia. For what good are batty old books, occupying acres of floor-space, however splendid the architecture, when you can have millions of volumes on a portable hard drive?
This issue Manguel only really addresses obliquely, and many of his arguments to counter this position are fatuous (especially as regards the durability of electronic information). The gating issue will be whether les gens can be persuaded to curl up with a Kindle rather than a book. I haven't seen one yet, so I'm yet to be persuaded, and that question alone might save the library's bacon. But otherwise the digital realm solves many of the drawbacks (like an optimistic computer programmer, I suppose he would call them "features") of physical libraries that Manguel documents, such as their physical space and susceptibility to combustion. Such as their inherent need to be ordered one way, no matter how cleverly, to the exclusion of all others. Such as the extreme limitations they impose on the actual retrieval of information (imagine how powerful it would be to be able to Google search the text of an entire library. With a digital library, you can).
All told, Manguel adopts a narrow concept of the value of a library, suitable for dinner parties and night time expeditions, but which won't be familiar to the younger generation who have grown up with Google. Though I am sure he would hotly dispute it, I suspect Manguel would emphasise the space, spirit and idiosyncrasy of a library over its actual, textual content; he would accentuate the intellectual statement a library makes over the intellectual statements contained within it; he would value a book's spine as much as he would the pages bound by it. There is a place for that view - to a certain degree, I share it: I like visitors to my house to see my collection of books, which one day may be a library, and I don't expect them to open any of them.
But when using it in anger, when studying or writing; when I need to quickly find what I am looking for, my physical collection can irritate me intensely. At those points - real ones for genuine scholars, you would think - Manguel's cosy view seems Luddite and hopelessly outdated. For professional library users - as opposed to literate bon vivants - the Google revolution will bring only positive change to what used to be a rather painful and time-consuming endeavour.
Whilst this remains a heartfelt and warmly written elegy, it remains likely that, before long, its subject will be a bygone age. We will have to find new ways to represent our learning. The web is already generating them: perhaps Alberto Manguel should set aside his scepticism and sign up to LibraryThing, and catalogue his books there. Wonders never cease.
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)
on 15 August 2008
Having been spellbound by A History of Reading, his fascinating and wide-ranging account of how reading has been part of life through the ages, I was pleased to find another work by Manguel on the matter of books, in this case libraries. And it is again wide-ranging and well researched, touching on libraries and book collections and collectors from ancient times to the present day, from mediaeval storerooms to the donkey library service of Columbia, along with many descriptions of Manguel's own library and his clear love affair with books and their keeping.
Ultimately though, I found this a disappointing work, a strange mix of too much detail and too little, too broad a topic and yet too many unimportant facts given; I also didn't find the writing style as enjoyable, this was dry and dull and referred to a dizzying range of works the reader is presumably familiar enough with to have them glossed in a few lines, to little effect. I actually skim read the final few chapters and was quite pleased to discover a large chunk at the end is given over to citations of other works consulted! The division into subtopics made it feel more like a collection of essays, several of which did indeed engage me, but I felt Manguel was trying too hard to make his work up-to-date. I disagree with his views on the Web and the effects of electronic archiving of books and writing - I've had access to a wider range of authors and ideas via Project Gutenberg and online journals than I would ever have managed with traditional libraries, and have read more, not less, as a result.
The flights of fancy he indulges in about the rustling of pages at night, the secret joy of losing oneself in a bookish world of dim light and cosiness while the world beyond the window sleeps is a pleasing image to any bibliophile, but his is not the book I would be curled up with, nor recommend to others. A book to browse in, maybe use as a springboard for wider reading but not destined to become an old friend.
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.
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.