The Library At Night by Alberto ManguelThe Library At Night by Alberto Manguel

The Library At Night

byAlberto Manguel

Paperback | October 9, 2007

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"The starting point is a question," Alberto Manguel writes in the introduction to The Library at Night: since few can doubt that the universe is ultimately meaningless and purposeless, why do we try to give it order? After all, our efforts are surely doomed to failure.

It’s hard to think of a more profound or serious subject to start with – but The Library at Night, Alberto Manguel says, is by no means a systematic answer. Rather, it is the story of the search for one. In the tradition of A History of Reading, this book is an account of Manguel’s astonishment at the variety, beauty and persistence of our efforts to shape the world and our lives, most notably through something almost as old as reading itself: libraries.

The result is both intimately personal and incredibly wide-ranging: it is a fascinating study of the mysteries of libraries, a thorough analysis of their history throughout the world and an esoteric, enchanting celebration of reading. It is, perhaps most of all, a book that only Alberto Manguel could have written.

The Library at Night begins with the design and construction of Alberto Manguel’s own library at his house in western France – a process that raises puzzling questions about his past and his reading habits, as well as broader ones about the nature of categories, catalogues, architecture and identity.

Exploring these themes with a deliberately unsystematic brilliance, Manguel takes us to the great Library at Alexandria, and Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence; we sit with Jorge Luis Borges in his office at the National Library in Argentina, travel with donkeys carrying books into the Colombian hinterland, and discover the Fihrist, a chaotic and delightful bibliographic record of medieval Arab knowledge. There seem to be no limits to Manguel’s learning, or his ability to illuminate his investigations with magical, telling details from the past.

Thematically organized and beautifully illustrated, this book considers libraries as treasure troves and architectural spaces; it looks on them as autobiographies of their owners and as statements of national identity. It examines small personal libraries and libraries that started as philanthropic ventures, and analyzes the unending promise – and defects – of virtual ones. It compares different methods of categorization (and what they imply) and libraries that have built up by chance as opposed to by conscious direction. Although it is encyclopedic (and discusses encyclopedias assembled by Diderot and fifteenth-century Chinese scholars alike) and full of concrete historical analysis (including a brief investigation of the prejudices underlying the Dewey Decimal System) this book is animated throughout by a gentle, even playful sensibility: it is governed by the browser’s logic of association and pleasure, rather than the rigid lines of scholarly theory. After all, everything in a library is connected: "As the librarians of Alexandria perhaps discovered, any single literary moment necessarily implies all others."

In part this is because this is about the library at night, not during the day: this book takes in what happens after the lights go out, when the world is sleeping, when books become the rightful owners of the library and the reader is the interloper. Then all daytime order is upended: one book calls to another across the shelves, and new alliances are created across time and space. And so, as well as the best design for a reading room and the makeup of Robinson Crusoe’s library, this book dwells on more "nocturnal" subjects: fictional libraries like those carried by Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster; shadow libraries of lost and censored books; imaginary libraries of books not yet written.

The Library at Night is a fascinating voyage through the mind of one our most beloved men of letters. It is an invitation into his memory and vast knowledge of books and civilizations, and throughout – though mostly implicitly – it is also a passionate defence of literacy, of the unique pleasures of reading, of the importance of the book. As much as anything else, The Library at Night reminds us of what a library stands for: the possibility of illumination, of a better path for our society and for us as individuals. That hope too, at the close, is replaced by something that fits this personal and eclectic book even better: something more fragile, and evanescent than illumination, though just as important.


The starting point is a question.

Outside theology and fantastic literature, few can doubt that the main features of our universe are its dearth of meaning and lack of discernible purpose. And yet, with bewildering optimism, we continue to assemble whatever scraps of information we can gather in scrolls and books and computer chips, on shelf after library shelf, whether material, virtual or otherwise, pathetically intent on lending the world a semblance of sense and order, while knowing perfectly well that, however much we’d like to believe the contrary, our pursuits are sadly doomed to failure.

Why then do we do it? Though I knew from the start that the question would most likely remain unanswered, the quest seemed worthwhile for its own sake. This book is the story of that quest.

–from The Library at Night
Internationally acclaimed as an anthologist, translator, essayist, novelist and editor, Alberto Manguel is the author of several award-winning books, including A Dictionary of Imaginary Places and A History of Reading, which was an international bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book, a Times Literary Supplement International Book o...
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Title:The Library At NightFormat:PaperbackProduct dimensions:384 pages, 9.07 × 5.43 × 1.05 inShipping dimensions:9.07 × 5.43 × 1.05 inPublished:October 9, 2007Publisher:Knopf CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0676975895

ISBN - 13:9780676975895

Reviews

Read from the Book

Night which Pagan Theology could make the daughter of Chaos, affords no advantage to the description of ­order.Sir Thomas Browne, The Garden of ­CyrusThe library in which I have at long last collected my books began life as a barn sometime in the fifteenth century, perched on a small hill south of the Loire. Here, in the last years before the Christian era, the Romans erected a temple to Dionysus to honour the god of this ­wine-­producing area; twelve centuries later, a Christian church replaced the god of drunken ecstasy with the god who turned his blood into wine. (I have a picture of a ­stained-­glass window showing a Dionysian grapevine growing out of the wound in Christ’s right side.) Still later, the villagers attached to the church a house to lodge their priest, and eventually added to this presbytery a couple of pigeon towers, a small orchard and a barn. In the fall of 2000, when I first saw these buildings which are now my home, all that was left of the barn was a single stone wall that separated my property from a chicken run and the neighbour’s field. According to village legend, before belonging to the barn, the wall was part of one of the two castles that Tristan L’Hermite, minister of Louis xi of France and notorious for his cruelty, built for his sons around 1433. The first of these castles still stands, much altered during the eighteenth century. The second burnt down three or four centuries ago, and the only wall left standing, with a pigeon tower attached to its far end, became the property of the church, bordering one side of the presbytery garden. In 1693, after a new cemetery was opened to house the increasing number of dead, the inhabitants of the village (“gathered outside the church doors,” says the deed) granted the incumbent priest permission to incorporate the old cemetery and to plant fruit trees over the emptied tombs. At the same time, the castle wall was used to enclose a new barn. After the French Revolution, war, storms and neglect caused the barn to crumble, and even after services resumed in the church in 1837 and a new priest came to live in the presbytery, the barn was not rebuilt. The ancient wall continued to serve as a property divider, looking onto a farmer’s field on one side and shading the presbytery’s magnolia tree and bushes of hydrangea on the ­other.As soon as I saw the wall and the scattered stones around it, I knew that here was where I would build the room to house my books. I had in mind a distinct picture of a library, something of a cross between the long hall at Sissinghurst (Vita Sackville-West’s house in Kent, which I had recently visited) and the library of my old high school, the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires. I wanted a room panelled in dark wood, with soft pools of light and comfortable chairs, and an adjacent, smaller space in which I’d set up my writing desk and reference books. I imagined shelves that began at my waist and went up only as high as the fingertips of my ­stretched-­out arm, since, in my experience, the books condemned to heights that require ladders, or to depths that force the reader to crawl on his stomach on the floor, receive far less attention than their ­middle-­ground fellows, no matter their subject or merit. But these ideal arrangements would have required a library three or four times the size of the vanished barn and, as Stevenson so mournfully put it, “that is the bitterness of art: you see a good effect, and some nonsense about sense continually intervenes.” Out of necessity, my library has shelves that begin just above the baseboards and end an octavo away from the beams of the watershed ­ceiling.While the library was being built, the masons discovered two windows in the old wall that had been bricked up long ago. One is a slim embrasure from which archers perhaps defended Tristan l’Hermite’s son when his angry peasants revolted; the other is a low square window protected by medieval iron bars cut roughly into stems with drooping leaves. From these windows, during the day, I can see my neighbour’s chickens hurry from one corner of the compound to another, pecking at this spot and at that, driven frantic by too many offerings, like demented scholars in a library; from the windows on the new wall opposite, I look out onto the presbytery itself and the two ancient sophora trees in my garden. But at night, when the library lamps are lit, the outside world disappears and nothing but this space of books remains in existence. To someone standing outside, in the garden, the library at night appears like a vast vessel of some sort, like that strange Chinese villa that, in 1888, the capricious Empress Cixi caused to be built in the shape of a ship marooned in the garden lake of her Summer Palace. In the dark, with the windows lit and the rows of books glittering, the library is a closed space, a universe of ­self-­serving rules that pretend to replace or translate those of the shapeless universe ­beyond.During the day, the library is a realm of order. Down and across the lettered passages I move with visible purpose, in search of a name or a voice, summoning books to my attention according to their allotted rank and file. The structure of the place is visible: a maze of straight lines, not to become lost in but for finding; a divided room that follows an apparently logical sequence of classification; a geography obedient to a predetermined table of contents and a memorable hierarchy of alphabets and ­numbers.But at night the atmosphere changes. Sounds become muffled, thoughts grow louder. “Only when it is dark does the owl of Minerva take flight,” noted Walter Benjamin, quoting Hegel. Time seems closer to that moment halfway between wakefulness and sleep in which the world can be comfortably reimagined. My movements feel unwittingly furtive, my activity secret. I turn into something of a ghost. The books are now 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. The order decreed by library catalogues is, at night, merely conventional; it holds no prestige in the shadows. Though my own library has no authoritarian catalogue, even such milder orders as alphabetical arrangement by author or division into sections by language find their power diminished. Free from quotidian constraints, unobserved in the late hours, my eyes and hands roam recklessly across the tidy rows, restoring chaos. One book calls to another unexpectedly, creating alliances across different cultures and centuries. A ­half- remembered line is echoed by another for reasons which, in the light of day, remain unclear. If the library in the morning suggests an echo of the severe and reasonably wishful order of the world, the library at night seems to rejoice in the world’s essential, joyful ­muddle.

Bookclub Guide

1. What is your overall opinion of The Library At Night? Would you recommend it to a friend? Why, or why not?2. The Library At Night is, among other things, a collection of beautifully chosen fragments. What was your favourite story, library or quotation?3. Discuss the importance of "nighttime" themes in this book, such as chance and coincidence, and their importance to reading and to libraries.4. Alberto Manguel sets out some objections to the widespread optimism about Internet libraries. He mentions their fragility, inaccuracy and evanescence, for example, as well as the diminished pleasure of looking at a screen rather than holding a book. Do you agree with his moderate scepticism about the promise of this new technology?5. Did Alberto Manguel’s thoughts about the nature and significance of catalogues and categorization give you pause? How do you order your own books? Do you think you’ll reorder them differently now?6. In "The Library as Identity," Alberto Manguel presents a delightful lists of books he would like to have in his library, although in many cases they do not exist: “an as-yet-unpublished novel by Joseph Conrad,” for example, and “the diary of Kafka’s Milena.” What would be on your list?7. Discuss the treatment of politics / censorship / memory / history / identity / architecture / the theme of your choice in The Library At Night.8. Can you think of anything Alberto Manguel has left out, or a library you would recommend to him? Which is your favourite library, and what is special about it?9. What did you learn from this book? What surprised you about it?10. What are your criticisms of The Library At Night?

Editorial Reviews

“Manguel does all facets of his subject proud in The Library at Night, celebrating a treasure we so often take for granted. . . . [H]e also creates a treasure of his own.” –The Gazette (Montreal)“[Manguel’s] newest richly imagined and richly anecdotal work . . . [is] his most impassioned and profound case yet for why we should read and why books matter. Why libraries, with their inclusions and exclusions, their deep repositories of our memory and experience, are significant.” –Calgary HeraldPraise for Alberto Manguel:“Manguel is a tireless champion of the written word. He cares about books . . . with a deep, unswerving passion because he believes they are – still, despite our electronic progress – essential links between the individual and the world.”–The Vancouver SunPraise for A Reading Diary:• A Globe and Mail Best Book• Finalist for the writers’ trust of canada drainie-taylor biography prize“Alberto Manguel has probably read more widely than almost anyone else now alive. Among English speakers, perhaps only Harold Bloom, George Steiner and Guy Davenport may outclass him – and they are all twenty years his senior, and long-time university teachers, to boot: In short, Manguel’s approach to books remains resolutely that of an amateur, one who loves with the pure joy sometimes denied the more scholarly.”–The Globe and Mail“A Reading Diary is an utterly seductive book, the kind of book that lovers will want to read aloud to one another, that friends will quote back and forth.”–Calgary Herald“Manguel’s exquisitely distilled style and gentle humility are pure pleasure. His diary is a goldmine of the unexpected, and his companionable, deeply cultivated persona will entrance all those who love to read and to ponder.”–Publishers Weekly (starred review)