The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel
As I’m someone who’s fairly obsessive about books it would come as no surprise that I’d be keen on reading books about books! And I have read a lot of them over the years; but the Manguel book, which was a birthday gift from Eldest Child, is one I’d been keen on reading for a long time, and as I’d reached a point where I wasn’t sure what I wanted to read next, I picked it up.
Old books we have known but not possessed cross our paths and invite themselves over. New books try to seduce us daily with tempting titles and tantalizing covers.
I’ve previously read one book by Manguel, “A Reading Diary”, which I loved very much; and many commenters mentioned how good “Library” was so it’s been on my radar for a while. And what a fascinating read it was. You could I suppose describe it as a series of essays, connected by the fact that they all consider the library as an entity, but each from a completely different point of view. So there are sections titled “The Library as Myth”, “The Library as Power” and “The Library as Survival”, for example. Within each chapter, Manguel mixes thoughts about his own library and its construction, the kind of books he houses there, other libraries through history, the uses of books and literacy in power struggles, how libraries can spring up in the most unlikely places and help people to survive dreadful situations, book burning – and so on.
There’s a dazzling display of erudition here – Manguel obviously knows books, libraries and their history well – and one of the elements I found most fascinating was the detail included about libraries from antiquity in cultures all over the world. It’s easy in our western, English-speaking world to think that we’re the repository of all knowledge and literature but that’s patently not the case, as there are civilisations going back centuries who were amassing records of stories and histories and philosophies in one form or another. Poignantly, Manguel relates the fates of the many, many libraries that have been lost over the years, from the ancient library of Alexandria, to the modern National Library of Lebanon. To any bibliophile these losses are traumatic, and it seems that culture and knowledge is one of the first things to suffer during wars and conflicts.
Of course, running through this volume is Manguel’s huge love of books and what they can tell us and where they can take us. So references abound, taking in everything from The Iliad to Dorothy L. Sayers. Borges, whom Manguel knew (and read to) is a recurring presence, and I hadn’t realised that he was a librarian for part of his life; famously, he said “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” Fittingly enough, there is a section on imaginary books and imaginary libraries and I think Borges would have approved!
It’s hard to encompass such a wide-reaching and wide-ranging book in a blog post, particularly as there is so much food for thought as well as so many new books and authors to be tracked down. The fact that there is a list of Manguel’s 100 favourite books at the end is not going to be helpful for the TBR either. Manguel celebrates the joy of random explorations of books, the chance finds whilst browsing and the happy accidents which bring us to a book we might never have consciously chosen.
We pick our way down endless library shelves, choosing this or that volume for no discernible reason: because of a cover, a title, a name, because of something someone said or didn’t say, because of a hunch, a whim, a mistake, because we think we may find in this book a particular tale or character or detail, because we believe it was written for us, because we believe it was written for everyone except us and we want to find out why we have been excluded, because we want to learn, or laugh, or lose ourselves in oblivion.
As well as more philosophical musings, there are sections on how to organise and catalogue your books – always a knotty problem – and a history of the Dewey system. Personally, it’s the cross-over books I find hardest – do I put all my Margaret Atwood books with the Viragos even though half are from different publishers? Or do I just put the Virago Atwoods with the Viragos and the rest with women authors? Or have a separate section for Atwood on her own? It makes my head hurt…
We tend nowadays to take for granted access to the written word in the form of books, newspapers, magazines, electrical devices and all of the material on the InterWeb. However, it’s sobering to realise that this is a relatively recent freedom we’ve had and one that we should guard jealously. The Manic Street Preachers famously stated that “Libraries gave us power” and certainly literacy is crucial to trying to resist dictatorship of all sorts. At several points in the book, Manguel relates situations where books and libraries and individuals have suffered at the hands of regimes like the Nazis; the literature has often helped them to survive and in dark times we still turn to books for the wisdom they can provide. “The Library at Night” was as powerful and involving as I expected, and I suspect it might have been even more effective had I read a chapter at a time and then read something else while I assimilated Manguel’s thoughts. As it was, “Library” sent me scurrying back to rearrange and explore my own personal collection; and I expect it to be a book I’ll return to over and over again.