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.The Library at Night is a collection of essays about libraries, either physical and digital or legendary and unreal, and the hold they’ve had on the imagination of book lovers throughout history. In chapters titled “The Library As Myth”, “As Order”, “As Space”, “As Power”, “As Mind”, “As Survival”, “As Imagination”, “As Identity”, “As Home”, and so on, Manguel shares fascinating bits of historical and literary trivia and asks a series of questions about the acts of reading and collecting books - questions which the majority of book lovers will certainly have pondered from time to time.
The historical side of The Library at Night includes information about library of Alexandria; the life and legacy of Andrew Carnegie; the history and meaning of the British National Library; the personal libraries of historical and literary figures such as Charles Dickens, Jorge Luís Borges or Adolf Hitler; the story of several Jewish libraries which people risked their lives to save during WW2; the extraordinary existence of illicit libraries in concentration camps, many of which were kept safe in the minds of prisoners who’d retell the stories they had memorised to their fellow inmates day after day; and so on. All this information may seem somewhat random, but the essays never become directionless. Manguel has an extraordinary talent to combine seemingly jumbled ideas and pieces of knowledge in an absolutely seamless fashion.
More than in the historical side, though, I was interested in what The Library at Night had to say about libraries as concepts. This interested me greatly both as a librarian-to-be and as someone who lives and breathes books, and loves nothing better than to be surrounded by them. According to Manguel, the creation of a library is, among other things, a way to shape the world, to map our identities, and to bring order to the chaos that surrounds us. And of course, the structure we impose on the order we create says quite a lot about who we are, how we see the world, and what kind of ideology guides our lives. For example, he has this to say on the subject of categorisation:
Certainly, the subjects or categories into which a library is divided not only changes the nature of the books it contains (read or unread), but also, in turn, are changed by them. To place Robert Musil’s novels in a section on Austrian Literature circumscribes his work by nationalistic definition of novel-writing; at the same time, it illuminates neighbouring sociological and historical works on the Austro-Hungarian Empire by expanding their restrictive scholarly views on the subject. Inclusions of Anton Chekov’s Strange Confessions in the section of Detective Novels forces the reader to follow the story with the requisite attention to murder, clues and red herrings; it also opens the notion of the crime genre to authors such as Chekhov, not usually associated with the likes of Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie. If I place Tomás Eloy Martínez’s Santa Evita in my section on Argentinean history do I diminish the book’s literary value? If I place it under Fiction in Spanish am I dismissing its historical accuracy?I find this idea absolutely fascinating – and it’s something I’ve actually considered both when tagging my books on LibraryThing and when labelling posts on this blog. I’ll freely admit that it gives me a certain amount of pleasure to use the tag “Classic” for books that are outside the more traditional and narrow definitions of what belongs in the canon, for example. The same goes for using the tag “Fantasy” for books that people tend to separate from the storytelling tradition they clearly belong to for reasons of literary respectability. On the other hand, neither my blog nor my LibraryThing account have ever made use of the labels “literary fiction” or “women’s fiction”, as these are both categories I have a big problem with. The way I tag my books doesn’t change the world, of course, but it does help me change a section of my world, giving it a structure I feel more comfortable with and which reflects my personal sect of values rather than those of the world at large.
All this ties in with questions I have often asked myself about the extent to which a book’s placement in a library or bookshop influences how we read it. As much as we say that we don’t let things like genre labels or the age of the target audience and the expectation that come with these affect how we read (by either making us condescend to the books or making us expect more of them; or perhaps neither, but simply by making us expect the story to follow a certain direction) it’s quite difficult to know for sure. The only way we could put this to the test would be to have access, temporarily at least, to the anonymous library Alberto Manguel dreams of. Sadly, this isn’t possible, but these things are nonetheless quite interesting to think about.
As you can certainly tell by now, The Library at Night asks a lot of conceptual questions about reading, collecting books and organizing them, building libraries, and so on. But I really hope that by saying the book is conceptual I’m not making it sound abstract or dry, as it absolutely isn’t. On the contrary: it’s riveting and deeply personal, and it’s one of the most well-written non-fiction books I’ve read in a long time. Highly recommended to book lovers of every persuasion.
Other bits I liked:
Some nights I dream of an entirely anonymous library in which books have no title and boast no author, forming a continuous narrative stream in which all genres, all styles, all stories converge, an all protagonists and all locations are unidentified, a stream into which I can dip at any point of its course. In such a library, the hero of The Castle would embark on the Pequod in search of the Holy Grail, land on a desert island to rebuild society from fragments shored against his ruins, speak of his first centenary encounter with ice, and recall, with excruciating detail, his early going to bed. In such a library there would be a single book divided into a few thousand volumes and, pace Callimachus and Dewey, no catalogue.Reviewed at:
Every library both embraces and rejects. Every library is by definition the result of choice, and necessarily limited in its scope. And every choice excludes another, the choice not made. The act of reading parallels endlessly the act of censorship.
Books are transformed by the sequence in which they are read. Don Quixote read after Kim and Huckleberry Finn are two different books, both coloured by the reader’s experiences of journeys, friendship and adventures. Each of these kaleidoscope volumes never ceases to change; each new reading lends it yet another twist, a different pattern. Perhaps every library is ultimately inconceivable, because, like the mind, it reflects upon itself, multiplying geometrically with each new reflection. And yet, from a library of solid books we expect a rigour that we forgive in the library of the mind.
I have no feeling of guilt regarding the books I have not read and perhaps will never read; I know that my books have unlimited patience. They will wait for me till the end of my days.
A Striped Armchair
Buried in Print
(Have I missed yours?)