Jun 8, 2010

The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel

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.

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.
Reviewed at:
A Striped Armchair
Bookphilia
Buried in Print

(Have I missed yours?)

36 comments:

  1. I have never actually considered how books are placed in libraries and shops and how they affect my choice.

    Did the book mention The Akashic Records by any chance? I know it is not a library as such, but I wondered if it might be included.

    You mentioned that you have no guilt about the books you haven't read. I am the opposite and really do have guilt. I think it is the fact that I have been brought up in a country where the classics are legendary worldwide and I always feel bad when someone asks me if I have read Bronte or Austen.
    Also I have an A level in English Literature and managed to pass it without ever having to read a classic!!!

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  2. I was flipping through this book at the bookshop the other day, but wasn't able to sit down and read it - I felt the bookshop people could see in my eye that I wasn't going to buy anything and were judging me. But it looked so interesting, both the discussions of the concept of a library and the little anecdotes Manguel told. I liked it when he said that Samuel Pepys (I think...) used to make little high heels to set his books on, so they'd all be the same height.

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  3. Wow, this book sounds really fascinating. I honestly have never thought a lot about book genre and classification, and how that affects a book except maybe for in marketing/sales. I'll have to give this book a closer look.

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  4. Love the discussion on tagging your posts. I don't use literary fiction or women's fiction either, just like I wouldn't use genre fiction or men's fiction. I even find it difficult to know the line between classics and modern adult books that likely will be classics one day but aren't quite old enough to be there yet (like The Handmaid's Tale). And I do admit, I get a great pleasure out of marking older YA and children's books as classics! :D

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  5. Not only how we label the books but decisions on the inclusion or exclusion of books help to shape our perception of what is important. I think that libraries are very similar to museums in that way. And of course you have the same sort of controversies in museums as you do with books. I don't know if you caught all the U.S. uproar a couple of years ago over whether or not the Enola Gay would go into the Air and Space Museum and if so, how it would be labeled. (the plane that helped save the world? the plane that helped doom the world?) There are some wonderful books you will no doubt encounter in library school on the negotiation and manipulation of memory that will interest you very much!

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  6. What a fascinating collection. I'd love a similar book of essays on fictional libraries - that from Bradbery's F.451 or Shadow of the Wind.

    Classification is such an interesting topic. It is absolutely necessary, but by its shear existence, it is limiting.

    I love the quote you included at the end, but like your earlier commenter, I DO feel the guilt of what hasn't been read!

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  7. I love books about books, reading, and book collecting, so this book seems like it would be perfect for me. I think I would find the sections about Dickens' personal library very interesting as well. He is a favorite of mine, and I think it would be really neat to find out the kinds of things he was reading!!

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  8. Sometimes I am so baffled by the breakdown and organization in bookstores! I never know where certain books are going to lurk, and often I think it would be great if all books lived together. Who knows how many books I'm not finding because they're tucked away in a section I haven't been visiting!

    Also, the latest division I find really weird and slightly offensive is that at our local Borders they have a sections specifically for African American fiction. And this doesn't include stuff like Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston... instead it's contemporary stuff. It just seems really weird to segregate books based on the target audience and/or the race of the author!

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  9. I really loved this one too; I copied the same passages you've shared here! If you especially enjoyed the discussion and consideration of libraries as concepts, you might also appreciate Matthew Battles' Library: An Unquiet History; its tone is very different, but the subject matter would still likely interest you.

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  10. This book sounds like a readers dream! I've been interested in Carnegie libraries here lately.

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  11. The necessity for categorization is the main reason I've never been that interested in becoming a librarian, so I love the idea of a library without categories...sort of like a used book store with everything jumbled together, like the difference between taking a course and becoming an autodidact!

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  12. I've been wanting to read this for so long!! And I just loved this post...I love watching how my own personal "library" has evolved. I was thinking about this last night actually. When I started blogging, it was basically nothing but fantasy and sci-fi and now it has expanded so much and I just love that :) Also love your commentary on LT tags :) I've been wanting to go back and play with my LT tags lately and have fun with them, but that's a HUGE project.

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  13. I've read parts of Manguel's History of Reading, but surprisingly, I had not heard of this book of his. Thanks for highlighting it - I'll definitely have to buy this one for my personal collection.

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  14. I love books on books and libraries like this. And I like tinkering with the tags on Library Thing, categorizing and sorting my books different ways... it sounds like a great read.

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  15. I have this book sitting on my shelf "begging" to be read. As a librarian, I'm really looking forward to it.

    I'm somewhat fascinated by book/information categorization and the effect it does or does not have on us and our thinking/expectations/etc.

    There are times that I wish I could walk into the bookstore and find the books shelved alphabetically by title regardless of genre. Sometimes I don't want the influence of genre and other categorizations. I get particularly annoyed by the separation of much fantasy/science fiction from general fiction (I have enjoyed your posts that discuss some of the "interesting" thinking some have about fantasy literature!). I suppose that bookstores need to categorize or they would not stay in business, but I can have my "fantasies" I guess.

    We have, in the library where I work, purposely classified some books into areas that other libraries would not. I'm guessing that this happens in other libraries too in order to better serve the demographic/constituency of the library.

    Looks like I'd better read Manguel's book soon!

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  16. Wow this book sounds really interesting. I'm going to guess that if I had access to this anonymous library, I would most definitely leave with an entirely different pile of books than I would at my normal library.

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  17. This sounds like not only an interesting read, but an important one. Thanks for the review so I know about it!

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  18. I have a couple of Manguel's books on my shelves. But have I read them yet? Noooo.

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  19. How cool! This book sounds absolutely mesmerizing, and while I was reading your post I was remembering a book I read to my class last year called The Library Card by Jerry Spinelli. While it's not nearly so beautiful as this sounds, it is a fantasy in a way of how a library card changed the course of four different kids' lives; the novel is told in four parts, each separate but connected through this card which appears at just the right timing to be most effective. Well, enough about that book; I want to read this one!

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  20. I must read this book! I just ordered it at my library and it says I am number 1 in the queue so I should be able to pick it up in the next few days.

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  21. I love being the only person in a library. I really, really want to read this!

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  22. Sounds interesting! I've added it to my library reserve list, appropriately enough. The part about tagging posts made me think as well. I do use the tag literary fiction, honestly because I looked at what other people did when I started tagging and that seemed common. I never know exactly how to determine what gets that tag though. I also use century tags, so I could just stick with those instead of defining classics or literary fiction. Thoughts to ponder.

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  23. Sounds good to me! Seems like a perfect read for all booklovers!! :)

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  24. The library has always been my secret, safe place where I can go and get lost in different worlds… A collection of essays on libraries sounds like a dream read! :)

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  25. Thanks so much for bringing my attention to this book. I think it would be awesome reading essays about libraries. Like a tribute to libraries. Cool!

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  26. I love those quotes that you provide. Especially the one about not feeling guilty about books unread because they have patience and will wait. Actually I love them all. Definitely a book for the wish list! Great review :)

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  27. This sounds so great! I've had it on my list for a while, but it sounds like one I should read sooner rather than later.

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  28. As a book geek, the various ways to organize books has been much thought about, and re-thought over and over again. Like you, I feel terms like 'literary fiction' and 'women's fiction' to be ridiculous (and ridiculously overused). I play with my LibraryThing tags so often that I don't think the ones up there now even have meaning anymore. :)

    To the point, however, this book sounds fascinating. Thanks for the review!

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  29. You make me want to read this book even more! :)I really think this labeling-the-world-concept makes a lot of sense. For example in uni I have discussed several books more than once but always highlighting different themes or aspects (like looking at something as an example of dystopian fiction, or as transnational literature etc). So if I tag a book on my blog etc as a dystopia, I can of course also add a tag for transnational. But libraries have to make a definite choice where to place a book. My library has a good choice of books in English but they are all placed in one aisle under English, and so I can browse freely without unconsciously ignoring a genre and favoring an other.

    You know, placing books together (like those about Hitler and those about people helping hide Jewish people in WWII under one label) reminds me of a Thursday Next book, where placing the books by Hitler and Marx together leands to an explosion :)

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  30. This book sounds delicious! I don't often visit my local library, I confess, but I have such fond memories of my regular library visits when I was growing up. And my favorite job was working in a library :-)

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  31. You should read The Great Libraries; that will make your future librarian heart go squee.

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  32. I've heard about this one before. Sounds like a great one, especially for those of us that are obsessed with libraries!!!

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  33. I love books like this, and more often than not I discover them only because of wonderful bloggers like you. I immediately added this and another of his books to my library hold request. Can't wait to read it.

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  34. It sounds like a great book, and one that I will really enjoy! Thanks for sharing! This is also part of The Friday Five at Kate's Library.

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  35. From your description, I knew my husband would like this book, and it actually inspired him to write his first guest post at NNP!
    http://necromancyneverpays.blogspot.com/2010/07/library-at-night.html

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