Wednesday 15 May 2013

The Library at Night - Alberto Manguel

I have already included quite a few excerpts from Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night (2006) on Stuck-in-a-Book, and I might well include some more in the future (you can read them all here), so this review has been spread thinly over many months!  Suffice to say, I loved it - thank you Colin for giving it to me! - and it's not a book to read quickly.  I started it about 18 months ago, picking up and reading a bit here and there, soaking in Manguel's thoughtful brilliance, and have only recently finished.  I've had A Reader on Reading on the go for even longer, so... look out for a review of that sometime in 2018!  Basically, this preface is a warning that I'm not going to write a proper review; I'm going to give you some more of his quotations, and a brief glimpse of the myriad world Manguel has created.

Manguel considers libraries from many different angles - having shared, at the beginning, that 'libraries, whether my own or shared with a greater reading public, have always seemed to me pleasantly mad places'. With this delightful proviso, Manguel devotes chapters to 'The Library as...'  Myth, Order, Space, Power, Shadow, Shape, Chance, Workshop, Mind, Island, Survival, Oblivion, Imagination, Identity, and Home - each starts in his own library (pictured at the top of this post) and gradually unfolds to the world - encompassing incredible amounts of research and information about libraries around the world and throughout history - as well as branching out into all manner of philosophy, psychology, and memoir.

Paramount is Manguel's interest in the very concept of a library - of giving order to books.

Ordered by subject, by importance, ordered according to whether the book was penned by God or by one of God's creatures, order alphabetically or by number or by the language in which the text is written, every library translates the chaos of discovery and creation into a structured system of hierarchies or a rampage of free associations.  Such eclectic classifications rule my own library.  Ordered alphabetically, for instance, it incongruously marries humorous Bulgakob to severe Bunin (in my Russian Literature section), and makes formal Boileau follow informal Beauchemin (in Writing in French), properly allots Borges a place next to his friend Bioy Casares (in Writing in Spanish) but opens an ocean of letters between Goethe and his inseparable friend Schiller (in German Literature).
By which we realise that Manguel is, unsurprisingly, a polyglot.  My entire non-English section rests in one copy of Harry Potter et la prisonnier d'Azkaban, but it's still a topic I find amusing and interesting, even if it is essentially a case of coincidence.  I even blogged about it, with some photos from my shelves, back here.
Manguel isn't interested solely in the arrangement of books, of course. He is a phenomenally well-read and bookish man, who would probably feel quite at home in the blogosphere - albeit probably the most highbrow member of it, because his intellect and knowledge is rather dizzying.  And yet... how could someone who writes the following excerpt not be at home with any and every bibliophile?

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, and 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 deserted island to rebuild society from fragments shored against his ruins, speak of his first centenary encounter with ice and recall, in excruciating detail, his early going to bed.  In such a library there would be one single book divided into a thousand volumes and, pace Callimachus and Dewey, no catalogue.
As I say, this isn't a thorough review of The Library at Night - it's too wide-ranging to permit that - but it's a general rallying call to any of you who haven't got a copy yet.  We all love reading, and most of us also love books and libraries too - well, friends, Manguel knew this, and has written a book just for us.


  1. Manguel sounds like the most passionate person about books in the whole world!

  2. I have both of these waiting on the shelf. I definitely think I'll be dipping in and out as you suggest.

  3. What a wonderful book this sounds and what amazing quotes. And I would *so* like a library like the one pictured....

  4. Another book to add to the list... maybe I should write the titled I want in a little notebook (rather than scraps of paper which I lose) and keep it in my book, so I can look at it when I'm browsing in second hand bookshops and charity shops. I'd love to know how other people keep track of their Wish Lish.

  5. I would love to lock in a room with a copy each all those that think it ok to close libraries ,this book shows the power of them and of books to unite folk wonderful ,I ve reader on reader to read at some point ,all the best stu

  6. Isn't Manguel brilliant? His is the first name on my fantasy dinner party list: how could an evening spent with him, with someone who loves and knows books so well, not be fascinating?

  7. This sounds like a must-read for this librarian!

  8. This is wonderful! Thank you for sharing this!

  9. As a library employee (ILL, represent!) I feel like I should read this... NOW! Thanks for sharing the loveliness!


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