The Library at Night

My earliest experiences of interacting with a library were far from galvanic. I remember little besides my mother taking me to the Petworth Library in Washington, D.C., and speckles of her exuberance as she helped me to acquire books. If anything, my most prominent memory of those days, from when I was seven or eight, was of the library as a source of income. During one summer vacation, Mom offered me five dollars to read a book and write a report on it. As her turn to bribery signaled, my parents had some reason to fret that I might not develop into a steadfast reader. But one evening, maybe a year later, my father drove me to the home of his best friend. The room we sat in felt consecrated to books in an altogether more awesome fashion than what I’d encountered at the public library.

Kenneth’s bookcases dwarfed me. They also spanned the full length of a wall; however, what caused my mind to reel was that there were books — mostly science fiction and fantasy — on top of, and in front of others. Tickled to see us gawk at his assembly, Kenneth related that sometimes he’d start a book or buy one, then later realize that he’d read it or owned it. The overflow of the contents, and Kenneth’s personal connection toward his library, stirred my self-regard and altered my worldview. This experience, one might hypothesize, inducted me into a truth that’s crucial to Alberto Manguel’s impassioned, wide-ranging book The Library at Night. That is, we should be cautious in representing libraries as static, essentially alike places, which are differentiated solely by the makeup and arrangement of their contents.

While The Library at Night glosses the development of library culture from antiquity to the present, its outlook is more contemplative than historical. Loosed from the barriers of chronological presentation, the book’s aim is to thicken our awareness of the scores of ways that these reservoirs of the mind may be experienced. Exercising the focus of a naturalist in the wild, Manguel is receptive to how something as ordinary as the time of day one repairs to a library can guide one’s encounter therein. Hence, the title of the book is not plainly decorative.

In the autumn of 2000, Manguel surveyed a wall — the remnants from a 15th-century barn, which stood sentry on a hill, south of the Loire River in France. It would come to be incorporated into the personal library the Argentinean-born writer would commission to have built on that site. He writes:

The library I had imagined for my books, long before its walls were erected, already reflected the way in which I wished to read. There are readers who enjoy trapping a story within the confines of a tiny enclosure; others for whom a round, vast, public space better allows them to imagine the text stretching out towards far horizons; others still who find pleasure in a maze of rooms through which they can wander, chapter after chapter. I had dreamt of a long, low library where there would always be enough darkness around the pools of light on the desk to suggest that it was night outside, a rectangular space in which the walls would mirror one another and in which I could always feel as if the books on either side were almost at arm’s length. I read in a haphazard way, allowing books to associate freely, to suggest links by their mere proximity, to call to one another across the room. The shape I chose for my library encourages my reading habits.

Earlier in the book Manguel notes, “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.”

For Manguel, the seeds of bibliomania sprouted early. From the age of seven or eight, he took pleasure in rearranging his books according to sets of different principles. One day he might group them by shape, on another by color, language, or subject matter. A salient attribute of The Library at Night‘s composition is that its brief, personal sketches are hemmed with heaps of erudite chestnuts. For example, he observes that the diarist Samuel Pepys had pedestals made to bring his smaller books into line with the larger ones. And that the French writer Valéry Larbaud had his volumes “bound in different colours according to the language in which they were written? ‘His sickroom was a rainbow,’ said one of his admirers, ‘that allowed his eye and his memory surprises and expected pleasure.’ ” Manguel’s wide range of reference is striking; even those readers who aren’t academics or writers will be tempted to consult the book’s bibliography.

Now if the author restricted himself to praising the means that people have fussed over their books, and the wondrous vessels they have built for cultural transmission (such as “the largest encyclopedia ever printed: the Qinding Gujin Tushu Jicheng, or Great Illustrated Imperial Encyclopedia of Past and Present Times, of 1726, a gigantic biographical library divided into more than ten thousand sections”), his efforts would likely cut a pallid figure. But this is not the case; The Library at Night is not lost in a professorial cloud that floats solely on its bonhomie.

The book is also cheeky, combative, and politically aware: Manguel mocks those “oafish personalities who demand to be portrayed against the background of a book-lined wall, in the hope that it will grant them a scholarly lustre.” He reviles a proponent of microfilming who opined, “The value in intellectual terms, of the proximity of the book to the user has never been satisfactorily established,” saying, “There speaks a dolt, someone utterly insensitive, in intellectual or any other terms, to the experience of reading.” He devotes similar skeptical energy to the manner in which U.S. presidents and other powerful men have used the founding of libraries to aggrandize themselves, and reflects upon the destruction and founding of libraries for hegemonic purposes.

Intermittently, Manguel’s effusions get the best of him. His remark that his books “hold between their covers every story I’ve ever known and still remember?” appears unlikely. Editing should also have retouched his notice that in Islamic societies, in the Middle Ages, the oral dissemination of a text was often championed “because the text then entered the body through the mind and not merely through the eyes,” since, obviously, the mind is as capable of wandering during a lecture as it is while reading a sentence on a page. But the most questionable sections of the book revolve around the use of the Internet.

While Manguel happily acknowledges the Internet’s usefulness as a tool for information retrieval, he can be somewhat shrill in his denunciations of it:

By offering electronic users the appearance of a world controlled from their keyboard?multinational companies have ensured that, on the one hand, users will not protest against being turned into consumers, since they are supposedly “in control” of cyberspace; and that, on the other hand, they will be prevented from learning anything profound, whether about themselves, their immediate surroundings or the rest of the world.

While the Internet has allowed businesses to monitor the activities of their customers to a frightening degree, the implication that heavy Internet users are less likely to commit to challenging intellectual works is, perhaps, a bit overstated. Surely, one does not need to distribute a questionnaire to know that the Web has allowed numerous, innately curious people to deepen their engagement with the world. (Consider, for example, the number of hits that The New York Review of Books receives per month in proportion to its number of paid subscribers.)

But Manguel is no technophobe: “Being a cosmopolitan today may mean being eclectic, refusing to exclude one technology for the sake of another.” Indeed, if he comes across as a touch strident in his characterization of the Web, it’s because he’s zealous in his admonition that we be responsible caretakers of our paper-encoded heritage — a gallant fault if there ever was one. All told, The Library at Night is a fascinating book that makes one yearn for an un-rankled insomnia.