The Library at Night

The Library at Night

by Alberto Manguel

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A celebration of reading, of libraries, and of the mysterious human desire to give order to the universe

Inspired by the process of creating a library for his fifteenth-century home near the Loire, in France, Alberto Manguel, the acclaimed writer on books and reading, has taken up the subject of libraries. “Libraries,” he says, “have always seemed to me pleasantly mad places, and for as long as I can remember I’ve been seduced by their labyrinthine logic.” In this personal, deliberately unsystematic, and wide-ranging book, he offers a captivating meditation on the meaning of libraries.

Manguel, a guide of irrepressible enthusiasm, conducts a unique library tour that extends from his childhood bookshelves to the “complete” libraries of the Internet, from Ancient Egypt and Greece to the Arab world, from China and Rome to Google. He ponders the doomed library of Alexandria as well as the personal libraries of Charles Dickens, Jorge Luis Borges, and others. He recounts stories of people who have struggled against tyranny to preserve freedom of thought—the Polish librarian who smuggled books to safety as the Nazis began their destruction of Jewish libraries; the Afghani bookseller who kept his store open through decades of unrest. Oral “memory libraries” kept alive by prisoners, libraries of banned books, the imaginary library of Count Dracula, the library of books never written—Manguel illuminates the mysteries of libraries as no other writer could. With scores of wonderful images throughout, The Library at Night is a fascinating voyage through Manguel’s mind, memory, and vast knowledge of books and civilizations.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300145212
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Sales rank: 478,261
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Alberto Manguel is an internationally acclaimed anthologist, translator, essayist, novelist, and editor, and the author of several award-winning books, including A Dictionary of Imaginary Places and A History of Reading.

Read an Excerpt

Night which Pagan Theology could make the daughter of Chaos, affords no advantage to the description of ­order.
Sir Thomas Browne, The Garden of ­Cyrus

The library in which I have at long last collected my books began life as a barn sometime in the fifteenth century, perched on a small hill south of the Loire. Here, in the last years before the Christian era, the Romans erected a temple to Dionysus to honour the god of this ­wine-­producing area; twelve centuries later, a Christian church replaced the god of drunken ecstasy with the god who turned his blood into wine. (I have a picture of a ­stained-­glass window showing a Dionysian grapevine growing out of the wound in Christ’s right side.) Still later, the villagers attached to the church a house to lodge their priest, and eventually added to this presbytery a couple of pigeon towers, a small orchard and a barn. In the fall of 2000, when I first saw these buildings which are now my home, all that was left of the barn was a single stone wall that separated my property from a chicken run and the neighbour’s field. According to village legend, before belonging to the barn, the wall was part of one of the two castles that Tristan L’Hermite, minister of Louis xi of France and notorious for his cruelty, built for his sons around 1433. The first of these castles still stands, much altered during the eighteenth century. The second burnt down three or four centuries ago, and the only wall left standing, with a pigeon tower attached to its far end, became the property of the church, bordering one side of the presbytery garden. In 1693, after a new cemetery was opened to house the increasing number of dead, the inhabitants of the village (“gathered outside the church doors,” says the deed) granted the incumbent priest permission to incorporate the old cemetery and to plant fruit trees over the emptied tombs. At the same time, the castle wall was used to enclose a new barn. After the French Revolution, war, storms and neglect caused the barn to crumble, and even after services resumed in the church in 1837 and a new priest came to live in the presbytery, the barn was not rebuilt. The ancient wall continued to serve as a property divider, looking onto a farmer’s field on one side and shading the presbytery’s magnolia tree and bushes of hydrangea on the ­other.

As soon as I saw the wall and the scattered stones around it, I knew that here was where I would build the room to house my books. I had in mind a distinct picture of a library, something of a cross between the long hall at Sissinghurst (Vita Sackville-West’s house in Kent, which I had recently visited) and the library of my old high school, the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires. I wanted a room panelled in dark wood, with soft pools of light and comfortable chairs, and an adjacent, smaller space in which I’d set up my writing desk and reference books. I imagined shelves that began at my waist and went up only as high as the fingertips of my ­stretched-­out arm, since, in my experience, the books condemned to heights that require ladders, or to depths that force the reader to crawl on his stomach on the floor, receive far less attention than their ­middle-­ground fellows, no matter their subject or merit. But these ideal arrangements would have required a library three or four times the size of the vanished barn and, as Stevenson so mournfully put it, “that is the bitterness of art: you see a good effect, and some nonsense about sense continually intervenes.” Out of necessity, my library has shelves that begin just above the baseboards and end an octavo away from the beams of the watershed ­ceiling.

While the library was being built, the masons discovered two windows in the old wall that had been bricked up long ago. One is a slim embrasure from which archers perhaps defended Tristan l’Hermite’s son when his angry peasants revolted; the other is a low square window protected by medieval iron bars cut roughly into stems with drooping leaves. From these windows, during the day, I can see my neighbour’s chickens hurry from one corner of the compound to another, pecking at this spot and at that, driven frantic by too many offerings, like demented scholars in a library; from the windows on the new wall opposite, I look out onto the presbytery itself and the two ancient sophora trees in my garden. But at night, when the library lamps are lit, the outside world disappears and nothing but this space of books remains in existence. To someone standing outside, in the garden, the library at night appears like a vast vessel of some sort, like that strange Chinese villa that, in 1888, the capricious Empress Cixi caused to be built in the shape of a ship marooned in the garden lake of her Summer Palace. 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.

During the day, the library is a realm of order. Down and across the lettered passages I move with visible purpose, in search of a name or a voice, summoning books to my attention according to their allotted rank and file. The structure of the place is visible: a maze of straight lines, not to become lost in but for finding; a divided room that follows an apparently logical sequence of classification; a geography obedient to a predetermined table of contents and a memorable hierarchy of alphabets and ­numbers.

But at night the atmosphere changes. Sounds become muffled, thoughts grow louder. “Only when it is dark does the owl of Minerva take flight,” noted Walter Benjamin, quoting Hegel. Time seems closer to that moment halfway between wakefulness and sleep in which the world can be comfortably reimagined. My movements feel unwittingly furtive, my activity secret. I turn into something of a ghost. The books are now the real presence and it is I, their reader, who, through cabbalistic rituals of ­half-glimpsed letters, am summoned up and lured to a certain volume and a certain page. The order decreed by library catalogues is, at night, merely conventional; it holds no prestige in the shadows. Though my own library has no authoritarian catalogue, even such milder orders as alphabetical arrangement by author or division into sections by language find their power diminished. Free from quotidian constraints, unobserved in the late hours, my eyes and hands roam recklessly across the tidy rows, restoring chaos. One book calls to another unexpectedly, creating alliances across different cultures and centuries. A ­half- remembered line is echoed by another for reasons which, in the light of day, remain unclear. 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.

From the Hardcover edition.

Reading Group Guide

1. What is your overall opinion of The Library At Night? Would you recommend it to a friend? Why, or why not?

2. The Library At Night is, among other things, a collection of beautifully chosen fragments. What was your favourite story, library or quotation?

3. Discuss the importance of "nighttime" themes in this book, such as chance and coincidence, and their importance to reading and to libraries.

4. Alberto Manguel sets out some objections to the widespread optimism about Internet libraries. He mentions their fragility, inaccuracy and evanescence, for example, as well as the diminished pleasure of looking at a screen rather than holding a book. Do you agree with his moderate scepticism about the promise of this new technology?

5. Did Alberto Manguel’s thoughts about the nature and significance of catalogues and categorization give you pause? How do you order your own books? Do you think you’ll reorder them differently now?

6. In "The Library as Identity," Alberto Manguel presents a delightful lists of books he would like to have in his library, although in many cases they do not exist: “an as-yet-unpublished novel by Joseph Conrad,” for example, and “the diary of Kafka’s Milena.” What would be on your list?

7. Discuss the treatment of politics / censorship / memory / history / identity / architecture / the theme of your choice in The Library At Night.

8. Can you think of anything Alberto Manguel has left out, or a library you would recommend to him? Which is your favourite library, and what is special about it?

9. What did you learn from this book? What surprised you about it?

10. What are your criticisms of The Library At Night?

Customer Reviews

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The Library at Night 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A well crafted collection of essays illustrating the authors keen love and appreciation for the library in essence as much as in its being a collection of books. The Library here is conveyed as having an intrinsic value far beyond what it's shelves hold and that value is often a reflection on the people who stand in the shadows of the stacks or under their very weight. 'The Library at Night' is divided into small, easily accessed chapters each offering specifc insights into some often esoteric branch of what the library means to the author and to those whom the author clearly appreciates, from Aby Warburg's Cultural Library to the great lost Library at Alexandria we are treated to the library in a vein not often so well conveyed, namely the library as mythic space and indeed that is what it can be if allowed to achieve its fullest potential. This book offers a few ways this potential can be achieved and it does so in a well written, passionate and enjoyable manner. The only point of criticism I would offer is that the author tends to focus on certain individuals a bit too frequently, coming back to them again and again 'Louis Borges being one example' When other, more pertinent figures would fit the chapters overall context better. This however is a minor point and should in no way detract from the books worthiness to any student of the Libraray or the erstwhile bibliophile.
francesanngray on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is great....I want a copy of my own!
frederick0t6 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A most enjoyable series of essays on the cultural and philosophical meanings of the library. Essays include "Library as Space," "Library as Mind," and so forth. Reading about Manguel's own vast library in France is a delight.I used to think that books of essays were the height of boredom, an attitude born of limited exposure to "academic" essays. This book shows that essays can veer delightfully between personal reflection (e.g. Manguel's essay "The Library as Workshop" mentions the reference works he keeps on hand; quite the variety), literary reflections and other arguments. For someone who loves book, this was a delight.It is also worth noting that Manguel has included a variety of well chosen illustrations here. There are images showing historical libraries, as well as modern libraries such as the Toronto Reference Library. The quantity and quality of the illustrations is done well.
francescadefreitas on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Like 'A History of Reading', I was delighted by every moment of this book. I happily wandered from anecdote to anecdote, relishing constant feeling of joy. That is the primary feeling of this book - joy in libraries, joy in knowledge, joy in the unexpected and powerful things that happen when books gather together.Just lovely.
kkisser on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A thoughtful reflection on the idea of a library or place of collected material and how these places have been and effect our society throughout history. The book is divided in sections on the many aspects of the library as a place, a structure, to it¿s identity from the people that are directly involved in libraries: book collectors, librarians, writers, and readers. A thought provoking and sometimes provocative view of a place I enjoy working within, for those readers who enjoy seeing our world in a different light.
tututhefirst on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a book that is almost impossible to do justice to in a review. It should be required reading for all bibliophiles, and certainly in library schools. A luscious book about libraries: ancient, modern, imagined, real, paper, stone, virtual, digital, scrolled, rolled, bound, shelved, piled, cataloged, but always there for generations to relish, to wallow in, to dream about and in, to build, to burn, to own, to borrow from, to discover, to remember, to organize or leave alone.Manguel is well read, has lived in (by his count) 6 countries and has books in a myriad of languages. His classical references, along with his easy acceptance of the possibilities of the WEB as a library make this a fascinating read. He examines the library as (a separate chapter for each) Myth, Order, Space, Power, Shadow, Shape, Chance, Workshop, Mind, Island, Survival, Oblivion, Imagination, Identity and Home. There are so many quotes I noted in my notebook, I could almost publish another book. Here are just a few:The Library as Myth: " Every reader exists to ensure for a certain book a modest immortality. Reading is, in this sense, a ritual of rebirth." pg. 28The Library as Order - here's one I can really relate to, and am still struggling with - how to arrange the books in one's library: "For several weeks, I unpacked the hundreds of boxes that had, until then, taken up the whole of the dining-room, carried them into the empty library and then stood bewildered among teetering columns of books that seemed to combine the vertical ambition of Babel with the horizontal greed of Alexandria. For almost three months I sifted through these piles, attempting to create a kind of order, working from early in the morning to very late at night." pg. 41.The Library as Space: "It has always been my experience that, whatever groupings I choose for my books, the space in which I plan to lodge them, necessarily reshapes my choice and, more important, in no time proves too small for them and forces me to change my arrangement. pg 66.The Library as Shadow: "Every library is exclusionary, since its selection, however vast, leaves outside its walls endless shelves of writing that, for reasons of taste, knowledge, space and time, have not been included." pg. 107.The Library as Island: "Our society accepts the book as a given, but the act of reading--once considered useful and important, as well as potentially dangerous and subversive--is now condescendingly accepted as a pastime, a slow pastime that lacks efficency and does not contribute to the common good." p. 223.The Library as Survival: "...books can sometimes help us phrase our questions, but they do not necessarily enable us to decipher the answers. Through reported voices and imagined stories, books merely allow us to remember what we have never suffered and have never known." pg. 247.The Library as Oblivion: "I have no feeling of guilt regarding the book 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." pg. 254.and finally the Library as Home: "As we wander among our books, picking at random a volume from the shelves and leafing through it, the pages either astound us by the difference from our own experience or comfort us with their similitude." pg. 308This is one read I will go return to again and again.
bell7 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I so enjoyed this book, an homage to libraries of all sorts - personal, public, national, and even imaginary. Each chapter is almost an essay in its own right, though Manguel often builds on thoughts from one to the next. This book was as much over my head when it came to literature as Stephen Hawking's [A Brief History of Time] was over my head in science (and I was an English major!). Manguel's erudition often intimidated me, yet he is never stuffy. His musings become an interesting mix of philosophy, history, and literary criticism that made me wish my mental library was a little closer to his so that I could follow more of his thoughts. I most loved the book when he was meandering, talking about personal libraries or love of books, and I wish the book was my own so I could underline passages or revisit it whenever I like.
jveezer on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was my first encounter with Alberto Manguel. I don't have a lot of "Books on Books" so this was my first real foray into this genre. The book did kind of jump out at me while browsing through City Lights in San Francisco with my daughter. We both came out of there with a stack of books under our arms. This book was very interesting in the way it looked at libraries from different perspectives. I like the fact that libraries have personalities and that those personalities change with time and according to other factors. The library says something about the people associated with it both by the books that are in them and the ones that are not in them. I will definitely be reading Manguel's "A History of Reading" at some point.