The Library at Night

The Library at NightBook collectors might be presumed to be among the happiest of mortals. There, in the evening, they sit contentedly in soft easy chairs, beneath pools of warm lamplight, surrounded by their libraries — row after serried row of beautiful or rare volumes, all the great works of scholarship and the human imagination. Sadly, this cozy vision is usually little more than a daydream, though not for Alberto Manguel. As The Library at Night indicates, he has managed to take every reader’s castle in the air and put a foundation under it.

From a psychological viewpoint, most bookmen and women are actually among the more unfortunate sufferers on the wheel of life — for them there is no respite, no relief, from the insatiate ache of desire. Surrounded by plenty, they hunger for more. Collections are never complete. Unsigned modern firsts really do need to become signed or inscribed. Any merely fine copy suddenly looks dingy when compared to one in mint condition. Moreover, as everyone can attest, the exhilaration of actual possession lasts but a twinkling. The newly acquired treasure is soon slipped onto a bookshelf or even, as the bookcases fill up, into a cardboard box stored in the basement or the attic or the American Self Storage

Alberto ManguelA History of Reading, this superb all-around literary essayist, can actually find any one of his 30,000 books. As he tells us in The Library at Night, they lie readily at hand on dark wood shelves, in a building constructed on the ruins of a former 15th-century barn, adjoining a one-time presbytery, on a hill south of the Loire.

This in itself is a bitter pill. Yet what’s even harder to take is this: Manguel clearly reads and uses those books. His is truly a working collection, the engine for a serious international literary career, the ultimate source for such unusual compilations as The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, The Oxford Book of Canadian Ghost Stories and God’s Spies: Stories in Defiance of Oppression. Surely, though, the man is your typical melancholy, dry-as-dust bibliophile? Nope. Not only does Manguel own wonderful books housed in an eat-your-heart-out library in an idyllic part of France, he seems, well, content. According to The Library at Night, he lives with someone he loves, writes during the morning, potters among his books throughout the day and evening, and, come nightfall, sips wine in the garden with visiting friends from around the world.

The Library at Night — a series of essays on what one might call the Platonic Idea of a library. The individual chapters reveal its essentially meditative character: “The Library as Myth,” “The Library as Order,” “The Library as Space,” “The Library as Identity,” “The Library as Home” and so forth. Within each essay, Manguel tends to begin by revealing a few personal details of his reading life, which establishes a theme for more general observations about books and libraries. He then usually segues into an account of the career or obsessions of some exemplary book-person, meanwhile interspersing apposite quotations to underscore certain points, before bringing the essay to a quiet summing up. So here we learn (or learn again) about Melvil Dewey and his decimal system, Diderot and his Encyclopédie, Anthony Panizzi and the design of the British Museum Library, and Andrew Carnegie and his ambiguous philanthropy (he would generally pay for the buildings, which glorified his name, but not for the books inside them). In a brilliant final chapter Manguel slyly compares the literary tastes of two unusual booklovers: Frankenstein’s Monster and Count Dracula.

The Library at Night is an elegant volume, in both its design and its text, though some of Manguel’s quoted anecdotes and insights (especially those pertaining to the Internet, that source of speedy answers rather than considered wisdom) will probably be familiar to admirers of Nicholas Basbanes ( A Gentle Madness),  and Sven Birkerts ( The Gutenberg Elegies).

Alberto Manguel has brought out a richly enjoyable book, absolutely enthralling for anyone who loves to read and an inspiration for anybody who has ever dreamed of building a library of his or her own.

Washington Post

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