Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Library at Night - Alberto Manguel [October/06]

I finished the book that inspired the question of what is everyone's dream library last night. I could have finished it a while ago, but I was only reading a chapter a night, until last night, where I just finished off the chapters I had left.

From Random House:

"The starting point is a question," Alberto Manguel writes in the introduction to The Library at Night: since few can doubt that the universe is ultimately meaningless and purposeless, why do we try to give it order? After all, our efforts are surely doomed to failure.

It’s hard to think of a more profound or serious subject to start with – but The Library at Night, Alberto Manguel says, is by no means a systematic answer. Rather, it is the story of the search for one. In the tradition of A History of Reading, this book is an account of Manguel’s astonishment at the variety, beauty and persistence of our efforts to shape the world and our lives, most notably through something almost as old as reading itself: libraries.

The result is both intimately personal and incredibly wide-ranging: it is a fascinating study of the mysteries of libraries, a thorough analysis of their history throughout the world and an esoteric, enchanting celebration of reading. It is, perhaps most of all, a book that only Alberto Manguel could have written.

The Library at Night begins with the design and construction of Alberto Manguel’s own library at his house in western France – a process that raises puzzling questions about his past and his reading habits, as well as broader ones about the nature of categories, catalogues, architecture and identity.

Exploring these themes with a deliberately unsystematic brilliance, Manguel takes us to the great Library at Alexandria, and Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence; we sit with Jorge Luis Borges in his office at the National Library in Argentina, travel with donkeys carrying books into the Colombian hinterland, and discover the Fihrist, a chaotic and delightful bibliographic record of medieval Arab knowledge. There seem to be no limits to Manguel’s learning, or his ability to illuminate his investigations with magical, telling details from the past.

Thematically organized and beautifully illustrated, this book considers libraries as treasure troves and architectural spaces; it looks on them as autobiographies of their owners and as statements of national identity. It examines small personal libraries and libraries that started as philanthropic ventures, and analyzes the unending promise – and defects – of virtual ones. It compares different methods of categorization (and what they imply) and libraries that have built up by chance as opposed to by conscious direction. Although it is encyclopedic (and discusses encyclopedias assembled by Diderot and fifteenth-century Chinese scholars alike) and full of concrete historical analysis (including a brief investigation of the prejudices underlying the Dewey Decimal System) this book is animated throughout by a gentle, even playful sensibility: it is governed by the browser’s logic of association and pleasure, rather than the rigid lines of scholarly theory. After all, everything in a library is connected: "As the librarians of Alexandria perhaps discovered, any single literary moment necessarily implies all others."

In part this is because this is about the library at night, not during the day: this book takes in what happens after the lights go out, when the world is sleeping, when books become the rightful owners of the library and the reader is the interloper. Then all daytime order is upended: one book calls to another across the shelves, and new alliances are created across time and space. And so, as well as the best design for a reading room and the makeup of Robinson Crusoe’s library, this book dwells on more "nocturnal" subjects: fictional libraries like those carried by Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster; shadow libraries of lost and censored books; imaginary libraries of books not yet written.

The Library at Night is a fascinating voyage through the mind of one our most beloved men of letters. It is an invitation into his memory and vast knowledge of books and civilizations, and throughout – though mostly implicitly – it is also a passionate defence of literacy, of the unique pleasures of reading, of the importance of the book. As much as anything else, The Library at Night reminds us of what a library stands for: the possibility of illumination, of a better path for our society and for us as individuals. That hope too, at the close, is replaced by something that fits this personal and eclectic book even better: something more fragile, and evanescent than illumination, though just as important.

I really enjoyed reading this book. For someone that enjoys to read, having an exploration of the libraries of the world is something that I look forward to reading. It starts with just his own dream library at his own house and branches off into a look at the libraries of the world and history. It talks about books and famous men. It shows the evolution of ancient libraries into the libraries that we see today. And, it talks about libraries and books that were long ago destroyed, like The Alexandria Library.

People came up with wonderful ways to look at their libraries. Manguel did not get the exact library that he dreamed of because of space constraints, but he speaks lovingly of his library throughout the book. The book also includes pictures of the libraries that he is talking about and the people that help him explain the world of books and libraries. This book even talks about the library carding system and how that came about.

My town doesn't really have a library, but we do have the university. It is an old building, but not classy. Many people believe that the library should be redone because it lacks a character. It is not a very comfortable library, it just looks like an old, cement building with books. While I go there sometimes, it is more a research library than a sit down and enjoy yourself library. And, as Manguel talks about, the library is becoming more and more an online one. Now that books without copyright can be put on the internet for everyone to enjoy, a great deal of the material at the university is slowly making its way there.

I would really like to read some of Manguel's other non-fiction books. His writing is not tedious, it flows, and I found myself enjoying the experience. And, if nothing else, it got many bloggers thinking about what their dream library would be.


To see more about this book, click here.


  1. sounds like a fabulous book!!!

  2. I love libraries but, living in a fairly new city, we have no history and no cool places like that. I'd love to be able to visit some of those gorgeous libraries!

  3. I would have loved to research this book and write it, much more than read it. :)

  4. Yeah, that would be fun, LK!


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