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The Library at Night

The Library at Night

Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    The Library at Night
    Book Description:

    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 Nightis a fascinating voyage through Manguel's mind, memory, and vast knowledge of books and civilizations.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14521-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [ii]-[viii])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [ix]-[x])
    (pp. 2-5)

    The starting point is a question.

    Outside theology and fantastic literature, few can doubt that the main features of our universe are its dearth of meaning and lack of discernible purpose. And yet, with bewildering optimism, we continue to assemble whatever scraps of information we can gather in scrolls and books and computer chips, on shelf after library shelf, whether material, virtual or otherwise, pathetically intent on lending the world a semblance of sense and order, while knowing perfectly well that, however much we’d like to believe the contrary, our pursuits are sadly doomed to failure.

    Why then do we...

    (pp. 6-35)

    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...

    (pp. 36-63)

    Sitting in my library at night, I watch in the pools of light the implacable plankton of dust shed by both the pages and my skin, hourly casting off layer after dead layer in a feeble attempt at persistence. I like to imagine that, on the day after my last, my library and I will crumble together, so that even when I am no more I’ll still be with my books.

    The truth is, I can’t remember a time when I did not live surrounded by my library. By the age of seven or eight, I had assembled in my...

    (pp. 64-89)

    The very fact of knowing that the books in a library are set up according to a rule, whichever that may be, grants them preconceived identities, even before we open their first pages. Before myWuthering Heightsunfolds its misty story, it already proclaims itself a work of Literature in English (the section in which I’ve placed it), a creation of the letter B, a member of some now forgotten community of books (I bought this copy secondhand in Vancouver, where it was allotted the mysterious number 790042B inscribed in pencil on the fly-leaf, corresponding to a classification with which...

    (pp. 90-105)

    The power of readers lies not in their ability to gather information, in their ordering and cataloguing capability, but in their gift to interpret, associate and transform their reading. For the Talmudic schools, as for those of Islam, a scholar can turn religious faith into an active power through the craft of reading, since the knowledge acquired through books is a gift from God. According to an earlyhadith, or Islamic tradition, “one scholar is more powerful against the Devil than a thousand worshippers.”100For these cultures of the Book, knowledge lies not in the accumulation of texts or information,...

    (pp. 106-127)

    We dream of a library of literature created by everyone and belonging to no one, a library that is immortal and will mysteriously lend order to the universe, and yet we know that every orderly choice, every catalogued realm of the imagination, sets up a tyrannical hierarchy of exclusion. 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. Every library conjures up its own dark ghost; every ordering sets up, in its wake, a shadow library of absences. Of...

    (pp. 128-161)

    The first view I had of what was to be my library was one of rocks and dust covering a rectangular space of approximately six by thirteen metres. The toppled stones lay between the pigeon tower and the furnace room that was to become my study; powdery sand showered the leaves of the creeper every time a bird settled on the dividing wall. The architect who eventually drew the library’s plans (fortunately for me) lives in the village. She insisted that traditional methods be used to clean the wall and rebuild the space, and she contracted masons knowledgable in the...

    (pp. 162-175)

    A library is not only a place of both order and chaos; it is also the realm of chance. Books, even after they have been given a shelf and a number, retain a mobility of their own. Left to their own devices, they assemble in unexpected formations; they follow secret rules of similarity, unchronicled genealogies, common interests and themes. Left in unattended corners or on piles by our bedside, in cartons or on shelves, waiting to be sorted and catalogued on some future day many times postponed, the stories held by books cluster around what Henry James called a “general...

    (pp. 176-191)

    There’s a notable difference, for me, between the large room in which I keep most of my books, and the smaller room in which I work. In the large room, the “library proper,” I choose the volumes I need or want, I sit and read and make notes, I consult my encyclopedias. But in my study, the chosen books are those that I consider more immediate, more necessary, more intimate. Battered copies of both thePocket Oxford Dictionaryand the two-volumeShorter Oxford,the faithful and stoutRobert,myPequeño Larousse Ilustradofrom school,Roget’s Thesaurusin the 1962 version,...

    (pp. 192-213)

    Like Machiavelli, I often sit among my books at night. While I prefer to write in the morning, at night I enjoy reading in the thick silence, when triangles of light from the reading lamps split my library shelves in two. Above, the high rows of books vanish into darkness; below sits the privileged section of the illuminated titles. This arbitrary division, which grants certain books a glowing presence and relegates others to the shadows, is superseded by another order, which owes its existence merely to what I can remember. My library has no catalogue; having placed the books on...

    (pp. 214-233)

    More than three hundred years before the Warburg library crossed the sea to England, another, more modest library was shipwrecked on the coast of a desert island somewhere in the South Pacific. On one of the early days of October of the year 1659, Robinson Crusoe returned to the mangled remains of his craft and managed to bring ashore a number of tools and various kinds of food, as well as “several things of less value” such as pens, ink, paper and a small collection of books. Of these books, a few were in Portuguese, a couple were “Popish prayer-books”...

    (pp. 234-251)

    Like the Dead Sea scrolls, like every book that has come down to us from the hands of distant readers, each of my books holds the history of its survival. From fire, water, the passage of time, neglectful readers and the hand of the censor, each of my books has escaped to tell me its story.

    A few years ago, in a stand at the Berlin flea market, I found a thin black book bound in hard cloth covers that bore no inscription whatsoever. The title page, in fine Gothic lettering, declared it to be aGebet-Ordnung für den Jugendgottesdienst...

    (pp. 252-267)

    If Night is the child of Chaos, then Lethe or Oblivion is its granddaughter, born of the terrible union between Night and Discord. In the sixth book of theAeneid,Virgil imagines Lethe as a river whose waters allow the souls on their way to the underworld to forget their former selves, so that they can be born again.276Lethe allows us oblivion of our former experience and happiness, but also of our prejudices and sorrows.

    My library consists half of books I remember and half of books I have forgotten. Now that my memory is not as keen as...

    (pp. 268-291)

    There are two big sophora trees in my garden, just outside my library windows. During the summer, when friends are visiting, we sit and talk under them, sometimes during the day but usually at night. Inside the library, my books distract us from conversation and we are inclined to silence. But outside, under the stars, talk becomes less inhibited, wider ranging, strangely more stimulating. There is something about sitting outside in the dark that seems conducive to unfettered conversation. Darkness promotes speech. Light is silent—or, as Henry Fielding explains inAmelia, “Tace,madam, is Latin for a candle.”296


    (pp. 292-305)

    I keep a list of books that I feel are missing from my library and that I hope one day to buy, and another, more wishful than useful, of books I’d like to have but I don’t even know exist. In this second list areA Universal History of Ghosts, A Description of Life in the Libraries of Greece and Rome,a third Dorothy L. Sayers detective novel completed by Jill Paton Walsh, Chesterton on Shakespeare, aSummary of Averroës on Aristotle,a literary cookbook that draws its recipes from fictional descriptions of food, a translation of Calderón’sLife Is...

    (pp. 306-319)

    Beyond the national library of any nation lies a library greater than all, because it contains each and every one of them: an inconceivably vast and ideal library of all the books ever written, and of those that exist only as possibilities, as volumes still to come. This colossal accumulation of libraries overshadows any single collection of books and yet is implied in every one of their volumes. My edition of theOdyssey,“translated into English prose by T.E. Shaw” (better known as Lawrence of Arabia), echoes back to Alexandria and to the rigorous commentaries of Aristarchus, as well as...

    (pp. 320-325)

    We have always wanted to remember more, and we will continue, I believe, to weave webs to catch words in the hope that somehow, in the sheer quantity of accumulated utterances, in a book or on a screen, there will be a sound, a phrase, a spelled-out thought that will carry the weight of an answer. Every new technology has advantages over the previous one, but necessarily lacks some of its predecessor’s attributes. Familiarity, which no doubt breeds contempt, breeds also comfort; that which is unfamiliar breeds distrust. My grandmother, born in the Russian countryside at the end of the...

    (pp. 326-328)
  21. Notes
    (pp. 329-356)
  22. Image Credits
    (pp. 357-360)
  23. Index
    (pp. 361-374)
  24. Back Matter
    (pp. 375-385)