The Library at Night

“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.


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 do it? Though I knew from the start that the question would most likely remain unanswered, the quest seemed worthwhile for its own sake. This book is the story of that quest.

–from The Library at Night


From the Hardcover edition.

Reviews

Manguel does all facets of his subject proud in The Library at Night, celebrating a treasure we so often take for granted… . [H]e also creates a treasure of his own.”
The Gazette (Montreal)

“[Manguel’s] newest richly imagined and richly anecdotal work … [is] his most impassioned and profound case yet for why we should read and why books matter. Why libraries, with their inclusions and exclusions, their deep repositories of our memory and experience, are significant.”
Calgary Herald

Praise for Alberto Manguel:
“Manguel is a tireless champion of the written word. He cares about books … with a deep, unswerving passion because he believes they are – still, despite our electronic progress – essential links between the individual and the world.”
The Vancouver Sun

Praise for A Reading Diary:
• A Globe and Mail Best Book
• Finalist for the writers’ trust of canada drainie-taylor biography prize

“Alberto Manguel has probably read more widely than almost anyone else now alive. Among English speakers, perhaps only Harold Bloom, George Steiner and Guy Davenport may outclass him – and they are all twenty years his senior, and long-time university teachers, to boot: In short, Manguel’s approach to books remains resolutely that of an amateur, one who loves with the pure joy sometimes denied the more scholarly.”
–The Globe and Mail

A Reading Diary is an utterly seductive book, the kind of book that lovers will want to read aloud to one another, that friends will quote back and forth.”
Calgary Herald

“Manguel’s exquisitely distilled style and gentle humility are pure pleasure. His diary is a goldmine of the unexpected, and his companionable, deeply cultivated persona will entrance all those who love to read and to ponder.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)