The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel
My Rating: ★★★★☆
Dreaming The Perfect LIBRARY
The Quest & The Question
The starting point, Manguel says is a question. Few today 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? Admitting from the start that the question would most likely remain unanswered, Manguel embarks on it for its own sake. This book is the story of that quest, “an account of my astonishment”, as Manguel says — and it is an astonishing journey for the readers as well.
“Surely we should find it both touching and inspiriting,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson over a century ago, “that in a field from which success is banished, our race should not cease to labour.”
Dreaming The Perfect LIBRARY
THE LIBRARY is a lot of things. And since it is quixotic by definition, this reader will now follow a future dream Library as Manguel traces his past, real libraries.
THE LIBRARY AS MYTH — It should be capable of eliciting in this reader the loftiest of all possible sensations, the sense of the sublime.
Manguel talks of the two great information-gathering projects of Mankind: The Library of Alexandria and The Tower of Babel. These two tower over the rest of the book, constantly reminding the reader and the writer about the magnificent and utile quest that mankind loves to keep re-embraking on.
THE LIBRARY AS ORDER — can a library ever have any meaningful order?
Subjects upon subjects, each of these subjects will require a classification within its classification. At a certain point in the ordering, out of fatigue, boredom or frustration, this geometrical progression might stop. But the possibility of continuing it is always there. There are no final categories in a library.
For this reader, the only consolation is that a private Library, at best, unlike a public one, presents the minor release of allowing a whimsical and highly personal classification. That is enough.
THE LIBRARY AS SPACE — Space is never enough a books never stop coming in
Ultimately, the number of books always exceeds the space they are granted. This reader wishes for a Library designed on The Brain, using folds and infolds to enfold a million books.
In the second chapter of Sylvie and Bruno, Lewis Carroll dreamt up the following solution: “If we could only apply that Rule to books! You know, in finding the Least Common Multiple, we strike out a quantity wherever it occurs, except in the term where it is raised to its highest power. So we should have to erase every recorded thought, except in the sentence where it is expressed with the greatest intensity.”
His companion objects: “Some books would be reduced to blank paper, I’m afraid!” “They would,” the narrator admits. “Most libraries would be terribly diminished in bulk. But just think what they would gain in quality!”
THE LIBRARY AS POWER — The invested power of the written word, thrills this reader. Empires can’t stop building libraries and people cannot stop authoring memoirs. They are the only real sources of lasting power. The Library left behind and the books written, they shall define this reader’s legacy.
THE LIBRARY AS SHADOW — If every library is in some sense a reflection of its readers, it is also an image of that which we are not, and cannot be.
Every library is a shadow, by definition the result of choice, and necessarily limited in its scope. And every choice excludes another, the choice not made. The act of reading parallels endlessly the act of censorship.
This reader imagines a Library where the censorship is total and the reader is a dictator, a benevolent one.
(This chapter includes a sad tour of The History of Censorship.)
THE LIBRARY AS SHAPE — “Every librarian is, up to a certain point, an architect,” observed Michel Melot, director of the Centre Pompidou Library in Paris. “He builds up his collection as an ensemble through which the reader must find a path, discover his own self, and live.”
This reader has already said that his Library will be modeled on The Brain.
THE LIBRARY AS CHANCE — A library is not only a place of both order and chaos; it is also the realm of chance. Left unattended, books cluster around what Henry James called a “general intention” that often escapes readers: “the string the pearls were strung on, the buried treasure, the figure in the carpet.” Isaac Asimov, anyone?
This reader imagines a Library where the books are left to cluster by chance and then picked up cluster-by-cluster and put back with their intellectual soul-mates.
THE LIBRARY AS WORKSHOP — The place where you read, and the place where you work. A history of the ‘study’.
This reader imagines a cozy nook, nudged within the Library, form where the grandeur is glimpsed but not enough for intimidation. At reach, still far enough away.
In 1929, Virginia Woolf published her now famous lectures on “Women and Fiction” under the title A Room of One’s Own, and there she defined forever our need for a private space for reading and writing: “The whole of the mind must lie wide open if we are to get the sense that the writer is communicating his experience with perfect fullness. There must be freedom and there must be peace.” And she added, “Not a wheel must grate, not a light glimmer. The curtains must be close drawn.” As if it were night.
A study lends its owner, its privileged reader, what Seneca called euthymia, a Greek word which Seneca explained means “well-being of the soul,” and which he translated as “tranquillitas.” Every study ultimately aspires to euthymia.
Euthymia, memory without distraction, the intimacy of a reading time — This reader can hardly imagine a more perfect Paradise.
THE LIBRARY AS MIND —What makes a library a reflection of its owner is not merely the choice of the titles themselves, but the mesh of associations implied in the choice.
This reader too will generally know the position of any book by recalling the Library’s layout.
The remembered order will follow the patterns of my mind, the shape and division of the Library ordered just so by me — and the Library will in turn reflect the configuration of my mind.
THE LIBRARY AS ISLAND — The Library, each book in it will be a newly discovered island.
To be the first to enter Circe’s cave, the first to hear Ulysses call himself Nobody, is every reader’s secret wish, granted over and over, generation after generation, to those who open the Odyssey for the first time.
This reader accepts that Libraries are not, never will be, used by everyone. Even in the most fantastically educated and cultured cities, the number of those for whom reading books is of the essence has always been very small.
What varies is not the proportions of these two groups of humanity, but the way in which different societies regard the book and the art of reading. And here the distinction between the book enthroned and the book read comes again into play. This reader’s Library will have no books enthroned, but all arrayed to be read.
THE LIBRARY AS SURVIVAL — On the destruction of books, by burning, drowning and other means. And On Survival
This reader likes to envisage his Library as a magnificent ark that will sail across the ocean of forgetfulness that embraces humanity.
THE LIBRARY AS OBLIVION — Oblivion through enforced illiteracy; Lost books, lost libraries; Displaced
This reader rejects this possibility.
THE LIBRARY AS IMAGINATION — The collecting of imaginary books is an ancient occupation.
This reader is sure that his Library will have as many imaginary books as real ones.
THE LIBRARY AS IDENTITY — Library can be more than a reflection of just personal identity.
In a similar fashion, the identity of a society, or a national identity, can be mirrored by a library, by an assembly of titles that, practically and symbolically, serves as our collective definition.
This reader’s Library should be a pride for the community and beyond.
THE LIBRARY AS HOME — A library can be as nourishing as a loving home.
For this reader, his Library is his umbilicus mundi, the navel of his world, the landscape that feeds his imagination, if not his body.
The splendidly cosmopolitan Library of this reader will, in turn, also ensure that the whole world is present right there. He will be at home in his Library and it will also be his World-at-Home
To be One With The LIBRARY
The conceit that what we can know of reality is an imagination made of language—all this finds its material manifestation
in that self-portrait we call a library.
And our love for it, and our lust to see more of it, and our pride in its accomplishments as we wander through shelves full of books that promise more and more delights, are among our happiest, most moving proofs of possessing, in spite of all the miseries and sorrows of this life, a more intimate, consolatory, perhaps redeeming faith in a method behind the madness than any jealous deity could wish upon us.
Dreaming of the Perfect Library can be therapeutic. Try it.