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 Night is a fascinating voyage through Manguel’s mind, memory, and vast knowledge of books and civilizations.
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Alberto Manguel is an internationally acclaimed anthologist, translator, essayist, novelist, and editor, and the author of several award-winning books, including A Dictionary of Imaginary Places and A History of Reading.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Night which Pagan Theology could make the daughter of Chaos, affords no advantage to the description of order.
Sir Thomas Browne, The Garden of Cyrus
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 villagers attached to the church a house to lodge their priest, and eventually added to this presbytery a couple of pigeon towers, a small orchard and a barn. In the fall of 2000, when I first saw these buildings which are now my home, all that was left of the barn was a single stone wall that separated my property from a chicken run and the neighbour’s field. According to village legend, before belonging to the barn, the wall was part of one of the two castles that Tristan L’Hermite, minister of Louis xi of France and notorious for his cruelty, built for his sons around 1433. The first of these castles still stands, much altered during the eighteenth century. The second burnt down three or four centuries ago, and the only wall left standing, with a pigeon tower attached to its far end, became the property of the church, bordering one side of the presbytery garden. In 1693, after a new cemetery was opened to house the increasing number of dead, the inhabitants of the village (“gathered outside the church doors,” says the deed) granted the incumbent priest permission to incorporate the old cemetery and to plant fruit trees over the emptied tombs. At the same time, the castle wall was used to enclose a new barn. After the French Revolution, war, storms and neglect caused the barn to crumble, and even after services resumed in the church in 1837 and a new priest came to live in the presbytery, the barn was not rebuilt. The ancient wall continued to serve as a property divider, looking onto a farmer’s field on one side and shading the presbytery’s magnolia tree and bushes of hydrangea on the other.
As soon as I saw the wall and the scattered stones around it, I knew that here was where I would build the room to house my books. I had in mind a distinct picture of a library, something of a cross between the long hall at Sissinghurst (Vita Sackville-West’s house in Kent, which I had recently visited) and the library of my old high school, the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires. I wanted a room panelled in dark wood, with soft pools of light and comfortable chairs, and an adjacent, smaller space in which I’d set up my writing desk and reference books. I imagined shelves that began at my waist and went up only as high as the fingertips of my stretched-out arm, since, in my experience, the books condemned to heights that require ladders, or to depths that force the reader to crawl on his stomach on the floor, receive far less attention than their middle-ground fellows, no matter their subject or merit. But these ideal arrangements would have required a library three or four times the size of the vanished barn and, as Stevenson so mournfully put it, “that is the bitterness of art: you see a good effect, and some nonsense about sense continually intervenes.” Out of necessity, my library has shelves that begin just above the baseboards and end an octavo away from the beams of the watershed ceiling.
While the library was being built, the masons discovered two windows in the old wall that had been bricked up long ago. One is a slim embrasure from which archers perhaps defended Tristan l’Hermite’s son when his angry peasants revolted; the other is a low square window protected by medieval iron bars cut roughly into stems with drooping leaves. From these windows, during the day, I can see my neighbour’s chickens hurry from one corner of the compound to another, pecking at this spot and at that, driven frantic by too many offerings, like demented scholars in a library; from the windows on the new wall opposite, I look out onto the presbytery itself and the two ancient sophora trees in my garden. But at night, when the library lamps are lit, the outside world disappears and nothing but this space of books remains in existence. To someone standing outside, in the garden, the library at night appears like a vast vessel of some sort, like that strange Chinese villa that, in 1888, the capricious Empress Cixi caused to be built in the shape of a ship marooned in the garden lake of her Summer Palace. In the dark, with the windows lit and the rows of books glittering, the library is a closed space, a universe of self-serving rules that pretend to replace or translate those of the shapeless universe beyond.
During the day, the library is a realm of order. Down and across the lettered passages I move with visible purpose, in search of a name or a voice, summoning books to my attention according to their allotted rank and file. The structure of the place is visible: a maze of straight lines, not to become lost in but for finding; a divided room that follows an apparently logical sequence of classification; a geography obedient to a predetermined table of contents and a memorable hierarchy of alphabets and numbers.
But at night the atmosphere changes. Sounds become muffled, thoughts grow louder. “Only when it is dark does the owl of Minerva take flight,” noted Walter Benjamin, quoting Hegel. Time seems closer to that moment halfway between wakefulness and sleep in which the world can be comfortably reimagined. My movements feel unwittingly furtive, my activity secret. I turn into something of a ghost. The books are now the real presence and it is I, their reader, who, through cabbalistic rituals of half-glimpsed letters, am summoned up and lured to a certain volume and a certain page. The order decreed by library catalogues is, at night, merely conventional; it holds no prestige in the shadows. Though my own library has no authoritarian catalogue, even such milder orders as alphabetical arrangement by author or division into sections by language find their power diminished. Free from quotidian constraints, unobserved in the late hours, my eyes and hands roam recklessly across the tidy rows, restoring chaos. One book calls to another unexpectedly, creating alliances across different cultures and centuries. A half- remembered line is echoed by another for reasons which, in the light of day, remain unclear. If the library in the morning suggests an echo of the severe and reasonably wishful order of the world, the library at night seems to rejoice in the world’s essential, joyful muddle.
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