Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Book Review: "The Library at Night"

Alberto Manguel's latest book is The Library at Night (published in the U.S. by Yale, 2008). The book emerged, he writes, out of his quest to discover why, in the face of the knowledge that all our human efforts to "lend the world a semblance of sense and order ... are sadly doomed to failure," we still try. "Though I knew from the start that the question would most likely remain unanswered, the quest seemed worthwhile for its own sake." The chapters, which all begin "The Library as ___," include anecdotal musings from Manguel's own life as a bibliophile and personal librarian, combined with always-pertinent historical background.

In his unmatched lyrical prose, Manguel treats many varied aspects of book collecting, librarianship and reading: library catalogs, reading out loud (I'm glad I'm not the only one who does that), the exclusiveness inherent in every library collection, Google Books, Borges' manufactured and hilarious list of "things to avoid in literature," &c. I could spend pages going through the various chapters, but I think I'll settle for just including a few quotes which I found particularly interesting:

- On the differences between a library at different times of day: "If the library of 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" (p. 14).

- On price stickers: "Old or new, the only sign I always try to rid my books of (usually with little success) is the price-sticker that malignant booksellers attach to the backs. These evil white scabs rip off with difficulty, leaving leprous wounds and traces of slime to which adhere the dust and fluff of ages, making me wish for a special gummy hell to which the inventor of these stickers would be condemned" (p. 17). Let's just say I couldn't agree more.

- "In a library, no shelf remains empty for long. Like Nature, libraries abhor a vacuum, and the problem of space is inherent in the very nature of any collection of books" (p. 66). Oh, too true!

- "Books come together because of the whims of a collector, the avatars of a community, the passing of war and time, because of neglect, care, the imponderability of survival, the random culling of the rag-and-bone trade, and it may take centuries before their congregation acquires the identifiable shape of a library" (p. 165).

- "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. Our experience builds on experience, our memory on other memories. Our books build on other books that change or enrich them, that grant them a chronology apart from that of literary dictionaries" (p. 194).

- On how a modern-day Gulliver would view the reading habits of contemporary humans: "What would he see? He would see huge commercial temples in which books are sold in their thousands, immense edifices in which the published world is divided and arranged in tidy categories for the guided consumption of the faithful. He would see libraries with readers milling about in the stacks as they have done for centuries. He would see them exploring the virtual collections into which some of the books have been mutated, leading the fragile existence of electronic ghosts. Outside, too, the time-traveller would find a host of readers: on park benches, in the subway, on buses and trams and trains, in apartments and houses, everywhere. Our visitor could be excused if he supposed that ours was a literate society. On the contrary. Our society accepts the book as a given, but the act of reading - once considered useful and important, as well as potentially dangerous and subversive - is now condescendingly accepted as a pastime, a slow pastime that lacks efficiency and does not contribute to the common good. As our visitor would eventually realize, in our society reading is nothing but an ancillary act, and the great repository of our memory and experience, the library, is considered less a living entity than an inconvenient storage room" (p. 223). I'm not quite as sanguine as Manguel seems to be about the vibrancy of the biblio-universe, but I still found the quote fairly apt.

- Naturally there were points where I disagreed strongly with Manguel; most notably, he seems to have a soft spot for the Nicholson Bakers of the world, who don't seem to comprehend the limits of spatial and fiscal resources or the simple fact that some things (i.e. newspapers) just weren't meant to last forever in their original, highly-acidic form (p. 72-3).

- "Books may not change our suffering, books may not protect us from evil, books may not tell us what is good or what is beautiful, and they will certainly not shield us from the common fate of the grave. But books grant us myriad possibilities: the possibility of change, the possibility of illumination. It may be that there is no book, however well written, that can remove an ounce of pain from the tragedy of Iraq or Rwanda, but it may also be that there is no book, however foully written, that does not allow an epiphany for its destined reader" (p. 232).

- "As readers, we have gone from learning a precious craft whose secret was held by a jealous few, to taking for granted a skill that has become subordinate to principles of mindless financial profit or mechanical efficiency, a skill for which governments care almost nothing. We have gone from one scale of values to the other many times, and will no doubt do so again. We can't be spared this erratic course, which seems to be an intrinsic part of our human nature, but we can at least sway with the knowledge of our swaying, and with the conviction that at one point or another our skill will once again be recognized as of the essence" (p. 232-3)..

- On not reading all the books in your library: "... a library, whatever its size, need not be read in its entirety to be useful; every reader profits from a fair balance between knowledge and ignorance, recall and oblivion" (p. 254).

- "Electronic text that requires no page can amicably accompany the page that requires no electricity; they need not exclude each other in an effort to serve us best" (p. 321-2).

As one of the preeminent contemporary writers on biblio-things, Manguel's views and musings are always welcome, even in the infrequent cases where I didn't share his position. His rich, delightful writing is a pleasure to read, and as with all of his other works, this one is well worth reading.