The Library At Night – Alberto Manguel

Like any most book lovers I have always wanted my own private library (which I was getting towards before having a baby). The Library At Night is basically an extended praise to all libraries through all of history, from the earliest libraries storing clay tablets through private collections and then a return to the civic libraries through the vision of leaders and philanthropists.

The Library At NightManguel starts by considering his own library, a rebuilt barn designed for this purpose in rural France. The drips about this library alone make this book worth reading, a room dedicated to browsing through his own books, knowing how his own books link together.

Then each chapter is an essay exploring an aspect of the nature of libraries, how they have been throughout history a repository for knowledge; a mark of community, or lack or it in times of war and civil disruption; and a reflection of their custodians, both as individuals and serving the wider community they are within.

Architecture and humanity’s desire to learn and keep a repository of learning throughout history are explored. By the end I felt that I was slacking by only reading paper, or even worse electronic, books, rather than reading them aloud or even writing them out longhand, as that clearly showed a declining respect for the books.

Manguel is also a strong believer in quoting from other works, and I’m tempted to “borrow” the prayer he has in turn borrowed from an ancient clay tablet for my own books:

“May Ishtar bless the reader who will not alter this tablet nor place it elsewhere in the library, and may She denounce in anger he who dares withdraw it from this building.”

Considering his love of quoting I was also amused by the inclusion of this argument in favour of quoting during the section describing The Library as Island, how each library stands alone as an individual collection of books:

“No quoting here!” The students were demanding original thought; they were forgetting that to quote is to continue a conversation from the past in order to give context to the present. To quote is to make use of the Library of Babel; to quote is to reflect on what has been said before, and unless we do that, we speak in a vacuum where no human voice can make a sound.

Manguel certainly continues that conversation well, and I intend to read many of the books I haven’t so far that he listed as a favourite.

Have you read any good books about books?

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