Our books will bear witness for or against us, our books reflect who we are and who we have been.

Oh the bookworm’s pleasure when reading a book about books! I’m surprised that this one is not more known (only 744 ratings on GoodReads), but suspect that its unusual format might have something to do with it. The Library at Night is a delightful collection of essays about the past, present and future of libraries, not just public libraries, but also personal ones.

The different chapters are loosely organized into themes like The Library as Mind, The Library as Survival, The Library as Order, The Library as Imagination, etc. They all approach libraries within a human context and taken as a whole they form a compelling argument about their extraordinary importance on our common and individual history and what may come.

Manguel talks about Alexandria and the looted Iraq National Library and State Archives, Nazi book burning and digital libraries, Afghani booksellers to books never written. He gets personal, he meanders, he chats and it’s this absence of structure that makes the book so appealing and intimate. It’s like listening to a cultured friend talk about something he loves during a relaxed evening at home.

There were certain ideas that really struck a chord.

As Myth

I never realized we’ve no idea what the Library of Alexandria looked like. No one ever took the trouble to describe it because they assumed that it was too important to ever be forgotten. That adds another level of tragedy to an already tragic tale.

The Library that wanted to the storehouse for the memory of the world was not able to secure for us the memory of itself.

It’s exterior is lost to us, but its power as a symbol, imagination-tease and cautionary tale still lingers.

Manguel’s personal library, that inspired him to write The Library at Night. I was surprised that he never mentions his TBR books. My TBR shelves probably give me more pleasure than the ones with the books I’ve already read.

As Space

I got all emotional when Manguel talks about the San Francisco librarians who hid or altered book registers to prevent their destruction in order to free shelf space. Guerrilla librarianship at its best.

Manguel also makes a very compelling warning about our (exclusive) dependence on digital libraries/recordings. Technology changes so quickly that we cannot ensure that what we’re digitizing now will be available in 50 years. A great example is the BBC’s Domesday Project, that was feared to be lost because of its obsolete 80s computer software.

Still, I’m far from agreeing with his opinion on the internet – “all surface and no volume, all present and no past” – especially considering how fascinating everything around it is: the community-based content, the information available to masses for the first time in history. There is however, something to Manguel’s view that,

(…) if the Library at Alexandria was the emblem of our ambition of omniscience, the Web is the emblem of our ambition of omnipresence.

How very human of us, this strive for divinity.

As Mind

Very interesting point as well about how libraries and memory. I often remember a short-story as if it was a long novel and an actual 800-page mammoth can be reduced to only a title and a vague idea of the plot. How different the libraries is our minds and their physical counterparts are!

 

The Library at Night is a book to be read slowly and if possible debated with other book-lovers. There’s lots of food for thought to be well digested. Can you recommend anything else by Manguel? Has anyone read A History of Reading?

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Other thoughts: things mean a lot, The Captive Reader, So Many Books, A Striped Armchair, Necromancy Never PaysWinstonsdad’s Blog, The Written Word, Buried in Print (yours?)

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