Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Library At Night

The Library At Night
By Alberto Manguel
Yale University Press, $17.00 paper
ISBN 978-0-300-15130-5

Alberto Manguel tells us in the opening pages of his book, The Library At Night that “the love of libraries, like most loves, must be learned.” In our digital world, I am afraid no one is learning this love, and worse, no one teaches it to those who do not know.

This book is a celebration, and it cuts to the heart of culture, of life, of the meaning of reading to the human animal. Manguel centers his writing on the building of his own library. “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.” His rooms of books, originally part of a presbytery, become one man’s temple devoted to the printed page. When Manguel first sees this place, all that stands is a single stone wall separating his property from a “chicken run and the neighbour’s field.”

He goes on to tell us of how he designed his space—one large, long room lined with shelves for the main collection, a smaller room off of that for his writing desk and reference books. He talks of libraries that influenced his design, the way he organizes his volumes on the shelves, and finally, the atmosphere of the finished structure. “But at night the atmosphere changes,” he writes. “Sounds become muffled, thoughts grow louder…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.”

From there he launches into a collection of interlinked essays exploring the facets of a library: the library as myth, the library as space, the library as power, and finally, the library as home. Along the way, he takes us through a dizzying array of libraries and literature, finding connections and parallels across several cultures.

He bemoans the state of our book culture today in the post-9-11 world. “In the aftermath of 11 September 2001, the Congress of the United States passed a law, Section 215 of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, allowing federal agents to obtain records of books borrowed at any public library or bought at any private bookstore. ‘Unlike traditional search warrants, this new power does not require officers to have evidence of any crime, nor provide evidence to a court that their target is suspected of one. Nor are library staff allowed to tell targeted individuals that they are being investigated,’” he quotes from The Observer, London, 16 March, 2003. “Under such requirements, a number of libraries in the United States, kowtowing to the authorities, reconsidered the purchase of various titles.”

The suggested shelving of this book falls under several categories: Library Studies, Books about Books, and History. It is the last that made the greatest impression on me. I love this book, and I found myself highlighting and nodding along with his thesis and examples, appreciating the nuances, the connections he makes. But I fear his love of books and libraries is moving into the shade of history. Today’s public libraries remove books to make room for computers. Budget cuts have left the buildings dark and shuttered when they most need to be open. If reading is done for recreation, would it not make sense to open the libraries here in Los Angeles on Sundays and a little later than eight o’clock most weekdays?

Further, in these troubled economic times, how many people have disposable income for books? How many people buy books with the idea of building a library? Many students purchase books required for their classes only to immediately sell them back at the close of the quarter or semester. I cannot blame them; with the expense of college, many have no choice. And the day when homeowners devoted an entire room in their houses to a library is probably a thing of the past.

Manguel’s library houses 30,000 books. I found myself salivating over the shelf space, the room of one’s own where he works. I have considerable shelf space in my home, but most of it is taken up with books I have yet to read. Most of my library is in boxes in the attic, waiting for the day when I have room and the financial resources to build a library.

Manguel loads his book with photographs, drawings, sketches and architectural plans of various libraries around the world, even some that are no longer in existence. He devotes considerable space to the ancient Library at Alexandria which supposedly burned in 47 B.C. Scholars and champions of the written word built a new Library at Alexandria in 2003, an impressive edifice as Manguel notes, that includes a virtual library set up by American artist, Rhonda Roland Shearer.

This is a beautiful, deeply felt, meditative work by Manguel. Book lovers, scholars, lovers of the endless cool shelves, the natural quiet, contemplative space of the library, should find this text and immerse themselves in it. Libraries, as those of us who love them fear, may be morphing, transitioning, becoming electronic, or disappearing altogether. If they were to disappear, our culture would be mortally wounded.

For me, I may live in many places during my life, but when I walk into a room of books, the quiet, the pools of light, the study carrels, the smell of binding and paper and ink, it is in that moment, when I step inside the repository of human thought, that I am home. In this way, I could not but love this book.

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