The Ultimate Reader

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Isolde Ohlbaum, Munich
Alberto Manguel, Hamburg, 2007; photograph by Isolde Ohlbaum

The Library at Night is a disquisition on libraries in general—on their history, their nature, their significance, and some of their idiosyncrasies. It is a bold undertaking, but then large subjects hold no terrors for Manguel. Probably his best-known book, published fourteen years ago, is nothing less (as its title proclaims) than a history of reading. In comparison, a book about libraries must seem relatively light work. But the theme is still a vast one.

Wisely, Manguel makes no attempt to be comprehensive. The book is neatly laid out: each chapter is devoted to a major aspect of libraries, from cataloguing and arrangement to censorship and exclusion. But many important topics—lending procedures, for instance, or the limited shelf-life of paperbacks—are virtually ignored, while within each chapter the treatment tends to be highly selective.

In particular, Manguel is happier outlining case histories than compiling lists. In the chapter on libraries as expressions of personal power, King Ashurbanipal of Assyria and Andrew Carnegie do duty for all the other founders or benefactors who might have been considered. A large slice of the chapter on the architecture of libraries is devoted to a single example, Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence.

If The Library at Night had any pretensions to being a textbook, Manguel’s approach might seem lopsided or fragmentary. But it is a work of a quite different order—meditative, questing, and essayistic. Manguel gives us notice of what we can expect in the very first words of the epigraph with which he opens the book, a quotation from Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy: “This roving humor…I have ever had….” Like Burton, he follows his fancy.

Writing of this kind, it need hardly be said, is often highly personal, and there are many points at which The Library at Night might best be classified as autobiography. For it is not just about libraries in general, but also about a specific library—the one Manguel has had built to house his own books (some 30,000 of them) in the village in the Loire valley where he has made his home in recent years, after growing up in Buenos Aires, living in Europe, and then becoming a Canadian citizen. The building itself was constructed around the ruined wall of a fifteenth-century stone barn, and he gives a loving account of its taking shape. (It is easy to imagine his thrill when he found that the local masons referred to the large stones they used as majuscules— capital letters—and the smaller ones as minuscules— lower-case letters.) He ruefully recalls the problems that were involved in trying to find the best order in which to arrange the books, and is reminded of his first attempts to organize those he owned into groups and subgroups, when he was a boy of seven or eight in Buenos Aires. (He makes the children’s books themselves sound very enticing: he …

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