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The Ultimate Reader

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 can still see them with a child’s eye.)

And why the library at night, as opposed to any other time? By day, as Manguel explains, the place is “a realm of order.” It is used for writing and research; its structure and organizing principles are apparent. But at night a different spirit takes over:

The books are now the real presence and it is I, their reader, who, through cabbalistic rituals of half-glimpsed letters, am summoned up and lured to a certain volume and a certain page…. One book calls to another unexpectedly, creating alliances across different cultures and centuries. A half-remembered line is echoed by another for reasons which, in the light of day, remain unclear.

As a reader, Manguel’s deepest allegiance is plainly to these nocturnal mysteries. As a writer, he proceeds much more methodically, with more regard for daytime logic. But he still displays a particular fondness for unexpected connections and arresting affinities. Discussing the use of colored bindings to denote different categories of texts in the ancient Chinese Imperial Library, he points out how curiously akin the scheme was to the color- coding of early Penguins or that of the popular Spanish series Austral. Modern personalities who hope to acquire intellectual luster by being painted or photographed against the background of a book-lined wall remind him of Seneca inveighing against the “endless bookshelves” with which ignorant Romans decorated their dining rooms.

Tinkering with his own library, he gets a kick out of reassigning Chekhov’s A Strange Confession to the section of detective novels. Not only does this force the reader to follow the story in a new way, “with the requisite attention to murder, clues and red herrings”; it also extends the whole notion of a genre usually associated with “the likes of Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie.” (One might add that the choice of two such disparate examples—Chandler detested the playful whodunit of which Christie was the most renowned master—also indicates just how many-sided that genre already is.)

It should be clear from such instances that Manguel takes the broad sweep that his subject demands. He is a humane and judicious commentator whose wide reading is matched—something not always the case—by broad sympathies. Great achievements are recorded in his book, and great catastrophes (or atrocities)—the establishment and fostering of libraries, sometimes against heroic odds; the destruc- tion and pillaging of libraries, from antiquity to the Iraq war. He gives a particularly somber account of the holocaust of Aztec books under the direction of the Inquisition in sixteenth-century Mexico.

But he has happier tales to tell. He writes admiringly about the libraries built up over centuries in Mauretanian oases that were stopping points for pilgrims en route to Mecca; he celebrates the lending libraries that transport books by donkey to villages in remote areas of Colombia. And he always has time for curiosities, from the “little high heels” that Samuel Pepys built for his smaller volumes, so that the tops of his books were all level when they stood on the shelf, to the list of the books, from Homer to “Madame Sand,” that Captain Nemo took with him on his submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

Connections and contrasts multiply as the book proceeds. The chapter entitled “The Library as Mind” is largely devoted to the great library, encompassing art, religion, mythology, and much else, that Aby Warburg began assembling as an adolescent in Hamburg around 1880, and that was arranged on principles reflecting the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of his thought. (Warburg’s conception of a library is described by Manguel as essentially circular—“an accumulation of associations” that eventually led the reader back to the first page.)

Warburg himself died in 1929. Four years later the library was shipped to London, to avoid the fate that would have awaited it under the Nazis. And it is hard not to think back to it when eighty pages further on we encounter a kind of dark counterpart—the 1,200 surviving volumes of Hitler’s personal library (out of an original 16,000) that are preserved in the Library of Congress.

At almost every turn The Library at Night offers something of interest. Along with the anecdotes and the telling quotations, there are deft character sketches—of Melvil Dewey of the Dewey Decimal Classification System, for instance, or Antonio Panizzi, the political exile from Italy who became the most renowned of the British Museum’s librarians (he ended his days as Sir Anthony) and who presided over the creation of the museum’s domed Reading Room in its full Victorian glory. (Manguel doesn’t overlook less glorious aspects of the Reading Room’s history—tales of the fearsome “Museum flea” that infested it in pre-Panizzi times, or Thomas Carlyle’s complaint about the number of “people in a state of imbecility” who were granted admission: “I have been informed that there are several in that state who have been sent there by their friends to pass away the time.”)

One reads on; but for all its admirable qualities, one also starts wondering quite where the book is going. Manguel explains in his opening pages that he sees the ideal library as above all an attempt to extract order from chaos. It lends a show of meaning to a meaningless universe; it brings together the endless, seemingly disparate varieties of experience and asserts that they form a unified whole. This theme is taken up again at many later points in the book. In the closing pages, we are still being asked to think of libraries as “proof of our resilient belief in a timeless, far-reaching order that we dimly intuit or perceive.”

What we are being offered, in fact, is not so much an argument as a vision. But it is a vision that proves less convincing than we might have hoped. Perhaps only the eloquence of Thomas Browne, Thomas De Quincey, or a writer of that order could have done it justice. Manguel writes well enough, with energy and crisp intelligence, but he doesn’t soar.

Luckily he never deserts solid reality for long. He tells his stories, finds time for practical matters (such as the design of bookshelves), and remains keenly aware of social issues—of the world beyond the library. No pages in the book are livelier, for instance, than the ones in which he sets out his objections to the Internet. They are fueled by irritation, if that isn’t too weak a word, and they undoubtedly overstate their case. But that is probably the only way the case is going to get the hearing it deserves.

For Manguel, the Web is “all surface and no volume, all present and no past.” It offers a deadly bargain: what we gain in speed we lose in cultural amnesia. It softens readers’ brains by “diluting informed opinion with reams of inane babble, ineffectual advice, inaccurate facts and trivial information.” None of which is wholly true. Not all Internet talk is babble, not all the facts are inaccurate, not all the information is trivial. When Manguel gets going, he sometimes sounds like an irate blogger himself. But you know what he means; and even readers who feel that he is too one-sided in other respects may well thrill to the staunchness of his conviction that the Web cannot act as a container of our past like a book “because it is not a book and will never be a book, in spite of the endless gadgets and guises invented to force it into that role.” Nor, he adds, “can it ever be in any useful sense a universal library,” in spite of the various projects that have already been designed with that end in mind.

This may well underestimate the ingenuity of the gadgeteers. It would be unwise to assume that they won’t eventually come up with devices that carry the day—a black day. But for the moment everyone who believes in books must keep the faith.

The Library at Night covers a great deal of ground. Inevitably there are gaps—almost nothing about contemporary efforts to ensure the physical conservation of books, for example, nothing about the great collectors of pornography, less than one might have expected about librarians (and apart from a glance at Callimachus—equally notable for his poetry and for his work as a cataloger in the library of Alexandria—and some glowing pages on Borges, who was Manguel’s friend and master, nothing about librarians such as Philip Larkin and Angus Wilson, who were also writers). But with one exception, the omissions are occasions for regret—one would like to have seen what Manguel had to say—rather than complaint: the impressive thing is how much he has packed in.

The exception is not so much a straightforward omission as a structural flaw. The book revolves around the story of a private library—Manguel’s own. It also draws a distinction, naturally enough, between private libraries and public ones. At the outset Manguel emphasizes that “my library is a private realm, very unlike public libraries large and small.” Yet elsewhere in the book, when he talks about libraries in general, the distinction tends to get blurred. He seldom dwells on the specific characteristics of private libraries; and he has much less to say about them than about public ones.

In one respect this is understandable. It is a question of size. A library that can serve as a metaphor for universal knowledge has to be a large one, if the whole idea is not to seem absurd. Very few private libraries are big enough to fit the bill (though Manguel’s, with its 30,000 volumes, is arguably one of the ones that are). And it is a question of size at the other end of the scale, too—and also of nomenclature. What about someone who owned, say, a hundred books? It would be grandiose if he actually referred to them as “my library,” but that doesn’t mean that they might not play the part of a private library in his life, a good deal more effectively than 10,000 volumes in the hands of someone who didn’t appreciate them.

A few examples of small-scale book-owners would have made a welcome addition to The Library at Night, and a potentially touching or even heroic one. (Such owners have of course often been poor.) What is more surprising, however, is that Manguel should have so little to say about larger private libraries.

He does touch on a few royal or aristocratic collections, and glance at one or two illustrious figures, such as Petrarch (who bequeathed his library—in return for a palazzo—to the Venetian republic) and Montaigne. But one would like to have heard something about the rise of the private library as a bourgeois or at any rate upper-bourgeois institution—meaning not only the substantial collection but also the separate room devoted to it. One misses an account of the country-house library (that much-favored spot for finding corpses in old-style detective stories) and the “gentleman’s library,” which was the foremost resting place for so many collected editions and standard works.

An extensive private library requires money and space. Viewed in one light, it is a luxury item. But it is also an outpost of civilization—or can be. Certainly private libraries have had an important role in literary history. When Leslie Stephen called a series of volumes of his essays Hours in a Library, he was thinking of his own library, not of academic or public ones. (The nearest American equivalent was James Russell Lowell, with his collections Among My Books and My Study Windows.) And you can get a good idea of what it meant to be a nineteenth-century man of letters who couldn’t afford the books he needed from the melancholy pages of George Gissing.

Manguel’s own purposes are unquestionably serious—intensely so. But this doesn’t prevent him from enjoying the purely pleasurable aspects of his subject. Among other things, he has an agreeable taste for amusing trivia. Indeed, you sometimes wish that he had allowed himself to rove even further.

One item that takes his fancy is the panel lined with rows of false book spines that Charles Dickens installed in his library. He cites some of the bogus works it contained, including a splendid Catalogue of Statues to the Duke of Wellington in ten volumes. (The idea somehow conjures up a drawing by Saul Steinberg.) But he also makes it sound—perhaps inadvertently—as though the Dickens panel was a unique stunt.

In fact dummy books were a well-known feature of English private libraries long before Dickens’s time and long afterward. Around 1830, for example, Tom Hood was commissioned by the Duke of Devonshire to devise some new ones for the library at Chatsworth. (One title he came up with was Cursory Remarks on Swearing.) In the 1920s, in his novel Crome Yellow, Aldous Huxley described a dummy bookcase in a country house containing a biographical dictionary in four sections: Biography of Men Who Were Born Great, Biography of Men Who Achieved Greatness, Biography of Men Who Had Greatness Thrust upon Them, and Biography of Men Who Were Never Great at All. And I once came across a rather creepy specimen of the genre dating from the 1930s—“ Mein Gampf, by N. Chamberlain. ” (A gamp, or umbrella, was the cartoon symbol most commonly associated with Neville Chamberlain at the time.)

False book-backs don’t have to be facetious, by the way. The best-known of the ones devised by Dickens, which Manguel rather oddly fails to mention, were the set called “The Wisdom of Our Ancestors—I. Ignorance. II. Superstition. III. The Block. IV. The Stake. V. The Rack. VI. The Dirt. VII. Disease.”

Manguel has a strong interest in imaginary books in general. He is particularly good on the books that Borges invented for his fictional characters “without bothering to write them out,” and on the catalog of wonderful nonexistent books that Rabelais allows Pantagruel to inspect—an “irreverent but tacit gloss,” he suggests, on the books in Rabelais’s own library. He gives examples of imaginary works by other authors as different as Kipling and H.P. Lovecraft, and of imaginary libraries with real books in them.

His own inventions are less inspired. He gives a list of “books I’d like to have but I don’t even know exist”—“a literary cookbook that draws its recipes from fictional descriptions of food,” a translation of Calderón by Anne Michaels, a new novel by Dorothy L. Sayers, and so forth. It is respectable enough, but it doesn’t set the pulse racing. One of the more imaginative items in it is “Chesterton on Shakespeare,” but even this hardly compares for excitement with one of the “things that might have been and never were” that are listed by Borges in his poem “Things That Might Have Been”—“John Donne’s judgment of Shakespeare.”

It would be quite misleading, however, to close on a negative note. The Library at Night remains a remarkable book—remarkable above all for its openness to the possibilities that books hold out, and for the passion with which it tries to instill the same attitude in its readers. Manguel tells us that over one of the doors of his library he has adapted the motto of Rabelais’s Abbey of Thelême, Fays ce que voudra (“Do as you please”), and written the words Lys ce que voudra— “Read as you please.” If he wanted to add an English equivalent, he might consider the injunction in one of Randall Jarrell’s essays—Read at whim! And either formula would do equally well for a book which breathes a spirit of freedom and encouragement.

In Manguel’s new book, A Reader on Reading, his roving humor is even more apparent. This is hardly surprising, since it is a collection of essays and lectures that were originally published or delivered under widely differing auspices. The subjects dealt with—part literary, part political, part autobiographical—are almost inescapably miscellaneous.

It is true that there is an attempt to impose a greater degree of unity than they naturally possess by introducing each piece with a quotation from Lewis Carroll’s Alice books and introducing each section with one of Sir John Tenniel’s incomparable Alice illustrations. But the effect, though charming, is not much more than decorative, while for those who know Manguel’s work already it is liable to be accompanied by a distinct sense of déjà vu. He has used the same device in an earlier collection of essays, Into the Looking-Glass Wood (1998).

The new book overlaps with Into the Looking-Glass Wood in other respects too. He remarks casually in his preface that a few of the pieces in it were taken from the earlier collection, but doesn’t give any clue as to which they are. The emptor deserves rather more of a caveat than this, however, since the Looking-Glass items account for a full third of the material in A Reader on Reading, and include some of its most notable essays—the fine biographical sketch “Borges in Love,” for instance; the droll but searching commentary on the story of Jonah and the Whale; the essay “Saint Augustine’s Computer,” which begins by conjuring up the days before silent reading became the norm, when readers “had literally to breathe life into a text.”

It is no great matter. Essays of this quality are worth reading, or rereading, wherever they are encountered. So are many of the shorter pieces that Manguel has salvaged from Into the Looking-Glass Wood, such as his reflections on publishers’ editors (with perhaps more irritation simmering just below the surface than he will admit to). And most of the previously uncollected pieces maintain the same high standard. They extract wise or vivid lessons from Enoch Soames and Pinocchio, from the convention of the first-person narrator and the history of the full stop.

There is some dross among the gold. Under “Notes Towards a Definition of the Ideal Reader” and “Notes Towards a Definition of the Ideal Library” we are treated to long lists of aphorisms, if that is what they are, which seldom inspire a more positive response than “uh-huh.” How much do any of us gain, for instance, by being told that “ideal readers are seldom sentimental” or that “the ideal library is familiar both to Saint Jerome and to Noam Chomsky”?

Manguel can in fact sometimes be sententious or pretentious or both. But mostly, whenever such dangers threaten, another book beckons, and the true reader in him—the inspired and inspiring reader—flares back into life.

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