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Nashwaak Review - Volume 18-19

Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night

by Trevor Sawler

There is a certain attraction to simply wandering around a library with no particular purpose in mind — just wandering from shelf to shelf, randomly picking up books whose topics are sometimes obscure, sometimes engaging, and sometimes simply baffling. Each new title is ripe with possibilities, and gives you a fleeting glimpse into someone else’s view of the world. Admittedly, it’s rather like playing roulette, as you never know what the contents of a given volume might be, but even a short sojourn through the stacks is bound to give you insight into something you hadn’t even known would be of interest beforehand. In the modern era, where virtually instantaneous access to information is both expected and mundane, this might seem a bit backwards. Why bother going to a library at all, when with the aid of a laptop, a reasonably fast Internet connection, and Google you can know far more about any topic than you ever wanted to? In fact, I have a number of otherwise intelligent friends who seem convinced that libraries themselves are destined to become obsolete.

Sacrilege, I say.

Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night is the metaphoric equivalent of a peaceful night spent exploring the stacks. This is not to suggest that the variety of topics explored in the book are
entirely peaceful; quite the contrary. The opening lines set the tone for much of what is to follow:

The starting point is a question.

Outside theology and fantastic literature, few can doubt that the main features of our universe are its dearth of meaning and lack of discernable purpose. And yet, with bewildering optimism, we continue to assemble whatever scraps of information we can gather in scrolls and books and computer chips, on shelf after library shelf, whether material, virtual, or otherwise, pathetically intent on lending the world a semblance of sense and order, while knowing perfectly well that, however much we’d like to believe the contrary,
our pursuits are sadly doomed to failure.

Why then do we do it? Though I knew from the start that the question would most likely remain unanswered, the quest seemed worthwhile for its own sake. This book is the story of that quest.

With lines like this, you might suspect that we are in for a reconsideration of the world view espoused by Sartre and the rest of the existentialist crowd; fortunately, this is not the case. Part philosophical consideration, part personal introspection, and part social commentary, this book is a beautifully illustrated ramble through a seemingly chaotic plethora of topics. The question he poses at the beginning of the book – if the universe is ultimately meaningless and purposeless, why bother trying to give it order – is one that he honestly tries to answer.

The book is arranged thematically, and considers libraries as both storehouses of knowledge and architectural wonders; it looks on them as autobiographies of their owners and as statements of national identity. It examines small personal libraries and libraries that started as both business and philanthropic ventures. It looks at the benefits and drawbacks of modern “virtual” libraries. It compares collections that have grown organically over time with little or no thought to categorization to those that are both rigidly catalogued and carefully maintained. Although the book is carefully researched and full of concrete historical analysis, it manages to escape the dry, academic tone that you might expect from such a work; it is closer to an actual walk through the stacks than any kind of scholarly work.

What saves this book from even approaching a dry, scholarly tone is the way that connections are made between the various topics that Manguel holds up for our consideration. The connections are not concrete, nor are they necessarily directly related to the topics themselves; rather, they are intuitive. Everything in a library is connected to everything else, even if the connection is tenuous and difficult to grasp. The overriding connection, Manguel seems to suggest, stems from our desire to impose a semblance of order on a decidedly unordered universe. For Manguel, the library is the “emblem of man’s power to act through thought.” And remember, this is not just a book about the library; it is about the library at night, when “the library lamps are lit, the outside world disappears and nothing but this space of books remains in existence.... In the dark, with the windows lit and the rows of books glittering, the library is a closed space, a universe of self-serving rules that pretend to replace or translate those of the shapeless universe beyond.”

Manguel takes us on a journey through the great libraries of the past as well as their modern equivalents. Sadly, his assessment of the relative value placed upon modern libraries in this post-literate age is both accurate and disheartening: “Our society,” he says, “accepts the book as a given, but the act of reading—once considered useful and important, as well as potentially dangerous and subversive—is now condescendingly accepted as a pastime, a slow pastime that lacks efficiency and does not contribute to the common good… In our society, reading is nothing but an ancillary act, and the great repository of our memory and experience, the library, is considered less a living entity than an inconvenient storage room.”

The next logical step in this information age – the completely virtual library – is also held up for consideration, and not with the optimism undoubtedly fueling any number of venture capital backed startups in Silicon Valley. The always open, universally available cyber-libraries of the not-too-distant future are flawed in that they stress “velocity over reflection and brevity over complexity.” The Internet, according to Manguel, is a wonderful tool, but it prefers “snippets of news and bytes of facts over lengthy discussions”, and it “dilutes informed opinion with reams of inane babble, ineffectual advice, inaccurate facts and trivial information, made attractive with brand names and manipulated statistics.” I found it interesting how both the traditional, historic library and the flashy Internet-based equivalent were both treated as though they were conscious entities in this book; the former comes across as an erudite, well-read, almost fatherly figure, while the latter is the kind of person who has pale skin, and dreams of someday talking to an actual girl. The traditional library takes joy in sorting, cataloguing, and cherishing the books that define a culture and give meaning to the world around us; the cyber-library would cheerfully shelve a first edition of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake right beside William Shatner’s ghost-written SciFi novels. It’s refreshing to see technology treated as the tool that it ought to be, rather than as an end unto itself.

The Library at Night is for anyone who has ever said “Yes, actually, I do need all of these books, thank you very much.” It is a compelling read, and if you have a life-long love affair with the printed word, this is definitely worth your time.