A bit ago I wrote about libraries as they’ve impacted my life through the years, and gave you a sneak peek at Alberto Manguel’s new book The Library at Night. I reviewed it for two publications, and one review appeared yesterday in the Miami Herald.
See the full text of the review below, and see it online here.
BY CHRISTINE THOMAS
THE LIBRARY AT NIGHT.
Alberto Manguel, Yale. 373 pages. $27.50.
Published April 27, 2008 in the Miami Herald
Alberto Manguel’s new book is a vivaciously erudite justification for society’s inexorable efforts to collect, order and store information. Inspired by the library he built in his French home, he explores the myriad levels on which a library functions and how readers interact with and in them.
The book is divided into 15 categories, each chapter exploring the library in a different light — as myth, survival, power, etc. Manguel revisits childhood bookshelves as well as libraries in ancient Egypt, Greece, Arab countries (including the legendary Library of Alexandria) and the personal book collections of Charles Dickens and Manguel’s fellow Argentine Jorge Luis Borges (himself a librarian). The route is above all determined by Manguel’s extensive knowledge and experience.
And there seems to be no one more qualified than the renowned anthologist, translator, essayist, novelist, editor and author of A History of Reading, to act as guide on this engrossing tour, digging through evidence of libraries’ existences, fates and importance from our earliest history to concrete and theoretical intersections with contemporary life. Manguel is comfortably present throughout by way of candid opinions and often humorous observations, particularly in descriptions of the minutia of a reading life: ”Immensely generous, my books make no demands on me but offer all kind of illuminations — [they] know infinitely more than I do, and I’m grateful that they even tolerate my presence.” Illustrations and photos are consistently placed throughout the book, rounding out the journey and imparting a sense that we’re accompanying Manguel to the libraries about which he writes.
Such structured yet fluid sections provide ample opportunity to present an extensive swath of information, and Manguel incorporates so much it’s impossible to mention every significant connection (Dewey, Hitler’s library, Google’s book project, warnings of technology’s failings). Superb transitions link each division, and standout passages abound, including one exploration of reading as survival and the struggle to preserve freedom of thought and expression. Another fine note is the reminder that the Anglo-American army simply watched as Baghdad’s National Archives, Archaeological Museum and National Library were looted in April 2003.
But this wealth of research and reflection means that while some chapters, such as ”Library as Shape”, seem solid, full and contained, others, such as ”Library as Chance” read like a catchall for extraneous detail. ”Library as Island” appears tangential and disconnected, roving from the Bible to the Web to bookmobile ungulates and back. Other chapters are more effectively populated with many small stories and examples throughout time and across countries, while another entry, ”Library as Mind,” is compelling and convincing by centering solely on Aby Warburg’s personal history and maddeningly unique library organization.
Unfailingly, Manguel’s book underscores the viability and sustainability of reading, writing and ideas and the sheer impracticality of dismissing books and libraries as obsolete relics. Book lovers will luxuriate in these earnest and impressively researched pages.