Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Alberto Manguel: The Library at Night

Peter Conrad reviews Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night.
Swift imagined books battling. In a library described in one of his satires, the volumes do not remain on the shelves but hurl themselves across the room in an exchange of insults and fisticuffs, enacting their disagreements by tearing one another's pages out. What happens, however, when the lights go out? Those belligerent books probably settle down to make love and breed other books. Writers write because they are compulsive readers and they do so in book-lined rooms. Forget about art imitating life: literature is a self-generating, self-referring activity.

The Argentinian bibliophile Alberto Manguel, whose books include A History of Reading, is an expert on this snugly closed circle, symbolised by the private library he has installed in a 15th-century barn in the Loire. Here he sits, preferably at night, with the 'shapeless universe' outside expunged by darkness. Warmed by the pools of light that spill from his lamps, he does not even need to read: the smell of the wooden shelves and 'the musky perfume of the leather bindings' is enough to pacify him and prepare him for sleep. Although the softly sifting 'plankton of dust' shed both by the crinkled pages and his drying skin anticipate a longer sleep, he does not mind. Libraries are storeyed tombs and Manguel is happy to be housed in the funereal stacks.

Within his global, multilingual book collection, he can effortlessly travel in both time and space. He admits the megalomania of the enterprise: it recalls both the hubris of the Tower of Babel, felled by a resentful God, and the acquisitive mania of the library at Alexandria, accidentally torched when Caesar set fire to his own ships. Behind these imperious ventures, and behind Manguel's life-long scavenging in second-hand shops, lies a desire to demonstrate the unity of phenomena, the indexed connection between disparate experiences and the accessibility of all this lore to a single individual.
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