Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Alberto Manguel: The Library at Night

Peter Ackroyd reviews Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night.
His book is entitled The Library at Night. Why does he wish to share this nocturnal experience? In the silent hours of darkness the books are enmeshed in shadow, creating a world where there is no beginning and no end, no story and no meaning. At night the volumes can be said to form “a continuous narrative stream in which all genres, all styles, all stories converge, and all protagonists and all locations are unidentified...”. The reader is dipped into the swelling tide of language and is borne away. Yet there may be disadvantages to this experience. The reading of too many books may induce lassitude, wistfulness and fatalism.

Manguel also tells the story of one New Yorker who was literally overburdened with books. At the end of 2003, after a decade of book-buying, Patrice Moore was trapped under an “avalanche” that had descended from the shelves, and was not rescued for two days. He was buried alive by words, and the neighbours could hear him “moaning and mumbling” from beneath the piles of paper. It is a salutary warning to the overenthusiastic reader.

There are more obvious problems with libraries. In one chapter Manguel ponders the intricacies of classification; in another he expatiates on the seemingly infinite accumulation of books in the world. No library will be complete. There are always new volumes to be acquired and ingested.

And, contrary to the rubbish of received wisdom, there is no substitute for the book. Manguel estimates that electronic material can be preserved for a decade at best. That is why books can be considered dangerous. That is why they have been burnt. Libraries have been destroyed so that an indigenous culture can be forgotten; a fanatic priest from Spain destroyed most of Aztec literature, while the book burnings of Nazi Germany and the Inquisition are notorious.

It is written in Ecclesiastes that “of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh”. This can be construed as a celebration of, or warning concerning, the plenitude and power of books. The book can help us to interpret the past and to imagine the future. That is the achievement of The Library at Night. Out of the darkness of one man's library shines a beacon.
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