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The Library at Night

Read in Ned | December 21, 2017

By Tom Lambrecht

We make choices daily when selecting the foods we eat, the movies we watch and the music we listen to — all selections based on our ever-changing moods. The books we choose to read make greater demands on our attention than other, more passive diversions which means that selecting the “right” book to settle down with might mean rejecting a couple of “right now” titles that just happen to be perched on the nightstand. As the evenings grow longer, my own taste in reading material leans towards the introspective. The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel, which was published in 2009 by Yale University Press, recently appeared in our library’s “new” section and was well suited to my mood now that the solstice is upon us.

The slightly washed-out and surreal black and white cover of this book is about as understated as a book cover can be. It consists of an image of an overstuffed chair in a forest, with a floor lamp casting a comforting circle of light around a reader whose back is to the viewer. The mood is simultaneously one of remoteness and intimacy and perfectly evokes the mood of Manguel’s writing.

Each chapter of the book is an essay that explores “The Library as …” ostensibly, from a single viewpoint. However, Manguel’s exuberant writing is never constrained by a mere chapter heading — each new topic only provides a jumping-off place for the author’s rich and meandering storytelling.

“The Library as Myth” begins with the story of his home and personal library, built on the remnants of a historic ruin on a French hilltop. Its construction and the area’s history provide a backdrop as Manguel relates the nocturnal pleasure he takes in the interior, the shelves, the books and his perception of the space, where “at night I can read with a lightheartedness verging on insouciance.” After a brief nod to the noted philosopher and essayist Montaigne (who preferred to spend his evenings sleeping), the author moves to a discourse on vast private and public libraries, which leads into the chapter, “The Library as Shape” that explores the arrangements and architecture of some of the world’s notable libraries. Lest one think that such a discussion is dry, Manguel’s written impressions drip with the sensuousness of a devotee of both books and collections of books.

As a working author, his library serves as a research tool and a creative space and “The Library as Workshop” begins with musings on the space where he writes and moves to the personal libraries of Kipling, Cervantes and Borges. In “the Library as Chance,” the author ranges from flea market book stands to the libraries that sprang up on ancient trade routes. “The Library as Mind.” begins with his own unique cataloguing system which relies on associations of books, authors and personal experiences — “the remembered order follows a pattern in my mind … rather as a stargazer connects in narrative patterns the pinpoints of the stars.”All is not celebration, however, as Manguel mourns books censored and burned and libraries looted in “The Library as Shadow” and “The Library as Oblivion.”

From antiquarian books and medieval libraries to the Internet and virtual book collections, Manguel leaves almost no stone or book unturned. His writing, like the organization of his own book collection is organic and though it takes disparate trajectories with biographical, historical and literary asides — sometimes all in a single page — it never comes across as jumbled or chaotic. The Library at Night is an ideal volume to curl up with in your own circle of light on windy, wintry evening.

Tom Lambrecht is a Library Assistant at the Nederland Community Library.


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