Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Library at Night

A guest post by Ron today:

We lost count at over seven thousand volumes. And there is less order than we'd like--I can't always put my hands on the book I want. Collected over thirty years, our library is a reflection of us--our thoughts, our interests, and our history. From the scholarly works of literature, history, and science to the beloved, crumbling, cheesy science fiction paperbacks to the rows and rows of books for children--our library occupies a place in my mind almost continuously. So when I received Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night as a birthday present, I knew I would have much in common with the author.

The Library at Night is a collection of essays on books and libraries framed by the construction and arrangement of his own library, 30,000 volumes collected over a lifetime and stored in a structure built using the ruins of a 15th century French barn. Immensely erudite, Manguel loves to tell stories and relate anecdotes as his essays meander along, twisting like a slow moving stream. He has a fund of quotations that never fail to please. It reminds me of being cornered at a party by a genial, funny, genuinely entertaining fellow--I imagine Orson Welles to be this way--but as you wait for the point, the anecdotes continue to flow, sometimes closer and sometimes further from the theme. Manguel's essays teeter and wobble along in this conversational style, but they always deliver at the end. They don't just peter out. In a strange literary roller coaster, I began each essay eagerly, swept along at the beginning. Then, as the twists and turns, the digressions and the asides, continue, I found myself looking ahead. "How much further?" I would think. "Just a few more pages." But somehow, at the end of each essay instead of putting the book down I would plunge into the next essay.

Manguel's essays are both intensely personal and scholarly as he ranges over 3000 years of the history of books and libraries. He moves surely from Callimachus to Diderot, from Avicenna to Melville Dewey. We read about the libraries at Alexandria and Pergamum, the libraries in Nazi concentration camps, and the imaginary libraries of Rabelais and Borges. Each essay, with titles like "The Library as Order," "The Library as Space," "The Library as Imagination," and "The Library as Power" illustrates another aspect of a library. And yet Manguel seldom lectures. Instead, each essay ends like an evening conversation with an entertaining (if well-educated) friend.

Occasionally he does preach a bit: his reaction to librarians is quite mixed, and he seldom fails to have an immoderate reaction. Like many book-lovers, he both admires and detests librarians and acts of librarianship. Once he refers to a librarian as a "dolt" and another time he calls some librarians "heroic", though in neither case were their actions all that doltish or heroic. I think he simply fails to understand the profession and the issues with which the profession is currently wrestling.

His understanding of technology is naive and what is worse, he doesn't realize it. For example, he dismisses the entire complicated and fascinating issue of electronic resources and digital preservation by saying that "[a]nybody who has used a computer knows how easy it is to lose a text on the screen". Nevertheless, he makes sharp and cogent observations about the Internet as a concept, suggesting that the web is "all surface and no volume, all present and no past." Or, "[i]f the Library at Alexandria was the emblem of our ambition of omniscience, the Web is the emblem of our ambition of omnipresence." I really like that: two human creations, separated by millennia, both striving for an aspect of Divinity.

Manguel concludes The Library at Night with a list of about 250 books that he describes as his "non-canonical list of favorite books," less than one percent of his massive collection. To my chagrin, I found I had read only about 50 books on his list, and in fact had not even heard of 96 of them. Perhaps I need to read three or four each year, just in case one day I find myself sitting in my library at night, sharing in a conversation with Alberto Manguel.

One percent of our books would be about 70. Could I come up with my own non-canonical list of favorites and limit it to 70? Can you?


Harriet M. Welsch said...

I'm so glad you liked this. Mr. Spy came home from the library with it a couple of years ago as part of something he was working on and I adored it. I ended up giving it to my mom for Christmas. We all enjoyed reading it, but our collective favorite thing about it was the photo of the library burro. I'm not sure I could come up with such a list (nor am I sure what 1% of our books would be). But I love reading other people's lists. I'm more interested in how people make lists than the lists themselves, I think.

FreshHell said...

Interesting. I have no idea how many books we have (do the children's count?). I've also been winnowing here and there so that there's nearly a zero population growth to some degree.

lemming said...

FreshHell raises a good point - if you're a family,you need to take into account the 70 books that *you* might never read but that your spouse will.

Read an essay years ago about how to cull your library. Step #1 was to start with the trade paperbacks. OK, I suppose my Agatha Christie could go, but what about all of the children's classics that somehow stopped being classic enough to be in print?

It was humbling to discover that we owned more than 1300 pounds of books...

Ana S. said...

"It reminds me of being cornered at a party by a genial, funny, genuinely entertaining fellow." I love this analogy! And I'm now sad because my edition of the book does not have the list at the end :\

Jenny said...

I've flipped through this but not read the entire thing - I did notice he seemed extremely distrustful of some technology! But I loved the story of how someone (Pepys maybe?) used to put little high heels underneath his shorter books, so that all the books on his shelf would be the same height. :)

Trapunto said...

"Seldom fails to have an immoderate reaction."

I think you may have verbalized the thing that has been making me uneasy as I read this book. The combination of erudition and preferentiality

I took an extend breather after the Andrew Carnegie chapter. Yes, feet of clay, all that, but Manguel was playing fast and loose with my hero! There are other ways to look at the fact that Carnegie provided buildings, not books. I always understood it as a bootstrap thing. Getting together the resources for a building was beyond the scope of a lot of communities, but once they'd been given that boost (and a rallying point) it became their job rally and build the collection and back the institution. I also disagree about the design. They are functional design, for what small public libraries were at the time, and I've seen them remodeled and addition-ed so that they are still functional.

Regarding digital preservation. Have you read the Nicholson Baker book he mentions? I recommend it to anyone who can stand it.

I have my "top hundred reads" list (actually a few more). I've been thinking of posting it.

Ron Griggs said...

@Harriet: Yes, I really loved this book. Note the range of things commenters have mentioned: the Biblioburro, Pepys' book lifts (@Jenny: doubly fun because Pepys himself was 5'3" and thus sympathetic to his more diminutive volumes), and Andrew Carnegie's library philanthropy. I'm glad Manguel writes so beautifully for my reading delight and equally glad he isn't actually in charge of a real library.

@FreshHell: Children's books *always* count. Sometimes the most! As an inveterate re-reader, I make no apologies for the joy I get from re-reading children's books. And sadly, most libraries have to (or will have to) reach that steady state of zero population growth at some point in their history. Public libraries understand this, but academic libraries don't like to imagine it. Fortunately for us, our children will go to college in the next few years, creating more possible space for shelves.

@Lemming: One of the few charms of the Kindle (for me) is the ability to store hundreds of books that I want to hold onto in some way, but don't have in a beautifully bound edition. My cheesy paperback of Robinson Crusoe would be just fine sharing a Kindle with about a thousand other similar books. The future for the shelf space challenged?

@Nymeth: I had somewhat the same reaction when reading Herodotus' Histories; he was the first ancient writer that really came through as a real person to me, but he was so garrulous I kept thinking "Get to the point, will you!"

@Trapunto: Well said. He takes his role as a social critic almost to the point of character assassination, which is a form of intellectual self-indulgence.

PAJ said...

Ron, I laughed aloud at your comment to FreshHell. As you and Jeanne contemplate the kids leaving for college, I can just imagine the scenario: Ron (with meaningful look): "The children will be leaving soon. You know what that means?" Jeanne: "Yes, darling. More bookshelf space!"

Jeanne said...

PAJ, ha! In fact Eleanor has recently started fretting about needing to own her own copy of beloved household favorites (Harry Potter, Narnia, Prydain, etc.) when she goes off to college.

lemming said...

Ron - what happens when you drop the kindle in the bathtub?

Ron Griggs said...

@lemming: I've never been a bathtub reader myself, but I've ruined a few books in sinks over the years. Technology is power, what the military terms a "force multiplier," and thus more can be done for good or ill with it. Which is to say, if you drop your Kindle in the bathtub, you can destroy a hundred books at once.

But I think the Kindle works like iTunes: your Kindle is toast, but if you get a replacement you can re-download your books.

Care said...

the Manguel non-canonical Challenge! Do it, do it, do it.

Care said...

Love the comments, too. As someone who has moved so much that the concept of owning a library makes me envious but committed to defend my life choices anyway, I do hope you allow your children to have a seed-library shelf or two that they can eventually build from and up into their own life-history libraries.

Jeanne said...

Care, I think we're going to do the Manguel non-canonical challenge in a disorganized long-term way around here. Because grad school really erased any inclinations I might have had towards organized/assigned reading.

And of course we're providing both kids with a "seed library"! I'll have to share that term with them.