Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night
Random House, 2006

I’ve borrowed this from the library so many times that it’s embarrassing (although it feels strangely appropriate too, given its title). But bookishly embarrassing, the kind easily masked by raising your current read to hide your face.

Nonetheless, Alberto Manguel’s book is written as much with the personal library in mind as the public library, so it’s only fitting that, now that I’ve actually read the entire book cover-to-cover (rather than dipping in, as I have in the past, like you would with a treasured box of chocolates), I purchase a copy for my own library.

And, if you’re bookishly inclined, you’ll want to do the same thing. You might just as well save yourself the endless renewal cycles, the reluctant returning, the sly reborrowing: just buy it and put it on the shelf with Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris and Maureen Corrigan’s Leave Me Alone I’m Reading, next to the string of book-soaked Basbanes.

I was fond of The Library at Night from the opening pages, in which Alberto Manguel shares his deliberations upon designing and constructing his own library (well, the walls were there: I won’t say more because he tells it better). There’s a romantic tone to the book that appealed to me immediately.

As in this bit: “My books hold between their covers every story I’ve ever known and still remember, or have now forgotten, or may one day read; they fill the space around me with ancient and new voices. No doubt these stories exist on the page equally during the day but, perhaps because of nighttime’s acquaintance with phantom appearances and telltale dreams, they become more vividly present after the sun has set.”

That tipped me off, but I realized that I was irrevocably hooked when I read the section on the library and order. That’s where he discusses the ways in which he organized — and re-organized — his books, even as a young reader (and certainly elements of this tendency remain). As a boy, he employed various criteria — shape, subject, language, colour, fondness — and even at a young age recognized that this inevitably led to groupings within groupings. Do you ever feel as though your body temperature changes when you read something that feels like it’s yours, having burst from your very own being, believing that such a strong sense of recognition must be measurable?

Even when the author is writing about subjects beyond his personal experience, it appears in the context of his passion for books and for reading. So there are historical bits (about, for instance, the lost library of Alexandria and the ways in which, even now, military personnel pointedly target depositories of knowledge and culture for destruction in wartime, though that is covered in far greater detail in Matthew Battle’s Library: An Unquiet History), but they are framed in such a way that I find them intriguing (which I particularly appreciate).

For instance, Alberto Manguel writes: “We can roam the bloated stacks of the Library of Alexandria, where all imagination and knowledge are assembled; we can recognize in its destruction the warning that all we gather will be lost, but also that much of it can be collected again; we can learn from its splendid ambition that what was one man’s experience can become, through the alchemy of words, the experience of all, and how that experience, distilled once again into words, can serve each singular reader for some secret, singular purpose.”

He states basic truths with which all the bookish will resoundingly agree, like: “Ultimately, the number of books always exceeds the space they are granted.” And he understands the wounds that the overly bookish feel: “In order to find ways to cope with volume growth (though not always concerned with gaining quality), readers have resorted to all manner of painful devices: pruning their treasures, double-shelving, divesting themselves of certain subjects, giving away their paperbacks, even moving out and leaving the house to their books.”

And he’s not afraid to expose the un-bookish, who trample unthinkingly upon the feelings of books’ feelings, as he does here, in quoting Patricia Battin, who is a fierce advocate of microfilming books, and who said: “The value in intellectual terms, of the proximity of the book to the user has never been satisfactorily established.”


As if anyone reading this needs to have it explained that sometimes you just need to HAVE a book near you and yes, indeed, that alone can make e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g better.

You will take comfort in Alberto Manguel’s unflinchingly bookish response to that nonsense: “There speaks a dolt, someone utterly insensitive, in intellectual or any other terms, to the experience of reading.”

::contented smile::

And that’s really what it’s like, reading Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night,  with a sense of understanding and being understood, bookishly.

This is the Friday that launches my series of bookish reads, which will extend through the end of June. Some of these, like Alberto Manguel’s book, qualify as a read for the Bibliophilic Challenge. Others, like Corey Redekop’s Shelf Monkey, are fiction, but still bookishly bookish.