Review: The Library At Night – Alberto Manguel

I always enjoy “books about books”, or books about the pleasure of reading, and remember Manguel’s A History of Reading as one of the greatest literary pleasure. Now he had presented us with what is effectively a history of libraries in The Library At Night and the effect is equally as satisfying.

Perhaps “history” is not quite the right word, for in his 15 chapters, Manguel writes of not only the history of libraries, but also the impact and meaning of libraries through the centuries.

Everything is covered here, from the history of the great library of Alexandria to the development of the most modern libraries such as the British Library or the library of the Free University of Berlin. The book considers location, cataloguing systems, themes, and great librarians  (Gottfreid Leibnitz of Hanover, Andrew Carnegie who created over 2500 libraries, Aby Warburg of Hamburg and many others).  But the book is far more than history, containing many digressions on the nature of literature itself, and the process of reading.

At times the book has an almost magical or mystical feel to it.  Manguel has created a library of his own in the Loire Valley, and indeed the title of the book, The Library at Night is derived from his feeling that,

. . .at night the atmosphere changes.  Sounds become muffled, thoughts become louder . . . time seems closer to that moment halfway between wakefulness and sleep . . . the books become the real presence and it is I, their reader, who, through cabbalistic rituals of half-glimpsed letters, am summoned up and lured to a certain volume and a certain page.

It is these almost whimsical passages which give the book its charm, for after all, libraries are not merely collections of physical objects, but have atmosphere, cultures, accumulated historical usages which have almost sunk deep into the walls and shelves creating an experience unique to each one.

In the chapter “The Library as Shadow”, Manguel covers book-burning and the destruction of libraries.  Many times through history, libraries have been destroyed, or at very least whole categories of books have been sent for destruction.  Caliph Omar, who issued the order to destroy the Library of Alexandria, had a typical attitude of the fundamentalist,

If the content of these books agree with the Holy Book, then they are redundant.  If they disagree, then they are undesirable.  In either case they should be consigned to the flames.

I did not realise that Europeans Catholic leaders destroyed the great libraries of Mexico and Central America, eliminating the histories of the Mayan and Aztec civilisations so that they are forever lost to us. Similarly, in the 16th century, the Ottomans destroyed the Great Corvina Library, said to be one of the jewels of the Hungarian crown.  Manguel raises the issue of the American Patriot Law which allows federal agents to obtain records of books borrowed from public libraries, which has caused some libraries to reconsider their acquistion policies.  Libraries can be subversive and dangerous to a wide range of governments.

I enjoyed this book greatly.  It is beautifully produced by Yale University Press and is richly illustrated with photographs and other drawings.  I cannot think how a book on libraries could be more comprehensive, and yet totally readable, and I would recommend it to any lover of books and respecter of the concept of libraries, whether private or public.

2 thoughts on “Review: The Library At Night – Alberto Manguel

  1. Hi Tom, I knew I had heard of Manguel through your site & although I’ve not read this one it inspired me & I found A reader on reading, which I absolutely adore & will read more, so thanks.
    Ps. Have you read George Steiner’s Unwritten books, just picked up cheap on amazon


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