Review: Monsieur Proust’s Library – Anka Muhlstein

fullpage.doMonsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein takes us on a literary pathway through Marcel Proust’s great work, À la Recherche de Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time). This slim volume (141 pages) is a printed in blue ink on high quality paper, with attractive illustrations at the beginning of each chapter.

I can’t say that I have finished reading Proust’s seven volume work despite its having been on my shelves for ten years or so.  I have made several attempts but have only read three of the books so far and I am beginning to wonder if I will ever complete the set.

It is not that La Recherche isn’t fascinating but that reading it slows you down so much that it takes weeks to read it properly; Proust keeps bringing you to a halt, sentence by sentence, so much is there to think about on each page.  As Anka Muhlstein says, Proust “is the master of long sentences with a grammatical foundation so refined that they accommodate themselves miraculously to all the meanderings of his thoughts”.  What a job for a translator!

Despite the difficulty I have in reading the book, I would not like to be without it – the books sit there on the shelf both as a rebuke and an invitation, the ultimate reading challenge.  But would reading it be enough?  Proust’s work is so loaded with literary and artistic references you’d almost need to read an annotated version to understand fully what was going on in it.

I can only admire people like Anka Muhlstein who have not only read the book but have made it their own by absorbing it so much into their system that they can write books as clever as this one, making an in-depth analysis of the text so they can guide others through “Remembrance” and help them to understand it.

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Review: Hitler’s Private Library – Timothy W Ryback

I am always interested in the way reading affects people, and also in the psychology of the German people in the build-up to the Second World War.  Timothy Ryback has studied the remnants of Hitler’s private library, some 1200 books, which occupy shelf-space in the rare book division of the Library of Congress in Washington.  In his new book,  Hitler’s Private Library:  The Books That Shaped His Life, Ryback describes the original collection of 16,000 books, and how as the sub-title suggests, they “shaped his life”.

I am used to hearing how books educate, inform and enlighten and it was a surprise to read that the wholly unenlightened Adolf Hitler was “possessed by a voracious appetite for reading”.  From his earliest years after returning from the First World War battle-front in France, Hitler scoured the book-stalls of Munich to fill two book cases in his rented rooms.  He read “intently, even fiercely”, usually late into the night, and Ryback records an occasion when Eva Braun interrupted a reading session and was “dispatched with a tirade that sent her hurtling red-faced down the hallway”.

Associates  recalled, “I can never remember Adolf without books”, and “books were his world”, with reading being a “deadly serious business”.

A list exists of Hitler’s borrowings from a right-wing lending library in Munich and shows that between 1919 and 1921, he borrowed over a hundred entries ranging from early church history to first-hand accounts of the Russian revolution. The list includes an large number anti-Semitic texts such as “The International Jew – The Worlds Foremost Problem”, “Luther and the Jews” and many others.

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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.

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