Apr/May 2008

READING ROOMS

Brian Sholis


The prolific anthologist and writer Alberto Manguel has become, since the publication in 1996 of A History of Reading, one of the foremost gentleman scholars of books and the act of consuming them. In 2000, he wrote Reading Pictures: A History of Love and Hate, which narrates the stories told by an idiosyncratic selection of artworks and images, and he followed that in 2004 with A Reading Diary, which chronicles his experience rereading twelve favorite books in a year. Now, in The Library at Night, Manguel meditates on repositories of books, his thoughts provoked by the construction, next to his home in a small French village, of a freestanding building to harbor the vast, multilingual collection he has acquired over his lifetime of devotion to the written word. Manguel arranged his library in accordance with his reading habits, which prioritize the serendipity afforded by browsing. The Library at Night is organized similarly and is better if approached the same way: dipped into rather than read straight through.

The book contains fifteen essays that posit the library “as myth,” “as shape,” “as island,” and the like. Manguel has assembled thumbnail biographies, entertaining anecdotes, close readings, and photographic documentation into a kind of commonplace book stitched together by his amiable prose. “During the day, the library is a realm of order,” he observes. “The library at night seems to rejoice in the world’s essential, joyful muddle.” The Library at Night is itself a joyful muddle.

“Outside theology and fantastic literature, few can doubt that the main features of our universe are its dearth of meaning and lack of discernible purpose,” he writes at the outset. And yet humankind continues to hoard what knowledge it can in an attempt to order that universe. This patchwork account records the author’s “astonishment” at such an enterprise. The book’s index, ranging from Abd al-Rahman, Aeschylus, and Anna Akhmatova to Émile Zola, Stefan Zweig, and Juan de Zumárraga (who was “responsible for creating the first printing press in the New World, and for destroying most of the vast literature of the Aztec Empire”), betrays Manguel’s wide reading.

He skips across history and geography while sympathetically relating innumerable stories. There is the Fihrist, an annotated catalogue of Arabic literature compiled by Ibn al-Nadim beginning in the year 987, and the idiosyncratic collection amassed by German art historian Aby Warburg in an attempt to discover “how our oldest symbols are renewed at different ages.” Glossed, too, are the eight books in the “children’s library” at the concentration camp in Birkenau, the epistolary tug-of-war between Michelangelo and Pope Clement VII over the design of the Laurentian Library in Florence, and the library washed ashore with Robinson Crusoe in Defoe’s novel.

The haphazard, albeit frequently illuminating, correspondences Manguel finds in this great mass of anecdotal evidence, akin to the visual “convergences” posited by Lawrence Weschler in his 2006 book Everything That Rises, have a centrifugal force: They incite in the reader a desire to move beyond the confines of The Library at Night to the source material of what Manguel has brought between these two covers. Attempting to find a narrative line through the text, however, proves frustrating. This is perhaps inevitable given the capaciousness of Manguel’s topic and his reasonable desire to avoid monolithic generalizations. In the end, he’s willing to say that libraries grant readers “a glimpse, however secret or distant, into the minds of other human beings.” “For the cosmopolitan reader, a homeland is not in space, fractured by political frontiers, but in time, which has no borders.”

These ideas about the power of literature are proferred more cogently and concisely in The City of Words, a transcript of Manguel’s 2007 CBC Massey Lectures, delivered in Canada last November. Devoted to understanding the rise of intolerance, about which Manguel confesses to be bewildered, these talks excavate the lessons that classic stories (ancient and recent) can impart about how to be together. Particularly strong are his examination of Don Quixote, and of the sociocultural context in which Cervantes wrote the novel, and his analysis of the Epic of Gilgamesh (which strikes a chord with the chapter on the library “as shadow” in The Library at Night). “Stories are our memory, libraries are the storerooms of that memory, and reading is the craft by means of which we can recreate that memory by reciting it and glossing it, by translating it back into our own experience, by allowing ourselves to build upon that which previous generations have seen fit to preserve.”

Human caprice, Manguel notes in The Library at Night in his persuasive chapter on the library “as chance,” has as much to do with what is preserved as does any effort of will. “Books come together because of the whims of a collector, the avatars of a community, the passing of war and time, because of neglect, care, the imponderability of survival . . . and it may take centuries before their congregation acquires the identifiable shape of a library.” In the year 336, a monk had a vision of his Lord and painted scenes from the life of Buddha on the walls of a cave. Over the course of a millennium, chance turned this cave and others nearby into repositories of religious manuscripts and paraphernalia; nearly a millennium after that, chance led to the rediscovery of the site, now known as the Mogao Caves. What do such storehouses of memory grant us? Both The City of Words and The Library at Night come to the same conclusion: “consolation for suffering and words to name our experience.” In a 2006 interview, Manguel averred, “I wouldn’t define myself as a writer. I would define myself as a reader.” The Library at Night, taken incrementally rather than all at once, communicates the joy and the solace of being yourself a reader.

Brian Sholis is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY.

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