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Book lover's paradise: Alberto Manguel meditates evocatively on the nature of libraries.

The Library at Night Alberto Manguel Knopf Canada 373 pages, hardcover ISBN 9780676975888

If he were stopped at one of the many borders he transgresses and forced to declare only one nationality, I suspect that the French-residing, Argentinian-born Canadian Alberto Manguel would respond "reader." It seems to me that, like his mentor Jorge Luis Borges, this is what he principally is. Again and again in his career, he returns to the book--mostly recently, in The History of Reading, With Borges, A Reading Diary: A Year of Favourite Books and now in his account of libraries and his own personal library, The Library at Night. For some years now, Manguel, an extraordinary bookman, has been constructing a series of meditations on why, how and where men and women read.

Alberto Manguel reads for consolation. He does not elaborate on what he means by consolation. Certainly reading offers its practitioners a measure of consolation. The self, no matter how grand, is small, and life, no matter how dream-extended, is short. Each of us is confined to one life in one time. Each of us by book-vessel can appropriate, kidnap and intersect other selves.

Manguel can't remember a time when he was not surrounded by his library. At age seven or eight, he assembled in his room "a minuscule Alexandria, about one hundred volumes of different formats on all sorts of subjects." In his Toronto home, he placed books in bedrooms, the kitchen, corridors and the bathroom. His children complained that they needed a library card to enter their own house. He reads promiscuously. In Alberto's Dream (my phrase), he conjures an anonymous library "in which books have no title and boast no author, forming a continuous narrative stream in which all genres, all styles, all stories converge ... a stream into which I can dip at any point of its course."

According to the poet-thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson, creative readers are as necessary as creative writers for books to come to life. One of the remarkable aspects of recent books by Alberto Manguel is their implicit invitation to readers to add to them. He invites readers to write as well as read. When he constructs his book of favourite readings in A Reading Diary, for example, readers find themselves mentally co-constructing their own lists. He has H.G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau, I have Jonathan Swift's A Tale of a Tub; he has Goethe's Elective Affinities, I have Andre Breton's Nadja.

In The Library at Night, Manguel presents, by word and image, some of the significant libraries in the world and in his life, including the "amicable Toronto Reference Library." He spends time with his own personal library in France, the library at Le Presbytere, which curiously resembles a room in the Library of the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires. Manguel lives with about 30,000 books. He likes to read in, or just peer at, the library at night "when the library lamps are lit, the outside world disappears and nothing but this space of books remains in existence."

He surveys the library through a suite of metaphoric lenses: the library as Order, Power, Chance, Mind, Imagination, Identity and Home, among others. He reflects on the burnt library of Alexandria, the personal libraries of Montaigne, Rabelais, Borges and Hitler, biblioboros in Colombia--the rough equivalent of our bookmobiles--and the spectacularly bequeathed library of Aby Warburg in his chapter "The Library as Mind." Here Manguel is at his storytelling best.

Warburg, the son of a Jewish banker, can't reconcile himself to his father's banking empire or religious orthodoxy, and so retreats into books. On his 13th birthday, Aby Warburg offers his younger brother, Max, his birthright. He turns the family firm over to Max in exchange for a pledge that Max will buy him all the books he desires. These Max-purchased books--my kingdom for a book!--become the core of his library. As Warburg imagines it, a library is above all an accumulation of associations, each association breeding a new image or text to be associated, until the associations return the reader to the first page. For Warburg, every library is circular. The Warburg Institute, incorporated into the University of London in the 1940s, presently presides over 350,000 volumes.

As Manguel conducts his tour of some of the grand libraries of the world, I find myself dreaming of Hemingway's cat-cluttered tropical library outside of Havana, a vine-enwrapped library I have only seen in pictures. The white-bearded Papa stands on a ladder and reaches for the top shelf. I picture myself at the Trinity College Library in Dublin looking at the Book of Kells and the marble busts of the Irish greats, Swift among them. I imagine the library as a snakepit: one good bite and you go away altered. I see the history of libraries as the history of the world's choirs: the best songs sung by the best voices.

Libraries are hives of honey where the readers' tongues lick off the sweetness, cemeteries where lips kiss the dead into life, houses of memory where amnesia is not allowed to enter, sanctuaries of light against the threatening dark. Libraries are where books go to be preserved. But are the books read into life or are they merely stored specimens in formaldehyde? Are libraries Andy Goldsworthy sculptures built to perish or Michelangelo marbles made to last? Immortality may not be possible for the individual or even the species, but what about the species' thoughts and dreams?

The World Wide Web, a virtual library, conceivably traps and preserves every human document to cross its path. It is the most comprehensive storage system ever devised. In theory, everyone with a portable computer and the internet has access to thousands, if not millions, of books. And yet this virtual library seems as vulnerable as a physical library, just as fragile, susceptible to deletion or human and electronic failure.

Manguel's response to web-libraries is critical. "The Web, and its promise of a voice and a site for all," he says, "is our equivalent of the mare incognitum, the unknown sea that lured ancient travelers with the temptation of discovery." The web promises eternity but it delivers ephemera. Seventy percent of its communications last less than four months.

Comparing the Library of Alexandria to the World Wide Web, Manguel writes, "one aspired to include everything, the other will include anything, without context, a constant present, which for Medieval scholars was a definition of hell." All things webbed and Googled stress velocity over reflection and brevity over complexity. A Borgesian dream of completeness shape-shifts into a nightmare of drivel. If there is no discriminating hand of editor, publisher and librarian, the library of everything descends into the library of nothing. As Manguel puts it, "On the Web, where all texts are equal and alike in form, they become nothing but phantom text and photographic image."

In any case, the dream of a complete library, either electronically or in book form, is unrealizable. Already too much is lost and irretrievable. As Manguel reminds us, "Of Aeschylus's 90 plays only 7 have reached us; of the 80-odd dramas of Euripides, only 18; of the 120 plays of Sophocles, a mere 7." How many more gospels remain in Egyptian caves? Where is the complete Sappho? As Jacques Derrida says in "Plato's Pharmacy," "perpetually and essentially, texts run the risk of becoming definitively lost. Who will ever know of such disappearance?"

Think of the ransacked and looted Iraqi National Archives, the Archaeological Museum and the National Library of Baghdad. "Much of the earliest recorded history of humankind was lost to oblivion," claims Manguel, underlining once again the vulnerability and fragility of libraries. Throughout history, they have been at the mercy of flood, fire or earthquake.

Even without such dramatic intervention, the book's fate, like the human being's, is to die. Like flesh itself, the book, even when preserved in libraries, ages, decays and eventually decomposes. Such synchronicity with the human cycle may be another reason why many readers, Manguel included, prefer the book to the chip.

One of the surprise entries in Alberto Manguel's book of libraries is his cataloguing of Adolf Hitler's personal library. Who would suspect such a broad range of books from such a narrow-minded man? "In the spring of 1945, a group of American soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division discovered, hidden in a salt mine near Berchtesgaden, the remains of the library of Adolf Hitler, 'haphazardly stashed in schnapps crates with the Reich Chancellery address on them'." Hitler's original library, estimated at 16,000 volumes, ranged from military history to the arts, spirituality and popular fiction. He collected a handful of classic novels: Gulliver's Travels, Robinson Crusoe, Uncle Tom's Cabin and Don Quixote. How can one read Don Quixote and not confront one's own delusions? Why didn't Gulliver's Travels, one of the great anti-war tracts in literature, teach Hitler something about human vanity and the human capacity, on occasion, for understanding and kindness? Having a library is, of course, no guarantee that one actually reads the books.

Alberto Manguel prefers to think more positive thoughts. He opens his book with a quotation from Northrop Frye: "A big library really has the gift of tongues & vast potencies of telepathic communication." In such hallowed space, the dead speak to the living and the unborn.

J.S. Porter's Thomas Merton: Hermit at the Heart of Things is scheduled for publication in 2008.
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Title Annotation:The Library at Night
Author:Porter, J.S.
Publication:Literary Review of Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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