The Library at Night

In 2002 Alberto Manguel, son of the former Argentine ambassador to Israel and longtime bibliophile, moved to a French village south of the Loire. Here, adjacent to his fifteenth century rectory, Le Presbytère, he rebuilt a dilapidated stone barn into a proper home for his thirty thousand books gathered throughout his life. During the day, he works in his library; at night he reads and listens to the ghosts whispering from the shelves. The fifteen essays in The Library at Night reflect on his personal collection and on libraries in general.

Much of the opening chapter, “The Library as Myth,” discusses the greatest library in antiquity, that of Alexandria. Here Ptolemy I created an institution that he and his successors hoped would embody the memory of humanity. Whenever a ship docked at the port, agents of the ruler would search for manuscripts, which would be seized and copied. The copy, likely to contain scribal errors, would then be returned to the owner and the original kept. Ptolemy III Euergetes borrowed from Athens the official texts of the city’s tragedians, including the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. To secure these, he gave the large security of fifteen gold talents. He then made copies of these plays, kept the originals, and returned the transcriptions, gladly forfeiting his deposit. However, as Manguel notes, of this attempt to enshrine the thoughts of the world, nothing remains: not a single manuscript, not even a sense of what the building that housed them looked like.

Judging from the fragmentary remains of the Pinakes of Callimachus, that library probably was organized by genre, such as epic or tragedy or philosophy. In “The Library as Order” Manguel discusses his own various efforts to sort his collection. As a child he owned about a hundred volumes, which he repeatedly rearranged: by height, by subject, by language, by color, and, most logical of all, by the degree of his affection for them. All these methods, except perhaps the last, have historical antecedents. The author Valéry Larbaud had his books bound in different colors to indicate the language in which they were written. In the third century c.e., the Chinese Imperial Library used a similar color-coded scheme: green bindings for canonical or classical texts, red for history, blue for philosophy, and gray for literature. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Harvard University’s library and the three thousand volumes of the seventeenth century diarist Samuel Pepys were organized by height. Novelist George Perec listed a dozen ways to arrange books, including by alphabet, by date of purchase, by date of publication, by language, and by the owner’s reading preferences.

As Manguel points out in “The Library as Space,” regardless of the order one chooses, books always outgrow their allotted boundaries and so require new arrangements. To cope with this problem, the poet Lionel Johnson suspended shelves from his ceiling like chandeliers. Manguel tells of a friend who devised four-sided rotating bookcases. Even the largest tax-funded institutions confront “biblio-congestion” and have turned to technology for a solution that Manguel, along with Nicholson Baker in his book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (2001), reveals as sadly unsatisfactory. The Library of Congress and the British Library have tranferred to microfilm long runs of old newspapers and then discarded the originals, only to discover that the copies are incomplete. Moreover, the shelf life of microfilm is questionable. Even more problematic are computer files. Manguel points out with grim satisfaction that the 1986 computerized copy of the eleventh century Domesday Book was unreadable by 2002, whereas the thousand-year-old original can still be consulted without difficulty.

Another way to cope with the question of space is to restrict holdings, a method Manguel considers in “The Library as Power.” He tells of the seventeenth century mathematician, philosopher, and librarian...

(The entire section is 1665 words.)


Canadian Literature, no. 193 (Summer, 2007): 163-164.

The Daily Telegraph, May 24, 2008, p. 28.

The Globe and Mail, October 7, 2006, p. F10.

Library Journal 133, no. 12 (July 1, 2008): 112.

Los Angeles Times, March 25, 2008, p. E1.

National Review 60, no. 15 (August 18, 2008): 52-53.

New Statesman 137 (May 19, 2008): 55-56.

The Spectator 308 (November 22, 2008): 43.

The Times Literary Supplement, November 14, 2008, p. 29.

The Toronto Star, November 12, 2006, p. D6.

The Virginia Quarterly Review 84, no. 4 (Fall, 2008): 271.

The Washington Post Book World, April 6, 2008, p. 10

The Wilson Quarterly 32, no. 2 (Spring, 2008): 94-96.