Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Library at Night

For the bibliophile, one’s library, even if it is just a corner nook, is the most comfortable spot in the house. Some of us let our enthusiasms get out of hand, and have to endure that impossible question – “have you read all these books?” (my stock answer is that I’ve read some of them twice). Books, even those that sit unread for years, are powerful objects. I find it almost magical that a book picked up by a young man in 1981 can be rediscovered and read, with no diminishment of enjoyment, by a middle-aged man a quarter of a century later. A book is infinitely patient.

I have had a library in every house I have lived in as an adult. One of the first, in a house I occupied alone for almost ten years, was perhaps the most organic, growing slowly over time, acquiring new limbs and patinas, overtaking shelves and taking over the floor before ultimately growing out of the room with tentacles reaching throughout the house. When I finally moved to cohabitate with my own true love, it seems to have been a bit of a shock to the library, now uncomfortably crammed into a spare bedroom of a small apartment before finally being able to spread out again in the large basement level of a Maryland townhouse. There have been a couple of moves since then, and now a good number of the books are neat and tidy in a converted dining room, with a big table for convivial conversation as the books politely look on, perhaps slightly pitying their second-string cousins in exile in the garage.

My relationship with my library is like something from a Bunuel film. I can make a resolution to go into it and read at any time during the day, but inevitably events conspire to prevent me from doing any more than a cursory browse of a text, a quick fact check, or a dreamy running of the eyes over the spines. My library never allows me to read in it until late in the evening, when the house is quiet and I can give it the undivided attention it deserves. A library is a selfish mistress, and it begins to stir only after night falls.

Being interested in books about books and reading, I tend to devour them as soon as I get them, without letting them age on the shelf. Alberto Manguel’s most recent book, The Library at Night, reaffirms his place as a kinsman in the family of bibliophiles. This volume is a meditative series of 15 essays on libraries private and public. As in his previous book, A History of Reading, Manguel looks back to the ancient libraries of Babylon and Alexandria, the latter of which has attained mythic proportions in the minds of serious booklovers, and enumerates modern tragedies, such as the destruction of Jewish archives in occupied Europe and the looting of the National Library of Baghdad after Iraq’s “liberation”.

A disciple of Borges, Manguel seems to look at books through his master’s eyes. The joys of night reading run through these essays – those leisurely hours of reading and reverie, surrounded by a circle of light with the books dimly visible in the gloom. Manguel’s library is a rebuilt stone barn in the French countryside, overlooking the Loire Valley, and for that he deserves our envy. The essays brim with anecdotes, book lore, and biographical sketches. The obligatory bows to the virtual library are made, but the book mostly revels in the joys of the physical object and its dwelling place. Nicholas Basbanes’ books, while pleasing in their own right, tend to overly dwell on the collectors, the pride of possession, and the pecuniary issues around the hunt for rare books. Manguel tends to view books from a more metaphysical perspective. He dwells on what books (the Bible and some Portuguese volumes, most likely including the Lusiads) Crusoe might have had with him on that imagined island, rather than what the monetary value of those books might be today. Alberto Manguel is a man who easily gets lost in the labyrinth of books. He’s a reader after my own heart.