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The Library at Night [Hardcover]

Alberto Manguel
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Sept. 26 2006
"The starting point is a question," Alberto Manguel writes in the introduction to The Library at Night: since few can doubt that the universe is ultimately meaningless and purposeless, why do we try to give it order? After all, our efforts are surely doomed to failure.

It’s hard to think of a more profound or serious subject to start with – but The Library at Night, Alberto Manguel says, is by no means a systematic answer. Rather, it is the story of the search for one. In the tradition of A History of Reading, this book is an account of Manguel’s astonishment at the variety, beauty and persistence of our efforts to shape the world and our lives, most notably through something almost as old as reading itself: libraries.

The result is both intimately personal and incredibly wide-ranging: it is a fascinating study of the mysteries of libraries, a thorough analysis of their history throughout the world and an esoteric, enchanting celebration of reading. It is, perhaps most of all, a book that only Alberto Manguel could have written.

The Library at Night begins with the design and construction of Alberto Manguel’s own library at his house in western France – a process that raises puzzling questions about his past and his reading habits, as well as broader ones about the nature of categories, catalogues, architecture and identity.

Exploring these themes with a deliberately unsystematic brilliance, Manguel takes us to the great Library at Alexandria, and Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence; we sit with Jorge Luis Borges in his office at the National Library in Argentina, travel with donkeys carrying books into the Colombian hinterland, and discover the Fihrist, a chaotic and delightful bibliographic record of medieval Arab knowledge. There seem to be no limits to Manguel’s learning, or his ability to illuminate his investigations with magical, telling details from the past.

Thematically organized and beautifully illustrated, this book considers libraries as treasure troves and architectural spaces; it looks on them as autobiographies of their owners and as statements of national identity. It examines small personal libraries and libraries that started as philanthropic ventures, and analyzes the unending promise – and defects – of virtual ones. It compares different methods of categorization (and what they imply) and libraries that have built up by chance as opposed to by conscious direction. Although it is encyclopedic (and discusses encyclopedias assembled by Diderot and fifteenth-century Chinese scholars alike) and full of concrete historical analysis (including a brief investigation of the prejudices underlying the Dewey Decimal System) this book is animated throughout by a gentle, even playful sensibility: it is governed by the browser’s logic of association and pleasure, rather than the rigid lines of scholarly theory. After all, everything in a library is connected: "As the librarians of Alexandria perhaps discovered, any single literary moment necessarily implies all others."

In part this is because this is about the library at night, not during the day: this book takes in what happens after the lights go out, when the world is sleeping, when books become the rightful owners of the library and the reader is the interloper. Then all daytime order is upended: one book calls to another across the shelves, and new alliances are created across time and space. And so, as well as the best design for a reading room and the makeup of Robinson Crusoe’s library, this book dwells on more "nocturnal" subjects: fictional libraries like those carried by Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster; shadow libraries of lost and censored books; imaginary libraries of books not yet written.

The Library at Night is a fascinating voyage through the mind of one our most beloved men of letters. It is an invitation into his memory and vast knowledge of books and civilizations, and throughout – though mostly implicitly – it is also a passionate defence of literacy, of the unique pleasures of reading, of the importance of the book. As much as anything else, The Library at Night reminds us of what a library stands for: the possibility of illumination, of a better path for our society and for us as individuals. That hope too, at the close, is replaced by something that fits this personal and eclectic book even better: something more fragile, and evanescent than illumination, though just as important.

The starting point is a question.

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. And yet, with bewildering optimism, we continue to assemble whatever scraps of information we can gather in scrolls and books and computer chips, on shelf after library shelf, whether material, virtual or otherwise, pathetically intent on lending the world a semblance of sense and order, while knowing perfectly well that, however much we’d like to believe the contrary, our pursuits are sadly doomed to failure.

Why then do we do it? Though I knew from the start that the question would most likely remain unanswered, the quest seemed worthwhile for its own sake. This book is the story of that quest.

–from The Library at Night

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Praise for Alberto Manguel:
“Manguel is a tireless champion of the written word. He cares about books . . . with a deep, unswerving passion because he believes they are – still, despite our electronic progress – essential links between the individual and the world.”
The Vancouver Sun

Praise for A Reading Diary:
• A Globe and Mail Best Book
• Finalist for the writers’ trust of canada drainie-taylor biography prize

“Alberto Manguel has probably read more widely than almost anyone else now alive. Among English speakers, perhaps only Harold Bloom, George Steiner and Guy Davenport may outclass him – and they are all twenty years his senior, and long-time university teachers, to boot: In short, Manguel’s approach to books remains resolutely that of an amateur, one who loves with the pure joy sometimes denied the more scholarly.”
–The Globe and Mail

A Reading Diary is an utterly seductive book, the kind of book that lovers will want to read aloud to one another, that friends will quote back and forth.”
Calgary Herald

“Manguel’s exquisitely distilled style and gentle humility are pure pleasure. His diary is a goldmine of the unexpected, and his companionable, deeply cultivated persona will entrance all those who love to read and to ponder.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

About the Author

Internationally acclaimed as an anthologist, translator, essayist, novelist and editor, Alberto Manguel is the author of several award-winning books, including A Dictionary of Imaginary Places and A History of Reading, which was an international bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book, a Times Literary Supplement International Book of the Year, and winner of France’s Prix Medicis.

Alberto Manguel was born in Buenos Aires, moved to Canada in 1982 and now lives in France, where he was named an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters.

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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars perambulating through the stacks Nov. 5 2006
By Ian Gordon Malcomson HALL OF FAME TOP 50 REVIEWER
I have often said that next to the comforts of my bed are the books that make up my library. To this end, it helps that I have the shelving for many of my books right beside me as I settle down for a late night's read. Manguel's treatise on the hidden nature of libraries throughout the world affirms the point that libraries are the outward expression of an expanding personal search for the illusions of knowledge and truth. Why do we, the self-confessed bibliophiles that we are, buy books simply to read and then protectively place them on shelves to collect dust like trophies and, if we feel gratified, perhaps, guardedly loan one or two to friends as if they were a costly jewel? Manguel provides some intriguing and surprising answers to these and other puzzling questions in this study that poses more like a psychological thriller than a history of libraries. Great read for anyone who has a love affair with books.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Inspiring book about books Feb. 26 2007
The Library at Night is for anyone who has ever said "Yes, actually, I do need all of these books." Alberto Manguel has written an inspiring book about keeping books. He explores all aspects of libraries dropping little facts and bits of wisdom that he has gleaned over the years from collecting and living with printed material. He has so many books that when he lived in Toronto he was forced to shelve them on his front porch. His children complained that they felt the need of a library card in order to enter their home. There is plenty of information here regarding the history of libraries, great collections, famous library buildings, great librarians and certainly Manguel's own library. A charming and erudite writer, Manguel is no book snob. Detective fiction, poetry, history, fiction, non-fiction all have a place in his book room. One of my favourite chapters was about organizing libraries - do you organize them by language (Manguel reads in 5 or 6 languages)?, by country of origin?, alphabetically by author?, by category?, do you separate works by best friends because they don't write in the same category? These are weighty issues for anyone with more than a handful of books. I have a library and I have a lot of books, although not nearly as many as Manguel, so I was interested in his response to the ever popular question "Have you actually read all of these books?". His simple reply is "Well, I've certainly opened them all".
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.6 out of 5 stars  27 reviews
129 of 137 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Visitors often ask if I've read all my books;my usual answer is that I've certainly opened every one of them." Dec 3 2007
By J. Guild - Published on
In this wonderful tome ,Alberto Manguel has given anyone who loves books a fascinating look at books,libraries and the captivating world of books in general.
Books have been a major part of the author,s life,and he shares it with us on both a personal and worldwide basis. Generally speaking,anyone who loves books,can never resist the desire to have their own library.In this 373 page book ,he touches on just about every aspect of a library,both those which are personal and those which are public or private.The reader will constantly think of their own library as he discusses all these things. How and why the books are acquired,how are they arranged,how are they catalogued,how long are they kept,how hard were they to acquire,what will become of them,what about lending them,which are your favorites and why,where are they housed;you name it ,he talks about it.
I have a place in my library where I keep "Books About Books".I love to read about books and this one will be at home with them.
This book is beautifully written with a copious amount of amazing photographs. Because the author covers so much in the book,it never gets laboured and there is something new and interesting on every page.
Some of the things are simple ,such as the price-stickers,which he so aptly calls "these evil white scabs".They annoy me as well,and I have found a product called "Goo Gone" a great help in getting rid of them.This reminds me of those "evil doer of deeds" in some bookstores who price-clip the dust jackets because in their little minds they don't think the customers can handle the published price versus what they are asking. I am always interested in the published price of older books and their actions are nothing short of vandalism in what they do. Manguel also talks about items or bookplates readers leave in books as interesting as well, as notes made by other readers and previous owners or readers. Personally,I enjoy these things because they are a bit of the story of the life of that book.
He talks about libraries throughout history and even makes comments about things today,such as; an echo of Carlyle's complaint: "Every day the library is filled with,among others,people sleeping,students doing their homework,bright young things writing film scripts-in fact,doing almost anything except consulting the library's books." Ain't that the truth!!He tells us about the personal libraries of the famous (Rudyard Kipling) and the infamous (Adolf Hitler); with pictures.He talks extensively about his personal library from the time when he was a child to the present time. The reader cannot help but compare the author's to his own.
There are an amazing 44 pages of notes at the end covering 367 sources of information,photo credits and a detailed index. This alone is a treasure trove of information.
It's hard not to go on and on about this book.So,I'll leave it at this and just suggest to pick it up,and see for yourself what a treasure it is.
Overall, a mesmerizing gift from one booklover to all of us other booklovers
32 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Romance of Reading July 20 2008
By John D. Cofield - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Alberto Manguel has produced a romantic history of libraries which incorporates their best feature: the ability to wander down hitherto unsuspected byways and make new discoveries, often winding up far from your original objective but still satisfied by what you have found instead. This is a discursive history of libraries through various categories: Myth, Order, etc. with fascinating essays for each. Those who love reading and libraries will learn much history and philosophy and will recognize in Manguel a kindred spirit and friend.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Unique Book For Those Who Love Books Aug. 14 2008
By David A. Plouffe - Published on
The Library At Night is the first book I have read by Alberto Manguel. I can say now, after completing it earlier today, that I am looking forward to reading other selections that this author has written.

I was not quite sure what to expect from this book, from simply reading the title. I could only hope that it would not disappoint and it did not. The book is broken down into 15 chapters. Each of them begins with "The Library As...." You can fill in the blank with such words as "Power," "Myth," "Shadow," and "Chance" (among 11 others). The chapters begin with personal anecdotes from Manguel. We learn a lot about who he is as well as the extent of his personal library. Following the brief reflection, he delves into well-researched historical data that revolve around his chapter topics. The stories he tells flow nicely together and endnotes are provided in the back of the book for further reading. The chapters are quite strong, though I really was expecting more from the last two chapters.

The only negative aspects, and really they aren't negative to all, of this book are Manguel's erudite use of language. He excels at linguistics and I found myself needing a dictionary nearby to help me through the text. Manguel makes many comparisons throughout the text between books, many of which, I had not heard of before. While I was excited about these newly discovered books,at least to me, they are not commonplace. So, yes, this book is written on a somewhat high intellectual level and a portion of its charm is lost by the author speaking over the reader's head.
34 of 43 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Consolation April 3 2008
By Christian Schlect - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I can not imagine a better gift than this to buy for a person who loves collections of books, whether as a professional librarian or one who simply possesses a private library (big or small).

Alberto Manguel is a wise and learned author. The lessons of his well written book go beyond libraries and touch on what makes us human, and that which connects us, across time and as people, to our historical past.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Words taken right out of my own heart April 19 2011
By Sergio - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I must preface this review by saying that, 1) I am an avid book collector and reader, and 2) I tend to prowl around the house (and my library in particular) late at night after the family are all asleep.

I can't imagine anyone who has grown, or dreams of growing, a personal library not loving this book. It's like sitting and chatting with a wise, engaging friend about a mutual love of books and libraries. Manguel writes the words, I speak them in my head, but they feel like they came right out of my own heart. I won't try to describe these essays in any detail. I know I will read them again and again and they will never grow stale. Suffice it to say that, when it comes to books about books, it may not be possible to beat "The Library at Night".
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