Michael Dirda

A library -- and a librarian -- truly to be envied.

Sunday, April 6, 2008; Page BW10


By Alberto Manguel

Yale Univ. 373 pp. $27.50

Book collectors might be presumed to be among the happiest of mortals. There, in the evening, they sit contentedly in soft easy chairs, beneath pools of warm lamplight, surrounded by their libraries -- row after serried row of beautiful or rare volumes, all the great works of scholarship and the human imagination. Sadly, this cozy vision is usually little more than a daydream, though not for Alberto Manguel. As The Library at Night indicates, he has managed to take every reader's castle in the air and put a foundation under it.

From a psychological viewpoint, most bookmen and women are actually among the more unfortunate sufferers on the wheel of life -- for them there is no respite, no relief, from the insatiate ache of desire. Surrounded by plenty, they hunger for more. Collections are never complete. Unsigned modern firsts really do need to become signed or inscribed. Any merely fine copy suddenly looks dingy when compared to one in mint condition. Moreover, as everyone can attest, the exhilaration of actual possession lasts but a twinkling. The newly acquired treasure is soon slipped onto a bookshelf or even, as the bookcases fill up, into a cardboard box stored in the basement or the attic or the American Self Storage in Kensington, Md. And once in a box, the book can never, ever be found when it's needed. Trust me. I know.

So it's really very hard for a reader and book collector not to envy Alberto Manguel. This author of A History of Reading, this editor of such imaginative anthologies as Black Water (fantastic stories) and Dark Arrows (stories of revenge), this superb all-around literary essayist, can actually find any one of his 30,000 books. As he tells us in The Library at Night, they lie readily at hand on dark wood shelves, in a building constructed on the ruins of a former 15th-century barn, adjoining a one-time presbytery, on a hill south of the Loire. That's in France. Not too far from Paris. A long way from American Self-Storage in Kensington, Md.

This in itself is a bitter pill. (Why him? Where did I go wrong?) Yet what's even harder to take is this: Manguel clearly reads and uses those books. His is truly a working collection, the engine for a serious international literary career, the ultimate source for such unusual compilations as The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, The Oxford Book of Canadian Ghost Stories and God's Spies: Stories in Defiance of Oppression. Surely, though, the man is your typical melancholy, dry-as-dust bibliophile? Nope. Not only does Manguel own wonderful books housed in an eat-your-heart-out library in an idyllic part of France, he seems, well, content. According to The Library at Night, he lives with someone he loves, writes during the morning, potters among his books throughout the day and evening, and, come nightfall, sips wine in the garden with visiting friends from around the world.


As a writer about books, Alberto Manguel might be likened to Robert Burton or Isaac D'Israeli, albeit with a more accessible style than that of either the eccentric scholiast of The Anatomy of Melancholy or the antiquarian compiler of Curiosities of Literature (and father of Benjamin Disraeli, who changed the spelling of his last name). Plus, he's a lot more sociable. One would, in fact, be hard put to find a more genial, cosmopolitan contemporary man of letters. Born in 1948, Manguel grew up in Argentina, passed some of his youth in Tahiti, and spent 20 years in Toronto as a force in the Canadian literary establishment -- before moving to Europe. Thus he writes in English, even a quite lyrical English, but is also comfortable in Spanish, French, German and Italian. (Probably Urdu, Pictish and Aramaic as well.) Most of all, like Burton and D'Israeli, he loves to read and read and read, and then to write about his reading and quote from it.

The Library at Night-- a series of essays on what one might call the Platonic Idea of a library -- reveals some of its author's intellectual range and magpie learning. Manguel can cite ancient scholars from Alexandria, tell anecdotes about half-mad bibliomanes such as Aby Warburg (founder of the Warburg Library, devoted to "the afterlife of the ancient world") or Peter Kien (the doomed hero of Elias Canetti's Auto-da-Fé), describe the bookshelves in the blind Borges's apartment, analyze the architecture of Florence's Laurentian Library (designed by Michelangelo), outline the various methods for organizing and cataloging books, and discuss the sad history of censorship or the tattered and secret volumes shared by the prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. The man has clearly, as Samuel Johnson might say, turned over half a library to make his new book.

The individual chapters reveal its essentially meditative character: "The Library as Myth," "The Library as Order," "The Library as Space," "The Library as Identity," "The Library as Home" and so forth. Within each essay, Manguel tends to begin by revealing a few personal details of his reading life, which establishes a theme for more general observations about books and libraries. He then usually segues into an account of the career or obsessions of some exemplary book-person, meanwhile interspersing apposite quotations to underscore certain points, before bringing the essay to a quiet summing up. So here we learn (or learn again) about Melvil Dewey and his decimal system, Diderot and his Encyclopédie, Anthony Panizzi and the design of the British Museum Library, and Andrew Carnegie and his ambiguous philanthropy (he would generally pay for the buildings, which glorified his name, but not for the books inside them). In a brilliant final chapter Manguel slyly compares the literary tastes of two unusual booklovers: Frankenstein's Monster and Count Dracula.

Still, setting apart the quotations themselves, The Library at Night is at its most appealing when touching on its engaging author's idiosyncrasies and puzzlements:

"Why do I place García Márquez under 'G' and García Lorca under 'L'? Should the pseudonymous Jane Somers be grouped with her alter ego, Doris Lessing? In the case of books written by two or more writers, should the hierarchy of ABC dictate the book's position, or (as with Nordhoff and Hall) should the fact that the authors [of Mutiny on the Bounty] are always mentioned in a certain order override the system? Should a Japanese author be listed according to Western or Eastern nomenclature, Kenzaburo Oe under 'O' or Oe Kenzaburo under 'K'? Should the once-popular historian Hendrik van Loon go under 'V' or 'L'? Where should I keep the delightful Logan Pearsall Smith, author of my much-loved All Trivia? Alphabetical order sparks peculiar questions for which I can offer no sensible answer. Why are there more writers whose names (in English, for instance) begin with 'G' than 'N' or 'H'? Why are there more Gibsons than Nichols and more Grants than Hoggs? Why more Whites than Blacks, more Wrights than Wongs, more Scotts than Frenches?"

The Library at Night is an elegant volume, in both its design and its text, though some of Manguel's quoted anecdotes and insights (especially those pertaining to the Internet, that source of speedy answers rather than considered wisdom) will probably be familiar to admirers of Nicholas Basbanes ( A Gentle Madness and its successors), Sven Birkerts ( The Gutenberg Elegies) and certain other bookish essayists. There are a few trivial mistakes, as well: For instance, the word "large" has been left out of Prospero's famous line: "My library was dukedom large enough." Manguel's footnoting is also somewhat cavalier, indicating titles but not page numbers.

But these cavils hardly matter in light of so much munificence. Besides, I, for one, can certainly forgive anything of such a fan of detective stories and Robert Louis Stevenson. Alberto Manguel has brought out a richly enjoyable book, absolutely enthralling for anyone who loves to read and an inspiration for anybody who has ever dreamed of building a library of his or her own. ·

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.

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