I am a big fan of libraries. I have had a library card allowing me free access to its treasures from every library in each city I have lived. I visit libraries when I travel. My mother was in charge for many years of one of the busiest branches in our city library system. My first job was as a page in one of the smaller neighborhood branches when I was in high school. I shelved books and was paid a whopping fifty cents an hour.
A few years ago, I even asked the head of the city library if I could spend the night in the Main Library. I wanted to write a feature story about what that would be like. He just looked at me, mumbled something about security, and shook his head.
Oh, well. I tried.
Which leads me to The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel. From the title one may think this is a horror story in which evil lurks in the stacks. But it is not. Instead, Mr. Manguel looks at libraries - public and private, ancient and modern - from many different perspectives. So we have chapters - fifteen in all - with titles of, for example, The Library as Shape; as Imagination; as Order; as Workshop; as Mind.
He begins with a description of his own library built on the spot of the barn of his 15th century house in France and lets the reader know that his favorite time to be there is at night.
If the library in the morning suggests an echo of the severe and reasonably wishful order of the world, the library at night seems to rejoice in the world's essential, joyful muddle.
But we soon leave the author's library and go on a magic carpet ride through history, literature, architecture, lost books, lost libraries, censorship and the burning of books (which is where the real evil lurks), and other people and their libraries.
In one of my favorite chapters - The Library as Workshop - Manguel evokes the room known as 'the study', a classification one doesn't hear about any more except in reading Golden Age British mysteries. The study, he writes, is the area within the library where writers do their work. So we get a glimpse of the studies of Erasmus, Borges, Kipling, Victor Hugo, and Cervantes.
As for the author's study, Manguel writes:
There's a notable difference, for me, between the large room in which I keep most of my books, and the smaller room in which I work. In the large room, the "library proper," I choose the volumes I need or want, I sit and read and make notes, I consult my encyclopedias. But in my study, the chosen books are those that I consider more immediate, more necessary, more intimate.
He goes on to list as his chosen books both the pocket edition and the two-volume shorter edition of the Oxford dictionary, the 1962 version of Roget's Thesaurus, Graves's Greek Myths, and a few others, which he writes, "feel like extensions of myself, at arm's length, always helpful."
The rooms in which writers (that subspecies of readers) surround themselves with the materials they need for their work acquire an animal quality, like that of a den or a nest, holding the shape of their bodies and offering a container to their thoughts. Here the writer can make his own bed among the books, be as monogamous or polygamous a reader as he wishes, choose an approved classic or an ignored newcomer, leave arguments unfinished, start on any page opened by chance, spend the night reading out loud so as to hear his own voice read back to him, in Virgil's famous words, under "the friendly silence of the soundless moon."
I have faithful reader, Tullik, to thank for recommending The Library at Night to me. It is one of those books that is a liberal arts education in itself offering interesting tidbits on a variety of subjects. And it has photos which add to its appeal.
I must admit that as I was reading this book, I was overcome with the desire to install bookshelves on every wall in my house. To turn my entire home into a library...a library for day and for night. What sweet dreams.