By Alberto Manguel

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2006 Alberto Manguel
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-13914-3

Chapter One


Night which Pagan Theology could make the daughter of Chaos, affords no advantage to the description of order. Sir Thomas Browne, The Garden of Cyrus

The library in which I have at long last collected my books began life as a barn sometime in the fifteenth century, perched on a small hill south of the Loire. Here, in the last years before the Christian era, the Romans erected a temple to Dionysus to honour the god of this wine-producing area; twelve centuries later, a Christian church replaced the god of drunken ecstasy with the god who turned his blood into wine. (I have a picture of a stained-glass window showing a Dionysian grapevine growing out of the wound in Christ's right side.) Still later, the villagers attached to the church a house to lodge their priest, and eventually added to this presbytery a couple of pigeon towers, a small orchard and a barn. In the fall of 2000, when I first saw these buildings which are now my home, all that was left of the barn was a single stone wall that separated my property from a chicken run and the neighbour's field. According to village legend, before belonging to the barn, the wall was part of one of the two castles that Tristan L'Hermite, minister of Louis XI of France and notorious for his cruelty, built for his sons around 1433. The first of these castles still stands, much altered during the eighteenth century. The second burnt down three or four centuries ago, and the only wall left standing, with a pigeon tower attached to its far end, became the property of the church, bordering one side of the presbytery garden. In 1693, after a new cemetery was opened to house the increasing number of dead, the inhabitants of the village ("gathered outside the church doors," says the deed) granted the incumbent priest permission to incorporate the old cemetery and to plant fruit trees over the emptied tombs. At the same time, the castle wall was used to enclose a new barn. After the French Revolution, war, storms and neglect caused the barn to crumble, and even after services resumed in the church in 1837 and a new priest came to live in the presbytery, the barn was not rebuilt. The ancient wall continued to serve as a property divider, looking onto a farmer's field on one side and shading the presbytery's magnolia tree and bushes of hydrangea on the other.

As soon as I saw the wall and the scattered stones around it, I knew that here was where I would build the room to house my books. I had in mind a distinct picture of a library, something of a cross between the long hall at Sissinghurst (Vita Sackville-West's house in Kent, which I had recently visited) and the library of my old high school, the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires. I wanted a room panelled in dark wood, with soft pools of light and comfortable chairs, and an adjacent, smaller space in which I'd set up my writing desk and reference books. I imagined shelves that began at my waist and went up only as high as the fingertips of my stretched-out arm, since, in my experience, the books condemned to heights that require ladders, or to depths that force the reader to crawl on his stomach on the floor, receive far less attention than their middle-ground fellows, no matter their subject or merit. But these ideal arrangements would have required a library three or four times the size of the vanished barn and, as Stevenson so mournfully put it, "that is the bitterness of art: you see a good effect, and some nonsense about sense continually intervenes." Out of necessity, my library has shelves that begin just above the baseboards and end an octavo away from the beams of the watershed ceiling.

While the library was being built, the masons discovered two windows in the old wall that had been bricked up long ago. One is a slim embrasure from which archers perhaps defended Tristan l'Hermite's son when his angry peasants revolted; the other is a low square window protected by medieval iron bars cut roughly into stems with drooping leaves. From these windows, during the day, I can see my neighbour's chickens hurry from one corner of the compound to another, pecking at this spot and at that, driven frantic by too many offerings, like demented scholars in a library; from the windows on the new wall opposite, I look out onto the presbytery itself and the two ancient sophora trees in my garden. But at night, when the library lamps are lit, the outside world disappears and nothing but this space of books remains in existence. To someone standing outside, in the garden, the library at night appears like a vast vessel of some sort, like that strange Chinese villa that, in 1888, the capricious Empress Cixi caused to be built in the shape of a ship marooned in the garden lake of her Summer Palace. In the dark, with the windows lit and the rows of books glittering, the library is a closed space, a universe of self-serving rules that pretend to replace or translate those of the shapeless universe beyond.

During the day, the library is a realm of order. Down and across the lettered passages I move with visible purpose, in search of a name or a voice, summoning books to my attention according to their allotted rank and file. The structure of the place is visible: a maze of straight lines, not to become lost in but for finding; a divided room that follows an apparently logical sequence of classification; a geography obedient to a predetermined table of contents and a memorable hierarchy of alphabets and numbers.

But at night the atmosphere changes. Sounds become muffled, thoughts grow louder. "Only when it is dark does the owl of Minerva take flight," noted Walter Benjamin, quoting Hegel. Time seems closer to that moment halfway between wakefulness and sleep in which the world can be comfortably reimagined. My movements feel unwittingly furtive, my activity secret. I turn into something of a ghost. The books are now the real presence and it is I, their reader, who, through cabbalistic rituals of half-glimpsed letters, am summoned up and lured to a certain volume and a certain page. The order decreed by library catalogues is, at night, merely conventional; it holds no prestige in the shadows. Though my own library has no authoritarian catalogue, even such milder orders as alphabetical arrangement by author or division into sections by language find their power diminished. Free from quotidian constraints, unobserved in the late hours, my eyes and hands roam recklessly across the tidy rows, restoring chaos. One book calls to another unexpectedly, creating alliances across different cultures and centuries. A half-remembered line is echoed by another for reasons which, in the light of day, remain unclear. 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.

In the first century A.D., in his book on the Roman civil war that had taken place a hundred years earlier, Lucan described Julius Caesar wandering through the ruins of Troy and remarked how every cave and every barren wood reminded his hero of the ancient Homeric stories. "A legend clings to every stone," Lucan explained, describing both Caesar's narrative-filled journey and, far in the future, the library in which I am now sitting. My books hold between their covers every story I've ever known and still remember, or have now forgotten, or may one day read; they fill the space around me with ancient and new voices. No doubt these stories exist on the page equally during the day but, perhaps because of nighttime's acquaintance with phantom appearances and telltale dreams, they become more vividly present after the sun has set. I walk down the aisles glimpsing the works of Voltaire and hear in the dark the oriental fable of Zadig; somewhere in the distance William Beckford's Vathek picks up the thread of the story and hands it over to Salman Rushdie's clowns behind the blue covers of The Satanic Verses; another Orient is echoed in the magical twelfth-century village of Zahiri of Samarkand, which in turn relinquishes the telling to Naguib Mahfouz's sorrowful survivors in present-day Egypt. Lucan's Caesar is told to walk carefully in the Trojan landscape lest he tread on ghosts. At night, here in the library, the ghosts have voices.

And yet, the library at night is not for every reader. Michel de Montaigne, for instance, disagreed with my gloomy preference. His library (he spoke of librairie, not biblioth��que, since the use of these words was just beginning to change in the vertiginous sixteenth century) was housed on the third floor of his tower, in an ancient storage space. "I spend there most of the days of my life and most of the hours of the day; I am never there at night," he confessed. At night Montaigne slept, since he believed that the body suffered enough during the day for the sake of the reading mind. "Books have many pleasant qualities for those who know how to choose them, but there is no good without effort; it is not a plain and pure pleasure, not more so than others; it has its discomforts, and they are onerous; the soul disports itself, but the body, whose care I have not forgotten, remains inactive, and grows weary and sad."

Not mine. The various qualities of my readings seem to permeate my every muscle, so that, when I finally decide to turn off the library light, I carry into my sleep the voices and the movements of the book I've just closed. I've learned from long experience that if I want to write on a certain subject in the morning, my reading on that subject at night will feed my dreams not only with the arguments but with the actual events of the story. Reading about Mrs. Ramsay's boeufen daube makes me hungry, Petrarch's ascension of Mount Ventoux leaves me breathless, Keats's account of his swimming invigorates me, the last pages of Kim fill me with loving friendship, the first description of the Baskervilles' hound makes me look uneasily over my shoulder. For Coleridge, such recollections elicit in a reader the loftiest of all possible sensations, the sense of the sublime, which, he says, "arises, not from the sight of an outward object, but from the beholder's reflection upon it; not from the sensuous impression, but from the imaginative reflex." Coleridge dismisses the "sensuous impression" too readily; in order for these nightly imaginations to flourish, I must allow my other senses to awaken-to see and touch the pages, to hear the crinkle and the rustle of the paper and the fearful crack of the spine, to smell the wood of the shelves, the musky perfume of the leather bindings, the acrid scent of my yellowing pocket books. Then I can sleep.

During the day, I write, browse, rearrange books, put away my new acquisitions, reshuffle sections for the sake of space. Newcomers are made welcome after a period of inspection. If the book is second-hand, I leave all its markings intact, the spoor of previous readers, fellow-travellers who have recorded their passage by means of scribbled comments, a name on the fly-leaf, a bus ticket to mark a certain page. Old or new, the only sign I always try to rid my books of (usually with little success) is the price-sticker that malignant booksellers attach to the backs. These evil white scabs rip off with difficulty, leaving leprous wounds and traces of slime to which adhere the dust and fluff of ages, making me wish for a special gummy hell to which the inventor of these stickers would be condemned.

During the night, I sit and read, and watch the rows of books tempting me again to establish connections between neighbours, to invent common histories for them, to associate one recalled snippet with another. Virginia Woolf once tried to distinguish between the man who loves learning and the man who loves reading and concluded that "there is no connection whatever between the two." "A learned man," she wrote,

is a sedentary, concentrated solitary enthusiast, who searches through books to discover some particular grain of truth upon which he has set his heart. If the passion for reading conquers him, his gains dwindle and vanish between his fingers. A reader, on the other hand, must check the desire for learning at the outset; if knowledge sticks to him well and good, but to go in pursuit of it, to read on a system, to become a specialist or an authority, is very apt to kill what it suits us to consider the more humane passion for pure and disinterested reading.

During the day, the concentration and system tempt me; at night I can read with a lightheartedness verging on insouciance.

Day or night, however, my library is a private realm, very unlike public libraries large and small, and also unlike the phantom electronic library of whose universality I remain a moderate sceptic. The geography and customs of the three are different in different ways, even though all have in common the explicit will to lend concord to our knowledge and imagination, to group and to parcel information, to assemble in one place our vicarious experience of the world, and to exclude many other readers' experiences through parsimony, ignorance, incapability or fear.

So constant and far-reaching are these seemingly contradictory attempts at inclusion and exclusion that (at least in the West) they have their distinct literary emblems, two monuments that, it could be said, stand for everything we are. The first, erected to reach the unreachable heavens, rose from our desire to conquer space, a desire punished by the plurality of tongues that even today lays daily obstacles against our attempts at making ourselves known to one another. The second, built to assemble, from all over the world, what those tongues had tried to record, sprang from our hope to vanquish time, and ended in a legendary fire that consumed even the present. The Tower of Babel in space and the Library of Alexandria in time are the twin symbols of these ambitions. In their shadow, my small library is a reminder of both impossible yearnings-the desire to contain all the tongues of Babel and the longing to possess all the volumes of Alexandria.

The story of Babel is told in the eleventh chapter of Genesis. After the Flood, the people of the earth journeyed east to the land of Shi'nar, and there decided to build a city and a tower that would reach into the heavens. "And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech." God, the legend tells us, invented the multiplicity of languages in order to prevent us from working together, so we would not overreach our powers. According to the Sanhedrin (a council of Jewish elders set up in Jerusalem in the first century), the place where the tower once rose never lost its peculiar quality and, even today, whoever passes it forgets all he knows. Years ago, I was shown a small hill of rubble outside the walls of Babylon and told that this was all that remained of what had once been Babel.


Excerpted from THE LIBRARY AT NIGHTby Alberto Manguel Copyright © 2006 by Alberto Manguel. Excerpted by permission.
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