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Must read: Library at Night by Alberto Manguel


Alberto Manguel is not a librarian, but IS a serious bibliophile. His new book, entitled Library at Night, reflects that love of libraries with a captivating meditation on their meaning and critical role within our larger cultural continuum. According to the Irish Times review, "this volume assembles its reflections in a systematic way, under 15 uniform titles, ranked up like handsome spines, all in a row: The Library as Myth, The Library as Imagination, The Library as Identity, etc. Topics range from an account of the great library at Alexandria (The Library as Myth) to a discussion of the Google book project (The Library as Space), from a consideration of catalogues (The Library as Order) to history of book burnings (The Library as Shadow)." Check out other reviews from complete-review.com. And here's a short excerpt published in USA Today:

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.

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library as infinity

Naturally I can't resist posting a link to the Library of Babel, the original work of art that got everyone thinking about the Library-As-Myth.

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