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A bibliophile gets his thoughts down on paper

Special to The Times

THE 19th century British scholar John Willis Clark once defined a library as a “gigantic mincing-machine into which the labours of the past are flung, to be turned out again in a slightly altered form as the literature of the present.” Clark also regarded libraries as museums in the sense that each is “a temple or haunt of the muses,” a sanctuary for the intellect where inspiration issues forth in myriad forms by way of countless sources.

These thoughts came to mind as I was reading “The Library at Night,” Alberto Manguel’s latest reflection on the miracle of the written word, especially the sections in which the Argentine-born author pays tribute to the 30,000 books he has assembled so painstakingly over the last five decades. “My books,” he writes, “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.”

A resident of Canada for 20 years, Manguel moved to France in 2002 to refurbish a 15th century stone house he had just bought near the Loire River, and he seized the opportunity to renovate a derelict barn nearby into “the room to house my books.” By day, the room he fashioned is a place to work; at night, “the atmosphere changes,” and “I turn into something of a ghost,” a wanderer among the assembled treasures. “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.”

It is fair to say that with several books about reading already to his credit, Manguel has become one of the world’s leading ambassadors of the practice. As a teenager growing up in Buenos Aires in the 1960s, he was invited by blind writer Jorge Luis Borges to read aloud to him several times a week, a transforming experience at the foot of genius that he wrote about in the 2004 book “With Borges.”

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In an interview two years ago with a Canadian journalist, Manguel described himself as primarily a reader whose many professional activities -- publisher, bookseller, anthologist, translator, essayist, critic, occasional novelist -- flow from a lifelong obsession to be at one with books, a passion he explored most engagingly in “A History of Reading” (1996).

While certainly an extension of that book, “The Library at Night” is more concerned with the various ways that people have gone about gathering and storing books over the centuries than with their actual consumption, using his experience as a platform for his far-ranging ruminations. Each necessary step in the process, be it allocating space, selecting fixtures, configuring shelves or establishing categories becomes a gateway into a wider discussion.

Thus it happens that an explanation of his own eclectic nature leads to a consideration of the great Library of Alexandria and the dream of its founders in the 4th century BC to create a universal library. The need to maximize resources occasions a discussion on English poet Lionel Johnson’s scheme to hang shelves from the ceiling; the need to impose order summons up the example of diarist Samuel Pepys, who scrupulously shelved his 3,000 volumes behind glass according to their size.

Metaphoric concepts -- the library as mind, the library as chance, the library as myth, the library as imagination, the library as identity, the library as home, 15 of these all told -- generate similar excursions.

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There is, needless to say, a decidedly nomadic texture to this kind of narrative structure, a peripatetic, associative, conversational approach that takes Manguel from one inviting subject to another. You can almost hear him moving about in the darkness, shuffling from one shelf to the next, picking volumes at random, allowing ideas to mix and mingle and stimulate thought.

Though admirably researched -- the historical discussions rely almost entirely on material culled from books in Manguel’s restored farmhouse -- “The Library at Night” has a formal apparatus that seems cumbersome for such a casual treatment. Numbered citations, 367 of them, don’t always point the way to primary material either, and they might have been handled better as unobtrusive endnotes.

And there are a few factual gaffes that can be distracting. “The Domesday Book” of 11th century Britain, for instance, was not set down by Norman census-takers on paper, as Manguel asserts in a riff on the impermanence of electronic media, but on treated sheepskin known as parchment, a notable distinction since he singles out the venerable artifact as one dramatic instance in which a traditional medium of textual transmission is demonstrably superior to the new. This does nothing, however, to minimize the point Manguel makes in this context (a sentiment that should resonate with bibliophiles of every persuasion): his belief that “both libraries -- the one of paper and the electronic one -- can and should coexist.”

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Nicholas A. Basbanes is the author of many books, including “A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World” and, most recently, “Editions & Impressions: My 20 Years on the Book Beat.”


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