Susan's Thursday morning note January 5, 2008 The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel
Last week I mentioned a book that looked fascinating that now is in my lap. The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel. This author describes libraries all around the world (from the oldest to some present-day), including libraries within our own homes. He talks about why we as humans are fascinated with print and with organizing books, collecting books, and surrounding ourselves within our homes with books that have affected us (or have the potential to). I especially appreciated his writings on the confiscation of books during WW2. Here is only a sampling of his writings…
Libraries have always seemed to me pleasantly mad places…I feel an adventurous pleasure in losing myself among the crowded stacks…”My library,” wrote Petrarch to a friend, “is not an unlearned collection, even if it belongs to someone unlearned.” My books know infinitely more than I do, and I’m grateful that they even tolerate my presence.
On reading for pleasure before going to sleep: 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…my reading 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 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…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 leather spine, to smell the wood of the shelves, the musky perfume of the bindings, the acrid scent of my yellowing pocket books. Then I can sleep. (I love that line!)
On unpacking books after a move: Unpacking books is a revelatory activity. Writing in 1931, during one of his many moves, Walter Benjamin described the experience of standing among his books “not yet touched by the mild boredom of order,” haunted by visions of the times and places he had collected them, of the circumstantial evidence that rendered each volume truly his…a ticket fluttering away from an opened book reminded me of a tram ride in Buenos Aires…a name and phone number inscribed on a fly-leaf brought back the face of a friend long lost who gave me a copy of the Cantos…a paper napkin with the logo of the Cafe de Flore, folded inside…attested to my first trip to Paris…a letter from a teacher inside a collection of Spanish poetry made me think of distant classes where I first heard of Gongora dn Vincente Gaos…Books have their own fates. (Maurus). Some of mine have waited half a century to reach this tiny place in western France, for which they were seemingly destined…(his personal library at his feet falling out of boxes)…I loved that, too! I see notes, tickets, cards from friends, grocery lists, all tucked into my books – reminding me, as they fall out, of emotions and memories of specific moments in my life, the friends of that time period, the smells of specific locations, emotions only known to me that come back to my mind – kept secretly tucked away in my books. I love that!
Affect of books on our daily lives: Books may not change suffering, books may not protect us from evil, books may not tell us what is good or what is beautiful, and they will certainly not shield us from the common fate of the grave. But books grant us myriad possibilities: the possibility of change, the possibility of illumination. It may be that there is no book, however well written, that can remove an ounce of pain from the tragedy of Iraq or Rwanda, but it may also be that there is no book, however foully written, that does not allow an epiphany for its destined reader. Robinson Crusoe explains, “It may not be amiss for all people who shall meet my story to make this just observation from it, viz., how frequently in the course of our lives, the evil which in itself we seek most to shun, and which, when we are fallen into it, is the most dreadful to us, is oftentimes the very same means or door of our deliverance, by which alone we can be raised again.” This, of course, is not Crusoe speaking, but Defoe – the reader of so many books….(On secrets held by a page in the Dead Sea Scrolls…We know that the body is corruptible and the stuff of which it is made impermanent. But we also know that the soul [and I, the scrolls’ future reader, will inject, “the book,”] is immortal and imperishable.”
Appreciation of over-abundance of books available to us today: In the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen, a copy of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain was passed around among the inmates. One boy remembered the time he was allotted to hold the book in his hands as “one of the highlights of the day, when someone passed it to me. I went into a corner to be at peace and then I had an hour to read it.”…Another young Polish victim, recalling the days of fear and discouragement, had this to say: “The book was my best friend, it never betrayed me; it comforted me in my despair, it told me that I was not alone.” …Visitors often ask if I’ve read all my books; my usual answer is that I’ve certainly opened every one of them…the library need not be read in its entirety to be useful; every reader profits from a fair balance between knowledge and ignorance, recall and oblivion…I have no feeling of guilt regarding the books I have not read and perhaps will never read; I know that my books have unlimited patience. They will wait for me till the end of my days. They don’t require that I pretend to know them all…The forgotten volumes of my library lead a tacit, unobtrusive existence. And yet, their very quality of having been forgotten allows me, sometimes, to rediscover a certain story, a certain poem, as if it were utterly new. I open a book I think I have never opened before an come upon a splendid line that I tell myself I mustn’t forget, and then I close the book and see, on an end paper, that my wiser, younger self marked that particular passage when he first discovered it at the age of twelve or thirteen…
Those who read, those who
tell us what they read,
Those who noisily turn
the pages of their books,
Those who have power over
red and black ink,
and over pictures,
Those are the ones who lead us,
guide us, show us the way.
Aztec Codex from 1524, Vatican Archives
There is no end to this book and all that you will get from reading about the history of books, the history of collections of books, and the power of learning through books imprinted in the minds of those whose personal, tangible books were destroyed in war and tyranny. We have no idea what a treasure we have – the overabundance of books everywhere we go. From little supermarkets to large mega-stores to the internet. Books right now are so available. Are you reading and imprinting your mind with learned authors? When you do not have a book in your presence do you have the words in your mind for your strength and wisdom? If books were taken from us, would you have enough wisdom and thoughts in your mind from your readings now that they are readily available? I ask myself the same questions. Let’s not take for granted what we have. Spend the money on true literature and learning, not just on magazines to pass your evenings. I just keep my books near at hand. I don’t read very long at a time, but I read little bits often throughout the day. I have the same busy schedule that you do. But because of the example and encouragement of my husband, I was fortunate to be encouraged to surround myself with books. To make my water-heater room our library. See, we even had the desire to name this room “library” – knowing that meant a room full of our memories, our hopes, our encouragements, our dreams, our wisdom. Do you have that desire?
Just begin – I promise you that with the same price as a drive-through at McDonald’s, your life may be changed. Have a great week, I hope you stay safe with these storms. No matter what happens in any of our futures, we know that there will be given to us a peace we will not understand. Thank you for letting me type for you today. You give me the reason to open the books – to find something for us all to think about this week. Go take on your day and make yourself proud of what you think about and act upon that no one else will be aware that you did. Susan
Latin for this week: ex libris - from the library of...
Works Cited: Manguel, Alberto. The Library at Night. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 2006.