The Library at Night

Saint John’s sentence describes the reader’s experience. As anyone reading in a library knows, the words on the page call out for light. Darkness, words and light form a virtuous circle. Words bring light into being, and then mourn its passing. In the light we read, in the dark we talk.

The existence of any library, even mine, allows readers a sense of what their craft is truly about, a craft that struggles against the stringencies of time by bringing fragments of the past into their present. It grants them a glimpse, however secret or distant, into the minds of other human beings, and allows them a certain knowledge of their own condition through the stories stored here for their perusal.

The past is the cosmopolitan’s mother country, the universal fatherland, an endless library. In it (so thought Sir Thomas Browne) lies our hope for an endurable future.

And yet the new sense of infinity created by the Web has not diminished the old sense of infinity inspired by the ancient libraries; it has merely lent it a sort of tangible intangibility.

If reading is a craft that allows us to remember the common experience of humankind, it follows that totalitarian governments will try to suppress the memory held by the page. Under such circumstances, the reader’s struggle is against oblivion.

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

On the Web, where all texts are equal and alike in form, they become nothing but phantom text and photographic image.

Together, electronic storage and the physical preservation of printed matter grant a library the fulfillment of at least one of its ambitions: comprehensiveness.

In the next few years, in all probability, millions of pages will be waiting for their on-line readers. As in the cautionary tale of Babel, “nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do,”84 and we shall soon be able to summon up the whole of the ghostly stock of all manner of Alexandrias past or future, with the mere tap of a finger.

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.

As those remote Colombian readers know, our existence flows, like an impossible river, in two directions: from the endless mass of names, places, creatures, stars, books, rituals, memories, illuminations and stones we call the world to the face that stares at us every morning from the depth of a mirror; and from that face, from that body which surrounds a centre we cannot see, from that which names us when we say “I,” to everything that is Other, outside, beyond. A sense of who we are individually, coupled with a sense of being citizens, collectively, of an inconceivable universe, lends something like meaning to our life-a meaning put into words by the books in our libraries.

The world encyclopedia, the universal library, exists, and is the world itself.

Alexandria modestly saw itself as the centre of a circle bound by the knowable world; the Web, like the definition of God first imagined in the twelfth century,,” sees itself as a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.

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.

Perhaps every library is ultimately inconceivable, because, like the mind, it reflects upon itself, multiplying geometrically with each new reflection.

However appealing we may find the dream of a knowable universe made of paper and a meaningful cosmos made of words, a library, even one colossal in its proportions or ambitious and infinite in its scope, can never offer us a “real” world, in the sense in which the daily world of suffering and happiness is real. It offers us instead a negotiable image of that real world which (in the words of the French critic jean Roudaut) “kindly allows us to conceive it,” 114 as well as the possibility of experience, knowledge and memory of something intuited through a tale or guessed at through a poetic or philosophical reflection.

Our society accepts the book as a given, but the act of reading-once considered useful and important, as well as potentially dangerous and subversive-is now condescendingly accepted as a pastime, a slow pastime that lacks efficiency and does not contribute to the common good.

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.

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.

Libraries, whether my own or shared with a greater reading public, have always seemed to me pleasantly mad places, and for as long as I can remember I’ve been seduced by their labyrinthine logic, which suggests that reason (if not art) rules over a cacophonous arrangement of books. I feel an adventurous pleasure in losing myself among the crowded stacks, superstitiously confident that any established hierarchy of letters or numbers will lead me one day to a promised destination.

The past (the tradition that leads to our electronic present) is, for the Web user, irrelevant, since all that counts is what is currently displayed. Compared to a book that betrays its age in its physical aspect, a text called up on the screen has no history.

During the day, the library is a realm of order.

In the light, we read the inventions of others; in the darkness, we invent our own stories.

The libraries that have vanished or have never been allowed to exist greatly surpass in number those we can visit, and form the links of a circular chain that accuses and condemns us all.

Human imagination is not monogamous nor does it need to be, and new instruments will soon sit next to the PowerBooks that now sit next to our books in the multimedia library. If the Library of Alexandria was the emblem of our ambition of omniscience, the Web is the emblem of our ambition of omnipresence; the library that contained everything has become the library that contains anything.

Some nights I dream of an entirely anonymous library in which books have no title and boast no author, forming a continuous narrative stream in which all genres, all styles, all stories converge, and all protagonists and all locations are unidentified, a stream into which I can dip at any point of its course.

Libraries, in their very being, not only assert but also question the authority of power. As repositories of history or sources for the future, as guides or manuals for difficult times, as symbols of authority past or present, the books in a library stand for more than their collective contents, and have, since the beginning of writing, been considered a threat.

the space in which we keep our books changes our relationship to them. We don’t read books in the same way sitting inside a circle or inside a square, in a room with a low ceiling or in one with high rafters. And the mental atmosphere we create in the act of reading, the imaginary space we construct when we lose ourselves in the pages of a book, is confirmed or refuted by the physical space of the library, and is affected by the distance of the shelves, the crowding or paucity of books, by qualities of scent and touch and by the varying degrees of light and shade.

The petroglyphs of our common past are fading not because of the arrival of a new technology but because we are no longer moved to read them. We are losing our common vocabulary, built over thousands and thousands of years to help and delight and instruct us, for the sake of what we take to be the new technology’s virtues.

It may be that, because of its kaleidoscopic quality, any library, however personal, offers to whoever explores it a reflection of what he or she seeks, a tantalizing wisp of intuition of who we are as readers, a glimpse into the secret aspects of the self.

To hold and transmit memory, to learn through the experience of others, to share knowledge of the world and of ourselves, are some of the powers (and dangers) that books confer upon us, and the reasons why we both treasure and fear them.

In such a library there would be one single book divided into a few thousand volumes and, pace Callimachus and Dewey, no catalogue.

In comparing the virtual library to the traditional one of paper and ink, we need to remember several things: that reading often requires slowness, depth and context; that our electronic technology is still fragile and that, since it keeps changing, it prevents us many times from retrieving what was once stored in now superseded containers; that leafing through a book or roaming through shelves is an intimate part of the craft of reading and cannot be entirely replaced by scrolling down a screen, any more than real travel can be replaced by travelogues and 3-D gadgets.

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.

What makes a library a reflection of its owner is not merely the choice of the titles themselves, but the mesh of associations implied in the choice. Our experience builds on experience, our memory on other memories. Our books build on other books that change or enrich them, that grant them a chronology apart from that of literary dictionaries.

Throughout history, those confronted with the unbearable account of the horrors they have committed-torturers, murderers, merciless wielders of power, shamelessly obedient bureaucrats-seldom answer the question “why?” Their impassive faces reject any admission of guilt, reflect nothing but a refusal to move from the past of their deeds into the consequences. Yet the books on my shelves can help me imagine their future.

In our time, bereft of epic dreams-which we’ve replaced with dreams of pillage-the illusion of immortality is created by technology. The Web, and its promise of a voice and a site for all, is our equivalent of the mare incognitum, the unknown sea that lured ancient travellers with the temptation of discovery.

And while it is true that acidity and brittleness, fire and the legendary bookworms threaten ancient codexes and scrolls, not everything written or printed on parchment or paper is condemned to an early grave.

To quote is to make use of the Library of Babel; to quote is to reflect on what has been said before, and unless we do that, we speak in a vacuum where no human voice can make a sound.

The notorious millionaires who, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, made their fortunes in the factories, mills and banks of the United States assiduously used their money to establish schools, museums and, above all, libraries which, beyond their importance as cultural centres, became monuments to their founders.

Every library is autobiographical.

For the cosmopolitan reader a homeland is not in space, fractured by political frontiers, but in time, which has no borders.

Neither the solid library on my shelves nor the shifting one of memory holds absolute power for long. Over time, the labyrinths of my two libraries mysteriously intermingle.

Histories, chronologies and almanacs offer us the illusion of progress, even though, over and over again, we are given proof that there is no such thing. There is transformation and there is passage, but whether for better or for worse merely depends on the context and the observer.

If my library chronicles my life story, my study holds my identity.

The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel