Toronto: Knopf, 2006.
There are few writers who are capable of such lush bibliophilia as Alberto Manguel. It’s not a giddy, frenzied kind of love. It’s the kind of love that makes the 50-year marriage: steady, assured, unshakable. He is as sure of his own love for his books as he is of theirs for him, even the books he has not yet read:
I have no feelings 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. (255)
This book is Manguel’s personal take on the library, his own and others’. His chapter on the library at Alexandria is a timely read in these exciting days for Egypt, and in it, he writes his yearning for closer and more intimate knowledge of the greatest library in legend. He discusses the building and burning of libraries, libraries carried by donkey and libraries carried only by memory or the imagination.
The book seems, in part, to have been written in celebration of the completion of his own library at his farmhouse in France, and while I enjoyed the various discussions of libraries throughout the world and history, it is the passages about his own library that stay with me. This is book porn at its best: the quest for and triumphant success in building a home for his beloved books. He gives this wonderfully sensuous description of his plan for the library:
The library I had imagined for my books, long before its walls were erected, already reflected the way in which I wished to read. There are readers who enjoy trapping a story within the confines of a tiny enclosure; others for whom a round, vast, public space better allows them to imagine the text stretching out towards far horizons; others still who find pleasure in a maze of rooms through which they can wander chapter after chapter. I had dreamt of a long, low library where there would always be enough darkness around the pools of light on the desk to suggest that it was night outside, a rectangular space in which the walls would mirror one another and in which I could always feel as if the books on either side were almost at arm’s length. I read in a haphazard way, allowing books to associate freely, to suggest links by their mere proximity, to call to one another across the room. The shape I chose for my library encourages my reading habits. (133-34)
And he made his dream come true, building from the stone ruins of a barn a home for his more than 30,000 books.
As he describes the gradually more personal spaces of the library and the study, the intimacy between writer and space grows ever more profound:
There is a notable difference, for me, between the large room in which I keep most of my books, and the smaller room in which I work. In the large room, the “library proper,” I choose the volumes I need or want, I sit and read and make notes, I consult my encyclopedias. But in my study, the chosen books are those that I consider more immediate, more necessary, more intimate. … These feel like extensions of myself, ready at arm’s length, always helpful, known of old. Many times I have had to work in rooms without these familiar volumes, and felt their absence as a kind of blindness or lack of voice. (177)
I know that mute feeling when away from my (much more modest!) walls of books. Tucked into the corner of my study, surrounded by my books, I am home, and I can think most clearly. I am at home in print, between the pages of a book, or when creating my own scribbled path across a page. At work in other places, I yearn for my desk and do not feel right until I am back at it.
Manguel perfectly articulates that sense of how the puzzle pieces are in place when he is among his books.
To know whether a certain book exists in my library, I have to either rely on my memory (did I once buy that book? did I lend it? was it returned?) or on a cataloguing system like Dewey’s (which I am reluctant to undertake). The former forces me to exercise a daily relationship with my books, many unopened for long periods, unread but not forgotten, by going repeatedly through the shelves to see what is there and what is not. The latter lends certain books, which I have acquired from other libraries, mysterious notations on their spines that identify them as having belonged to a nameless phantom reader from the past, cabalistic concatenations of letters and numbers that once gave them a place and a category, far away and long ago. (62-63)
That daily relationship with his books, their patient waiting for him to pull them off the shelf, that’s the steadfastness of the true book lover.
Happy Valentine’s Day!