Man/book love

<strong>The Library at Night

</strong>Alberto Manguel

<em>Yale University Press, 373pp, £18.99

Alberto Manguel has an awful lot of books. In a previous house, they were piled in such pro fusion that his children complained they needed a library card to enter their own home. Now living in the Loire, the Argentinian-born cultural critic has designed a library for his needs. A space for methodical research during the day, at night it fosters a sense of immersion, of errant inspiration and the furtive thrill of reading in a pool of light encircled by gloom.

Endearingly discursive, The Library at Night celebrates the quixotic aspect of library love. It charts a tension between order and chaos, glut and absence. Manguel's urlibrary is Alexandria, the Ptolemaic institution that sought to gather the whole world's knowledge (motto: "The place of the cure of the soul"), but which probably burned to the ground in 47BC. All libraries, in Manguel's besotted summation, attempt a similarly heroic and futile endeavour. He likes to imagine that, when he dies, he and his books will crumble together: his library is his own intimate universe.

Manguel's footnotes namecheck such titles as Lunacy and the Arrangement of Books. His library has no catalogue, its sequence apparently haphazard, and he argues that an assembly of books is personally revealing. Manguel visits Aby Warburg's collection in Hamburg, arranged according to a dense web of iconographic association. Even the shelves are rounded to foster connectivity. "It was like standing in the middle of a foreign city," he reports, "whose signposts doubtless meant something but whose sense I couldn't fathom."

Warburg rejected Orthodox Judaism and a banking career and in 1879 sold his birthright to his younger brother in return for all the books he might crave. He is one of this study's obsessive animating spirits. Borges, the ludic blind librarian, is another, as is Niccolò Machiavelli, who would shuck his dirty daywear before sinking into classical texts - "and for the course of four hours I forget the world". Manguel is co-editor of a peerlessly pleasurable reference book, The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, which maps fantastical realms (Prospero's island, Alice's Wonderland) with sober diligence. No wonder that he adores Rabelais's invented titles, adapting a Rabelaisian motto for his new library: "Read as you please."

This kind of injunction might rattle a librarian. Manguel provides nice cameos for Robert Musil's master librarian in The Man Without Qualities who never actually reads anything ("He who puts his nose inside the book itself is lost to the library!") and for Nabokov's sister who in 1945 doggedly pursued German officers during the retreat from Prague to reclaim their unreturned library books.

Crisis sharpens a librarian's calling. The custodian of the Jewish library in Biala Podlaska sheltered volumes in an attic away from Nazi assault, even though he feared there would soon "be no readers left". Such acts, Manguel insists, are "human gestures of everyday life when life itself has become inhuman". Books register human losses: the looting of Baghdad's national library in 2003, or the destruction of Mayan and Aztec libraries centuries earlier, strip cultures of their memory. Augusto Pinochet even banned Don Quixote for promoting civil disobedience. The quenchless impulse to share stories is for Manguel an urgent index of humanity. In Birkenau concentration camp, adults would recite stories they remembered, each time to a different group of kids: this was known as "exchanging books in the library".

If there's a gap in this impassioned survey, it's about public libraries and their potential for illumination. It's a tragedy of fake meritocracy that philistine British local councils nibble at their holdings or amalgamate branches. Manguel neglects the transformation enabled by such enterprises as the Welsh miners' libraries detailed in Jonathan Rose's The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. And although Manguel delivers anecdotes with panache, several of his chapters aren't so much arguments as stashes of cosmopolitan yarns that stretch the definition of a library to embrace encyclopaedias, archives and even the casket of Transylvanian soil that Dracula carries with him.

Where books move, so do ideas and sympathies. Manguel honours the Colombian donkeys that take books in large green bags to remote rural areas. Villagers have returned the practical agricultural titles but hung on to the Iliad; they feel it tells their own story. Manguel appreciates such looping dialogues with the past, the act of reading that makes old texts new. His heart is with libraries that nourish a sensual profusion. One of the saddest bibliostories I know (from Mary Laven's Virgins of Venice) describes rigorously policed convent libraries in Renaissance Italy. Their meagre collections were harshly weeded, and the Bishop of Torcello prescribed a reading cycle of just three devotional texts; when the third was done, the nuns began again with the first. Manguel would surely mourn such denial, for minds forbidden to leap from page to page.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Secret Israel