The Library at night

By Gabriel Josipovici, September 4, 2008

Alberto Manguel once used to read to the blind Borges, and it is perhaps from him that he acquired his passion for books, for all forms of writing and, above all, for libraries. In his home in rural France where, after a lifetime of wandering, this cosmopolitan Argentinian has finally settled down, he has built himself a library which appears to resemble more the library of a large institution than what you or I might have at home. Here, he tells us, he comes to read and meditate. Another, smaller room in his refurbished presbytery is devoted to writing.

He makes good use of both, to judge by his published works: a history of reading, a dictionary of imaginary places, several novels and short stories, and now this fascinating and splendidly produced book.

To be a lover of libraries you have to love the physical aspect of books, regardless of what is inside them, and you have to be a "wild" reader rather than a scholar, someone who dips and skips according to his whim.

Manguel, like Borges and Walter Benjamin, is clearly one of those, and his book reflects that. It tells us about the libraries of the past, from the great lost library of Alexandria to the British Library, from the extraordinary libraries to be found on the caravan routes to Mecca in the deserts of Mauritania and in the Dunhuang Caves on the Great Silk road. There is the eccentric library built up in Hamburg by Aby Warburg and then lovingly transported to London when Hitler came to power, and the clandestine children's library in Birkenau, consisting of a mere eight books.

It is rich in anecdotes, such as that of the reader literally buried in his flat under a pile of books or the copy of The Magic Mountain passed around among the inmates of Bergen-Belsen.

At times, it follows Borges a little too closely. A sentence like: "My edition of The Odyssey ‘translated into English prose by T E Lawrence' (better known as Lawrence of Arabia), echoes back to Alexandria and to the rigorous commentaries of Aristarchus, as well as to the generous library of Odysseys assembled by George Steiner in Geneva," might pass muster in a Borges story, but what do "rigorous" and "generous" mean here? They are gestures towards precision, nothing more.

And yet, in its plea for cosmopolitanism and for books as a civilising influence, this is a moving book. "For the cosmopolitan reader a homeland is not in space, fractured by political frontiers, but in time, which has no borders," writes Manguel.

"That was why Erasmus, two centuries after Dante, praised Aldus Manutius, the great Venetian printer, for providing readers with a ‘library without walls' in the shape of his octavo volumes of the classics." Every Jewish reader will say amen to that.

Gabriel Josipovici's books include
Goldberg: Variations

Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011