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Friday, 20 November 2009

Blog All Dog-Eared Pages: The Library at Night.

Every now and again I fall in love with things, like peas and mint and linguine for Sunday lunch at Zuni or my new 2010 moleskine daybook, or... this book:


Reading it (so far) is like scoffing a hot piece of toast with lots of butter on it. Alberto Manguel is new to me. I've enjoyed Borges immensely - apparently the two were friends - and have just discovered another South American novelist named César Aira and his novella, Ghost. Apart from Manguel's personable, detailed exposé of the history of librarianship, his focus on library as construction is fascinating.

I've turned down the corner of lots of pages. The beginnings of all of his chapters are particularly strong.
The Fihrist is a unique literary creation. It does not follow Callimachus's alphabetical order, nor is it divided according to the location of the volumes it lists. Meticulously chaotic and delightfully arbitrary, it is the bibliographical record of a boundless library dispersed throughout the world and visible only in the shape al-Nadim chose to give it. The Library as Order, page 53

Yet one fearful characteristic of the physical world tempers any optimism that a reader may feel in any ordered library: the constraints of space. The Library as Space, page 66

The nineteenth-century American scholar Oliver Wendell Holmes admonished, "Every library should try to be complete on something, if it were only the history of pinheads," echoing the sentiments of the French scholar Gabriel Naudé, who in 1627 published a modest Advice for Setting Up a Library in which he went even further into the reader's demands. "There is nothing," Naudé wrote, "that renders a Library more recommendable, than when every man finds in it that which he is looking for and cannot find anywhere else; therefore the perfect motto is, that there exists no book, however badly or badly reviewed, that may not be sought after in some future time by a certain reader." These remarks demand from us an impossibility, since every library is, by needs, an incomplete creation, a work-in-progress, and every empty shelf announces the books to come. The Library as Space, page 80-81

Mrs. Calloway, [Eudora] Welty recalled, "ran the Library absolutely by herself, from the desk where she sat with her back to the books and facing the stairs, her dragon eye on the front door, where who knew what kind of person might come in from the public? SILENCE in big black letters was on signs tacked up everywhere." Mrs. Calloway made her own rules about books. "You could not take back a book to the Library on the same day you'd taken it out; it made no difference to her that you'd read every workd in it and needed another to start. You could take out two books at a time and two books only; this applied as long as you were a child and also for the rest of your life." But such arbitrary rules made no difference to Welty's reading passion. The Library as Power, page 103

Every library conjures up its own dark ghost; every ordering sets up, in its wake, a shadow library of absences. The Library as Shadow, page 107

A library of straight angles suggests division into parts or subjects, consistent with the medieval notion of a compartmentalized and hierarchical universe; a circular library more generously allows the reader to imagine that every last page is also the first. Ideally, for many readers, a library would be a combination of both, and intersection of circle and rectangle or oval and square, like the ground floor of a basilica. The Library as Shape, page 138

The stern windows and recurrent volutes, and the complex and dynamic stairway [of the Laurentian Library, designed by Michelangelo] perfectly illustrate the paradoxical nature of a library. The first suggests that it can be an ordered, contained place where our knowledge of the universe can be gracefully stored; the second implies that no order, no method, no elegant design can ever fully hold it. The Library as Shape, page 160-161

Books, even after they have been given a shelf and a number, retain a mobility of their own. Left to their own devices, they assemble in unexpected formations; they follow secret rules of similarity, unchronicled genealogies, common interests and themes. The Library as Chance, page 163

"It is written that he who keeps knowledge to himself shall not be made welcome into the Kingdom of Heaven. Each reader is but one chapter in the life of a book, and unless he passes his knowledge on to others, it is as if he condemned the book to be buried alive." The Library as Chance, page 164

And a more recent premonition on cursory, distant discovery from a chap called Greg Knauss (thanks to Kellan)...

And that’s why I love the Internet. That small obituary — hosted on some cheesy advertising circular’s Web site, last modified in January 2001 — has sat out there, patiently waiting for someone to need it. Nearly ten years on, an idle curiosity prompted by some fleeting serendipity instantly brings it to me, and suddenly I know something I didn’t — something I should have no way of knowing, given time and distance — and I’m mourning a man who improved my life every time I looked out the window.

And that's as far as I've gotten. Inspiring stuff.

Posted at 8:02 am

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