The Library at Night, By Alberto Manguel

Christopher Hirst
Friday 12 June 2009 00:00

If many bibliophiles will share Alberto Manguel's assertion that the acquisition and ordering of his library has "kept me sane", they will also agree with his "fascinated horror" at how "night after night shelves... would fill up, apparently on their own". Manguel's testament to the library will be received with joy by any reader dismayed at the digitised domination of the world.

He defends print with a passion that has this reader cheering. The microfilm-obsessed librarian at Columbia University who said "The value, in intellectual terms, of the proximity of book to user has never been satisfactorily established" is described as "a dolt, someone utterly insensible... to the experience of reading."

Manguel also wishes he could condemn booksellers who attach unmovable price-stickers to "a special gummy hell". But there are far worse offenders against the book.

Manguel devotes a chapter to book burning and the destruction of libraries, though he fails to mention Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, which describes a world where books are banned so individuals memorise whole novels. Another curious omission occurs in his section on methods of book classification, which overlooks the tendency of the British Library and other huge hoards to file books by size (they can get more in).

But these are tiny lacunae in a stirring defence of literature on the page. Ranging from Lampedusa's The Leopard to Hersey's Hiroshima, his concluding list of favourite books is completely admirable

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