Monday, October 4, 2010


The Library at Night

I think Paul recommended I read The Library At Night, and I had no idea what it'd be about. It's a sort of history, sort of memoir, sort of exploration of his personal library, but mostly it's about the importance of reading and the history of the written word and libraries.

I appreciated learning about ancient Greek, Arabic, and European libraries, as well as global efforts to organize books. This is perfect for librarians and those, like myself, who grew up in libraries and worked in them as a teenager. I liked his thoughts on reading in general, as well as his particular literary loves. Lots of quotes in the book mean that he's thought about quotations in general:

" quote is to continue a conversation from the past in order to give context to the present."

I like that. I also like:

"A dictionary from the seventh century B.C. carries this prayer: 'May Ishtar bless the reader who will not alter this tablet now place it elsewhere in the library, and may She denounce in anger he who dares withdraw it from this building.'"

"The idea persists even today: our books will bear witness for or against us, our books reflect who we are and who we have been, our books hold the share of pages granted to us from the Book of Life. By the books we call ours will we be judged."

"And yet, however careful our reading, remembered texts often under go curious changes; they fragment, shrivel up or grow unpredictably long. In my mental library, The Tempest is reduced to a few immortal lines, while a brief novel such as Juan Rulfo's Pedro Paramo occupies my entire Mexican imaginary landscape. A couple of sentences by George Orwell in the essay "Shooting an Elephant" expand in my memory to several pages of description and reflection that I think I can actually see in my mind, printed on the page; of the lengthy medieval romance The Devoured Heart, all I can remember is the title."

I could spend hours in most libraries, and I always leave with far too much. Thinking about what books sit on our shelves is important to me, and when I visit someone's house, I always check out their collection. And the final thought about remembering shades of books is so true - not only for books but for life in general. There's so much we forget, that remembering the important things, good and bad, is critical. You seem to learn that as you tack on the years.

One final note is that this is the first book I've read on the Kindle. I'm borrowing it from my mother, and it's been an interesting experience. Some of the tools I like - I also like being able to set it down, not needing to prob it open in one hand with thumb and pinky. But the price of a new book will probably prevent me from ever getting one, and candidly, the button for "next page" is annoying after you press it several hundred times. We'll see.

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