Volatile Rune

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The Library at Night

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An erudite and eclectic mix of thoughts make up this wonderful book by Albert Manguel. Between its covers are all things relating to libraries and the buildings in which they are housed. Manguel is the best selling author of A History of Reading and A Dictionary of Imaginary Places, as well as translator and essayist.

The Library at Night has chapters on the Library as Myth, as Order, as Power, as Shadow, as Shape, as Mind.

It opens with the story of how Manguel built his own library – at least the building which encompasses it –  out of the fallen stones of an old barn where he lives in France.   He describes the building as:

“something of a cross between the long hall at Sissinghurst (Vita Sackville West’s house in Kent) and the library of my old school, the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires.”

He then goes on to talk about many other types of library – some real, some purely imaginary.  There are bookish anecdotes and a great deal of wisdom.

For example,  do you ever wonder if you have too many books journals and periodicals lying around?

Shortly after Christmas 2003 a forty-three year old New York man, Patrice Moore, had to be rescued by firefighters from his apartment after spending two days trapped underneath an avalanche of journals, magazines and books that he had stubbornly accumulated for over a decade.

Most of us don’t allow things to reach that stage but it is something I can understand – that desperation not to part with books and magazines.  Mr. Rune’s mother used to keep endless copies of Country Life magazine in the attic; she had accumulated I believe pretty much the whole back catalogue.   I remember my father in law worrying about the weight in the roof!

Libraries come into being in many shapes and sizes – for many reasons. They sometimes go out of being again.

History is littered with sagas of the destruction of books and library buildings.  Yet it is not random acts of violence alone which lead to the loss of valuable collections of books and knowledge.  Increasingly the perpetrator of destruction is the resistance of public funding bodies to spare anything towards affording the buildings necessary; there is a reluctance to provide the space, expensive preservation or non-digital resources required for physical book collections and to assume that this is not a matter of societal responsibility.

There is a 21st century danger of somehow assuming that digitisation will take care of everything

It won’t.  The author relates the following story:

“In 1986 the BBC spent two and a half million pounds (that was a lot of money back then) creating a computer based multi-media version of the Domesday Book.  It contained 250,000 place names, 25,000 maps, 50,000 pictures, 3,000 datasets and 60 minutes of moving pictures plus scores of accounts that recorded “life in Britain” during that year.

Sixteen years later in March 2002 an attempt was made to read the information but computing had moved on and even on the few computers still available the attempt to retrieve the data failed.  The techniques of data preservation had not yet caught up with the BBC project and the whole massive project went to waste.”

Increasingly, says Manguel, our digital heritage is at risk of being lost, whether from the cloud or some hard drive somewhere.  He writes:

“By contrast, the original Domesday Book, almost a thousand years old, written in ink on paper and kept at the Public Record Office in Kew, is in fine condition and still perfectly readable.”

There is another problem which the author sees as foundational to our 21st century relationship to books.

If, Manguel says, a visitor came from the past what would he see?  “He would see huge commercial temples in which books are sold in their thousands, immense edifices in which the published word is divided and arranged in tidy categories, for the guided consumption of the faithful.”

But he argues while we appear to give much weight to the circulation of bookishness in terms of commercial transactions, in reality the art of being a reader is now condescendingly downgraded to a mere pastime.  The act of reading itself, once considered important, even dangerous or subversive, is sidelined by society as a frippery.   This matters a great deal.  Because a Society that does not venerate the act of reading is not a literate society.


Diary of a Tuscan Bookshop, Alba Donati  (Wiedenfeld & Nicholson) Trans. Elena Pala

“The idea to open the bookshop knocked on my door one night, oven ready.  It was the thirtieth of March 2019.  I had the space: there was this little hill by the house where my mother used to grow lettuce….”

I’m usually nervous of anything which is described as “heartwarming” but this book about a lady who decides to open a tiny bookshop in her equally tiny village in Italy – population 180 people –  truly is that.     Thank you to Sister Rune for the recommendation.

I wish everyone a happy and peaceful Easter holiday.

6 responses to “The Library at Night”

  1. Sounds fascinating. I often think about the fact that I don’t own any of the ebooks I’ve bought. I love ereader technology (usually…) but it could all go *poof* in a moment…

  2. So much to think about. Most people don’t know that digital archives are far more fragile than they seem, and it doesn’t take much to make one disappear forever.

    Have a peaceful and wonderful holiday!


The Volatile Muse

Poetry, literature, film and all things in between

Runes are ancient scripts, magical signs for secret or hidden laws.   I chose a name which I felt brought to mind the infinitely variable nature of the written word.


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