Alberto Manguel — The Library At Night


Breezed through this philosophical musing on the meanings of libraries by Alberto Manguel whilst poolside in Key West. Half way through I realized he is the author of the Dictionary of Imaginary Places that I've owned since third or fourth grade, making it one of the oldest books in my own library!
Virginia Woolf once tried to distinguish between the man who loves learning and the man who loves reading and concluded that "there is no connection whatever between the two." "A learned man," she wrote, "is a sedentary, concentrated solitary enthusiast, who searches through books to discover some particular grain of truth upon which he has set his heart. If the passion for reading conquers him, his gains dwindle and vanish between his fingers. A reader, on the other hand, must check the desire for learning at the outset; if knowledge sticks to him well and good, but to go in pursuit of it, to read on a system, to become a specialist or an authority, is very apt to kill what it suits us to consider the more humane passion for pure and disinterested reading."

(From 'Hours in a Library' in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Volume II, 1912–1918.)
And even paper and ink can sometimes survive a death sentence. One of the lost plays of Sophocles is The Loves of Achilles, copies of which must have perished one after another, century after century, destroyed in pillaging and fires or excluded from library catalogues because perhaps the librarian deemed the play of little interest or of poor literary quality. A few words were, however, miraculously preserved. "In the Dark Ages, in Macedonia," Tom Stoppard has one of his characters explain in his play The Invention of Love, "in the last guttering light from classical antiquity, a man copied out bits from old books for his young son, whose name was Septimus; so we have one sentence from The Loves of Achilles. Love, said Sophocles, feels like the ice held in the hand by children." I trust that book-burner's dreams are haunted by such modest proof of the book's survival.
Books lend a room a particular identity that can in some cases, usurp that of their owner—a peculiarity well known to oafish personalities who demand to be portrayed against the background of a book-lined wall, in the hope that it will grant them some scholarly lustre. Seneca mocked ostentatious readers who relied on such walls to lend them intellectual prestige; he argues for possessing only a small number of books, not "endless bookshelves for the ignorant to decorate their dining-rooms."

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