The starting point is a question.
Outside theology and fantastic literature, few can doubt that the main features of our universe are its dearth of meaning and lack of discernible purpose. And yet, with bewildering optimism, we continue to assemble whatever scraps of information we can gather in scrolls and books and computer chips, on shelf after library shelf, whether material, virtual or otherwise, pathetically intent on lending the world a semblance of sense and order, while knowing perfectly well that, however much we’d like to believe the contrary, our pursuits are doomed to failure.
Why then do we do it?
For the past several years, Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night has been my bedtime book. I don’t read it every night, I’m often either too busy or deep in a book that I can’t possibly put down. Months pass in which I don’t pick it up, but it’s always within arm’s reach for the odd wakeful moment.
I’ve never been much of a sleeper. I’m basically still a toddler when it comes to bedtime–I know I have to go, but I’m going to resist it as long as possible. There are chapters to read. There are sequels to start. Hell, there are websites to browse. Something is always going on in the world, and if I’m sleeping, I’m going to miss it. Also, in a weird way, being exhausted is kind of proof that you’re working hard enough, that you’re doing enough with your life, that you’re sucking the pith and marrow. Millay’s candle, burning at both ends. Let me be clear, this isn’t about insomnia. I imagine insomnia as a sense of powerlessness–you can’t make your body do what it needs to do. Staying up all night is more about a sense of power. It’s a choice, my choice, a privileging of the private over the public, of queer time over straight time, of immediate gratification over tomorrow’s practicalities.
I’ve gotten afield of my starting point, which, as Manguel points out, is a question. His book tackles subjects as diverse as why we categorize our books the way we do, why we store them the way we do, and what those decisions entail; great libraries in the past and what they contained and how they were housed; libraries with organizing principles and magpie libraries; and the difference that the time of day makes to his conception of his own library.
Manguel talks about his library during the day and at night: during the day, his library is ordered and methodical, each in its category, each in its space. At night, though, in the dim light and quiet, he says that his library comes alive in a different way, as story calls to story and idea to idea, across genre and shelf and period. The established categories disappear with the day and new groupings–and so new ideas–are possible.