Sunday, April 12, 2009

Imaginary Libraries

Alberto Manguel's Library at Night is a multilayered look at collections of books. It is a book haunted by other books, particularly absent ones: unread books, lost books, burned books, destroyed libraries, ungathered libraries, libraries in search of users, virtual libraries, fictional ones, fake ones.

Colette, in one of the books of memoirs with which she delighted in scandalizing her readers, tells the story of imaginary catalogues compiled by her friend Paul Masson—an ex-colonial magistrate who worked at the Bibliotheque Nationale, and an eccentric who ended his life by standing on the edge of the Rhine, stuffing cotton wool soaked in ether up his nose and, after losing consciousness, drowning in barely a foot of water. According to Collette, Masson would visit her at her seaside villa and pull from his pockets a portable desktop, a fountain pen and a small pack of blank cards.

"What are you doing?" she asked him one day.

"I'm working," he answered. "I'm working at my job. I've been appointed to the catalogue section of the Bibliotheque Nationale. I'm making an inventory of titles."

"Oh, can you do that from memory?" she marvelled.

"From memory? What would be the merit? I'm doing better. I've realized that the Nationale is poor in Latin and Italian books from the fifteenth century," he explained. "Until chance and erudition fill the gaps, I am listing the titles of extremely interesting works that should have been written....At least these titles may save the prestige of the catalogue...."

"But if the books don't exist...."

"Well," Masson answered with a frivolous gesture, "I can't be expected to do everything!"

Previously: Alberto Manguel's Library profiled in NYT.

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