Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions

My best friend bought me Alberto Manguel’s reflections on a life in books, because she knows me very well. Packing My Library is subtitled An Elegy and Ten Digressions. It opens with Manguel’s reminiscence about the last location in which he had set up his library of 35,000 books. His reflections on the serious matter of what libraries are and what they mean to us are punctuated with digressions that often stem from a throwaway thought but also season the whole.

Early on, Manguel warns us that he can’t think in straight lines, that he goes where his thoughts lead him, something reflected in his idiosyncratic approach to arranging the books in his library. Manguel groups things by the first language of the author, then by author surname. I’ve come across people who arrange their books by the spectrum of colours on their spines. I’m pretty much an author surname and publication date arranger, although with non-fiction the size of the book also comes into play, and I don’t necessarily arrange non-fiction by author or chronology.

I, too, love a digression.

Manguel and I have very different lives. He’s the son of a former Argentine Ambassador to Israel, has lived in multiple countries, was the Director of the National Library of Argentina, and has enough wealth to have bought a house in France with a barn large enough to hold 35,000 books. I’m the daughter of a library assistant and an engineering draughtsman, have lived in multiple counties of England, and own four bookcases in a little terraced house, but could do with a fifth. What we do have in common is a deep rooted love for books, beyond the love of reading, and I understood why Manguel had so many, couldn’t let go of the bad ones (“in case I ever needed an example of a book I thought was bad”), and included in his library shiny young Penguins alongside his few “serious bibliophile” books. It was easy to imagine myself the custodian of 35,000 books. My little terraced house can only contain a fraction of that total, though.

The only other book I’ve read about an author’s relationship with their personal library is Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing. I ‘got’ Manguel more than I did Hill.

In particular, I understood his reluctance to lend books, underpinned by his belief that “to lend a book is an incitement to theft”. I’ve lent books and never got them back. I choose carefully who I lend to, now. Its contrast, an unwillingness to borrow from a public library or a friend, also made sense to me – to read and love a book is to want to possess it, a difficult thing to do when the book is not yours. Perhaps this is at the back, too, of our unwillingness to lend; the incitement to theft an acknowledgment that we, too, might steal a book if it takes hold of us.

At the start of the book, Manguel explains that the library in France was his last library. He means this both in the sense of finality, and in the sense of most recent. Manguel is a man of multiple libraries, stretching back into childhood, built up, reduced, selected from, started anew. As he moved around, as a child going where his father’s job took the family, as a young man fleeing the military dictatorship in Argentina, as a publisher and an author following his wanderlust to new cities in new countries, he would leave libraries behind and create new ones in each place he settled, sometimes packing books into boxes and placing them in storage until he had new walls for them to cover like ivy.

My library, either settled on shelves or packed away in boxes, has never been a single beast but is a composite of many others, a fantastic creature made up of the several libraries built up and then abandoned, over and over again, throughout my life. I can’t remember a time in which I did not have a library of some sort. My libraries are each a sort of multi-layered autobiography, every book holding the moment in which I read it for the first time. The scribbles in the margins, the occasional date on the flyleaf, the faded bus ticket marking the page for a reason today mysterious – all attempt to remind me of who I was then. For the most part, they fail. My memory is less interested in me than in my books, and I find it easier to remember the story read once, long ago, than the young man who was its reader.

There’s philosophy within the digressions, as Manguel considers the nature of self, of belonging and of loneliness. “We are, or we become,” he says, “because someone acknowledges our presence.” This might be as much in the pages of a novel, where we find ourselves reflected in the characters dreamed up by the author, as in the interactions we have with people around us or in the virtual realm. And libraries are instruments to counter loneliness, acting as loci for memory and communal experience.

The leaving of France, and therefore of the library, is the consequence of an unnamed bureaucracy. Manguel resents having to make the decision to pack up his library and ship it to storage in Montreal. This resentment sparks further digressions down the side-alleys of misery as a spur to creativity, and the seeking of revenge. Both the elegy for the last library and the digressions are intricately literary, built on Manguel’s familiarity with texts that must have been present in any number of his libraries. Sometimes I had genuine knowledge of the works referred to, more often I had the received wisdom of knowing a work because of its cultural standing rather than because I have read it. Cervantes, Kafka, Eco and Borges I know. Much of Shakespeare, Aristotle, Sophocles and Homer I am aware of. And there are other names that I recognise but have no knowledge of their work.

Borges features strongly in Manguel’s reflections – unsurprisingly, since Borges was a giant of Argentine literature and since the adolescent Manguel was one of the residents of Buenos Aires who would read to the ageing and almost blind Borges in the 1960s, becoming enough of a favourite to receive a book as a parting gift from Borges when Manguel left for Europe.

From a mention of the destruction of literature by authoritarian regimes, such as happened under the Argentinian military dictatorship, to the contemplation of the Biblical themes of language and the divine injunction for humanity not to compete with the creator, there is discussion of books and libraries as places that attempt to find reason in existence and to exert control over the unbearable. I was interested in the focus on the golem, the creature wrought from dust that features in Jewish folklore and finds its way into Western storytelling, too. Borges wrote a poem on the subject, consulted with Jewish rabbinical scholars, and read extensively about it in an attempt to understand its meaning. Psalm 139 mentions the golem, but it is the 18th century when the legend appears, in the form of a creature formed from clay by Rabbi Loew to protect the Jews of Prague from pogroms. The creature escapes the rabbi’s control, wreaking havoc in the ghetto, and necessitating its own destruction. This legend made me think of Frankenstein’s monster, and the dangers warned against in that tale of man stepping into the shoes of God. Manguel reflects on the golem in a section concerned with whether, if we believe in the god of the Talmud, Bible and Qur’an, humans should create anything, whether the graven image of the Ten Commandments or any other form of art, carved, painted or written, that puts us in competition with God as creators. In Christianity, the Word is God; in John’s gospel, we can’t discover the Word but must wait for the Word to reach us. The lack of perfection in language, the way writers strive to find the right words to depict our world, and the way meaning seems to lie beyond the reach of language, reminded me of the traditional Japanese aesthetic wabi-sabi with its acceptance and appreciation of imperfection and transience. Imperfection is where beauty lies in art and, if we have it in us to create, why should we deny it?

The imperfection of language to capture the totality of experience sends Manguel chasing after dreams. I often dream vividly, in colour, like I’m in an extraordinary film. Logically, I believe the scientists who tell us that dreams are fragments that the brain, that lover of narrative, stitches together in an attempt to bring order to randomness. For Manguel, waking life also has an incoherence that we transform into narrative. Even the mathematical modelling of how the universe works is a story we tell ourselves, because the universe is, frankly, too big for us to visualise or describe. Manguel argues that literature is another version of modelling the world as a representation of our experience of the world, that the dreams we commit to paper to form stories that must follow the rules of fictional logic, even when in the waking world they are impossible.

From imperfection and incoherence, Manguel moves on to the precision of words when captured and defined, and a love letter to the joy of reading the dictionary. Here, as a child, he found the words for things he knew alongside the words for things he was yet to know.

And out of this life of books and the building, dismantling, moving and rebuilding of numerous personal libraries emerges the opportunity to run the National Library of Argentina. Here, Manguel tells the origin story of Buenos Aires, a city he says was founded on a library of ten books brought by Pedro de Mendoza in 1536 to guide him and bring comfort during his expedition to the Americas. Borges, too, had been Director of the National Library and Manguel had walked his blind older friend home from work after he had finished school. The National Library is part of Manguel’s personal story as much as it is part of the Argentine nation.

When he arrived in 2015, although the previous Director had led on a vast engagement programme to bring the library to the attention of the nation it served, its catalogue was not up to date and digitisation of the collection had been neglected. Manguel made these his priorities, along with establishing a strategic plan and a set of institutional goals. He’s a man after my own heart. He acknowledges, wryly, that the reorganisation and restructuring work he instigated in Buenos Aires was in stark contrast to the way he had haphazardly managed his own last library. His ambition with the National Library is inspirational, re-establishing links with the network of provincial libraries, discovering hidden treasures, forming partnerships with the National Libraries of other countries, his aim to fulfill Borges’s wish for a universal library, in the modern era connected digitally across the globe. His ambition is underpinned by a sense of civic duty. The way he sees libraries, “as a central symbol of a society’s identity” that “serve[s] as a source for learning the vocabulary of civic ethics and as a workshop for its practice” is similar to the way I see archives. Both are places where communal notions of justice, fairness and democracy can be developed and shared.
Why else are they usually top of the list of public places that governments close in times of crisis? Manguel acknowledges that, although libraries and books contain all the tools we need to ensure that justice is done, it is our choice what we do with those tools, and that exercise of choice is what so often prevents justice from being done.

Essentially we haven’t changed since the beginning of our histories. We are the same erect apes that a few million years ago discovered in a piece of rock or wood instruments of battle, while at the same time stamping on cave walls bucolic images of daily life and the revelatory palms of our hands. We are like the young Alexander, who on the one hand dreamt of bloody wars of conquest and on the other always carried with him Homer’s books, which spoke of the suffering caused by war and the longing for Ithaca. Like the Greeks, we allow ourselves to be governed by the sick and greedy individuals for whom death is unimportant because it happens to others, and in book after book we attempt to put into words our profound conviction that it should not be so.

Our evolution as a species is a double edged thing. Manguel presents a theory that we have only been able to evolve to the point we are now because of our empathy and its part in collaborative interactions for the greater common good that helped us to survive collectively. But because we have survived and evolved further, developing our curiosity so that it can invent things that make life less difficult and allow it to last longer, we are now a consumer society that prevents us from seeing the good in understanding each other and feeling concern for each other.

In order to consume the worthless gadgets increasingly offered by the marketplace, the consumer has to become less an engaged citizen and more a self-centred individual, embracing the politics of egotism proposed by Ayn Rand, who in her unfortunately popular novels affirmed that “the question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me”.

And here we are, alive at a time when social media encourages the worst in people and it feels counter cultural to be kind, to know real facts, to learn from the past, to want the best for everyone not just for ourselves.

Manguel believes that libraries can be places that hold “a society together as a coherent, interactive, resilient entity”. I agree with him, and with his statement that governments must provide the funds to maintain them and enable them to do their work.

I didn’t really know what to expect from this slim volume. I didn’t expect it to have quite as much politics in it as I found. I liked Manguel very much, and I will look for some of his other books. He put me in mind of Umberto Eco, but more approachable. I feel like I could sit down and have a good chat with Manguel.

Read 21/11/2022-22/11/2022

Rating 5 stars

My read for Short Non-Fiction week in Novellas in November.

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13 thoughts on “Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions

  1. I’ll never read this – but your commentary on it was fascinating.

    Libraries are closed boxes to most people; those who almost never as adults set foot in them are legion. To them, whether a book exists, is available, or has been suppressed are all the same: it can’t influence them.

    I’ve read a lot of library books – but not enough for them to coalesce into a ‘thing’ of their own. They were just a source of small tasty treats, like candy. You obviously go at them at a much higher level, where an individual book, savored, is connected to much else. It’s a lot harder now, with SO many books out there (including mine!), to be literate.

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    1. It’s a shame you won’t read the book, Alicia, because you’ll never get to find out what Manguel says about the very thing you identify in your second paragraph.

      I don’t think library books are any different to books I own or that a friend might lend me. I would hope that everyone who chooses to read reads what gives them pleasure and takes from books whatever they need to. Libraries, though, are important to me because of the potential they contain – whether that’s in the serendipity on their shelves, as meeting places, or as places where information is shared, free of charge to whoever needs it whenever they need it. What a small world it would be without them.

      Of course, it’s impossible to change the mind of someone whose mind is closed.

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      1. Ouch – and sorry. It isn’t closed by choice. Maybe if the scientists can fix people like me with ME/CFS from what they learn about long-covid, and incredibly similar post-viral illness – I can put ‘reading non-fiction,’ along with reading a whole lot more, back on my list.

        I used to have energy for everything; it pains me to be so limited – it’s a good thing I read as much as I did before this hit when I was 40. As you can often tell, my Recents are often empty.

        And yes, I know you didn’t mean it that way at all. No worries. That’s the problem with text – no nuance. Especially short pieces of it. Like comments and, though I have no direct experience, tweets?

        Me I just get going after that many characters.

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  2. I don’t think you’ve got a closed mind, Alicia. I was thinking about the people for whom libraries are a non-starter. I’m related to people for whom that’s true and know from experience that my passion for libraries is mystifying to them.

    And yes, the typed word loses its nuance. I had a colleague once who would regularly take my emails the wrong way, but when I said the same things in person, understood what I was trying to convey. Sometimes you need to hear someone’s tone of voice.

    The comment box, tweet or email is a space that often invites the writing of words that haven’t been reflected on or shaped – a sort of digital blurt.

    I’m sorry that my reply came across as personal. Your comments always give me a different perspective.

    And yes, again, to the hope that the long covid studies are useful in understanding and treating all forms of chronic fatigue. I have friends who live with CFS/ME and the fatigue I’ve experienced as a result of my radiotherapy treatment has given me a tiny window on what it’s like to have your body use up all its energy combatting something invisible, so that there’s little left for what you want to do.

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  3. Wonderful review of what sounds an engaging and thought provoking read–a person and their books but so much more. He seems to have conveyed so much in a short volume. I wish I had the room for 35000 books! I share the author’s reluctance of letting books go and agree totally on lending. I’ve lost plenty myself. This one’s certainly going on my list to read.

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    1. It really is just that, Mallika. I looked him up to find out what happened next and discovered that he donated his library (now 40,000 books strong) to the new Centre for Research into the History of Reading in Lisbon https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.theglobeandmail.com/amp/arts/books/article-alberto-manguel-to-donate-40000-works-to-lisbons-centre-for-research/. I already wanted to visit Lisbon, now I have even more reason to make the trip! I hope you enjoy the book when you read it.

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  4. I’ve heard of this before and would dearly love to read it, spurred on by your own digressions! The only other Alberto Manguel I’ve read – dipped into would be more accurate – is a reference book he co-authored with Gianni Guadalupi, The Dictionary of Imaginary Places which first appeared in 1980 – as you can imagine it reveals much of his and Guadalupi’s broad literary interests.

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