In a Cardboard Grave

Scott McLemee reviews Alberto Manguel's Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions.

March 16, 2018
Cover of Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions, by Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel has long since taken the title -- once held by Jorge Luis Borges -- of the bookworm’s bookworm. He is the voice of the species, or the closest thing we have to a celebrity at any rate. The opening pages of Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions (Yale University Press) must elicit feelings of mingled envy and humility from anyone making do with a paltry few thousand volumes packed into any space that can be requisitioned as a shelf.

A critic and an editor of literary anthologies as well as an author in his own right, Manguel lived in rural France in a house next to “a barn, partly torn down centuries ago, large enough to accommodate my library, which by then had grown to thirty-five thousand books.” A private collection, its organization followed a private logic. The basic layout was “determined by the language in which the books were written,” which sounds straightforward enough: “without distinction of genre, all books written originally in Spanish or French, English or Arabic (the latter a language which I can’t speak or read) sat together on a shelf.”

But exceptions had to be made. Books have a way of arranging themselves by affinity sometimes: “Certain subjects -- the history of the book, biblical commentaries, the legend of Faust, Renaissance literature and philosophy, gay studies, medieval bestiaries -- had separate sections … I had on the shelves dozens of very bad books which I didn’t throw away in case I ever needed an example of a book I thought was bad. Balzac, in Cousin Pons, offered a justification for this obsessive behavior: ‘An obsession is a pleasure that has attained the status of an idea.’”

With Manguel, obsession has attained the status of a career: this is at least the 10th volume he has published concerning books, libraries and reading. He calls it an elegy, for the book barn is no more. Obliged to leave France for reasons he suggests it would be too tiresome to relive in writing, he had to box the books up and put them in a warehouse -- hence the book’s title, which also alludes to a well-known lecture by Walter Benjamin, the German critic and cultural historian.

Speaking in the early 1930s about the experience of unpacking his library after two years in storage, Benjamin used the occasion to reflect on being a book collector -- something that Manguel, however prone to hoarding he may seem, very definitely is not.

Benjamin, who was, among other things, one of the earliest and most perceptive critics to write about Kafka, was a very driven reader -- but he was willing to sell off his Kafka volumes in order to afford to add an item or two to his collection of rare children’s books. “The most profound enchantment for the collector,” he said, “is the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them.” To the collector, so defined, reading is at best irrelevant, at worst potentially damaging to the printed artifact itself.

Benjamin depicts unpacking his library as an emotional return to memories of finding and acquiring the items he has collected: “It is certainly not an elegiac mood but, rather, one of anticipation.” Manguel’s experience couldn’t offer a greater contrast. Packing up his library “is like playing a film backwards, consigning visible narratives and methodical reality to the regions of the distant and the unseen, a voluntary forgetting … If unpacking a library is a wild act of rebirth, packing it is a tidy entombment before the seemingly final judgment.”

And in cardboard coffins, at that. Manguel calls his books “packed and gone,” but the library’s fate is left unclear.

Implied here, I think, is that the Manguel had managed finally to put his books into an order that made sense -- that expressed something meaningful about what he had read and how he’d lived, a pattern that might never be restored.

Packing My Library is more essay collection than memoir. The division into “chapters” and “digressions” seems arbitrary; not even the slightly melancholic tone provides a viable commanding structure. For while the author admits feeling that his days as a writer are winding down, his final pages mark a rebirth of sorts: wherever his boxes of books end up, Manguel himself is now in Argentina, serving as director of the National Library (a position once held by Borges). Settling into the work, he felt at first “like those characters in a Jules Verne novel who find themselves on some faraway island and have to conjure up survival skills they never knew they had.” Packing My Library is a book about the past that seems likely to turn into a prologue.


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