Shelf actualization

The magnificent futility of literary hoarding

No one could successfully accuse Alberto Manguel of linear thinking on the subject of books and their history. In my very brief correspondence in 2010 with the Argentinian-born Canadian writer, editor, translator, and now director of the National Library of Argentina, even he had to admit to “the serpentine ways” of his thinking, which at times he felt “wanders a little too aimlessly.” For admirers of Manguel’s writing, however, the departures, detours, and sidebars—the tangential references to Dante, Jorge Luis Borges, Alice in Wonderland, and Don Quixote, for instance, so common in his books—serve only to enrich the central preoccupation of his writing, adding layers of literary meaning and historical perspective.

In his latest work, Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions—the title evokes Walter Benjamin’s famous 1931 essay on book collecting—Manguel has arrived at the ideal...