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 format for his divagating thoughts. As the subtitle suggests, there is a main through-line concerning the dismantling of his thirty-five-thousand-volume personal library “housed in an old stone presbytery south of the Loire Valley” in France, “in a quiet village of fewer than ten houses.” In the process of relating the story of the loss of his library, however, he offers ten asides, or digressions, on a variety of subjects from the failure of technology to assuage loneliness to the impossibility of narrating dreams. As Manguel says,
I feel incapable of going from factual starting points across a neat grid of logical stepping-stones to a satisfying resolution. However strong my intention, I get lost on the way. I stop to admire a quotation or listen to an anecdote; I become distracted by questions that are alien to my purpose, and I’m carried away by a flow of associated ideas. I begin by talking about one thing and end up talking about another.
Such a predilection to distraction might complicate the process of packing to move house. Yet in an intellectual sense, these digressions, rather than detracting from his purpose, allow this slim volume to read as a much more expansive work, opening up engaging lines of thought—each worthy of further inquiry—and make it possible for Manguel to juxtapose the personal importance of his own library with broader ideas about the role of reading, libraries, language, and creative expression in a just and harmonious human life.
Unlike the masterworks Manguel is known for from his earlier career, especially A History of Reading (1996) and The Library at Night (2005), Packing My Library is a more intimate work, and an unashamedly melancholy one. He opens his elegy with a nostalgic description of his home in France, its bucolic gardens, and the barn that for fifteen years housed his beloved library, the library he set up according to his own requirements with a “certain zany logic [that] governed its geography.” Judging by his account, this was the kind of place few people would ever willingly leave behind. In describing the process of cataloguing, mapping, wrapping, and packing his books for shipping to storage until a more permanent residence could be established, he ruminates on the differences between packing and unpacking a library. The latter, he feels, is a creative act that gives new life to the books about to be re-shelved as they “shed their original identities and acquire new ones through random associations, preconceived allotments, or authoritarian labels.” The former, packing, Manguel relates to a burial, a kind of death not only of the books themselves, but also of their owner. “Because if every library is autobiographical,” he muses, “its packing up seems to have something of a self-obituary.”
Manguel is loath to reveal the reasons for his decision to leave France in the summer of 2015, other than to say that “the inane circumstances that forced us to go” belong to “the realm of sordid bureaucracy.” His refusal to name the perpetrator of his hardship casts a bit of mystery over the narrative; the reader infers the interference of a shadowy foe that in all likelihood is little more than the banalities of red tape. Manguel confesses to being someone who does not enjoy surprises, taking comfort rather in routine and the familiar. It is clear that the ousting unmoored him, leaving him angry and in despair for the objects that brought him reassurance and a sense of self. In his fourth digression, in fact, he delves into notions of vengeance and forgiveness, turning once again to stories and tracing these themes in Jane Eyre and Shakespeare’s Othello, The Merchant of Venice, and Titus Andronicus as a way to better understand his own struggle to forgive those who wronged him. He says,
There is perhaps an intermediate response to injury that is neither consumed with hatred nor frozen into unconditional forgiveness, a response that recognizes the nature of malicious or stupid acts of evil, but doesn’t allow the attendant hurt to be everlasting. Imagining retaliation is essentially making up stories, a gratifying and healthy exercise. In such imaginings, some form of justice can be seen to be done, and satisfaction comes from the intellectual awareness of the need, not of revenge, but of not allowing evil to go unnamed.
Packing My Library really is, for Manguel, an exercise in naming the evil, however indirectly, that swept his library away, and with it the sense of order in his days, but he concedes that his misfortune should not have been wholly unexpected. Such “uncomfortable catastrophes” are perhaps inevitable, particularly it seems where libraries are concerned. The building of a library is an achievement of the creative human spirit, yet he feels there exists paradoxically “in all human imagination, an unspoken expectation of losing what has been achieved.”
Libraries have historically always been in jeopardy, our present moment no exception. The loss of Manguel’s is but one small example of the perpetual precariousness of buildings for books loved by a few people and ignored, or worse, by the many. The upset and loss of libraries great and small is all too common, a fact substantiated by the Australian writer and book-trade historian Stuart Kells in his recent book The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders. As Kells highlights in his extensive history of the rise and fall of libraries, reaching back to ancient times the human effort over millennia to collect, house, organize, and maintain the words and works of our poets, philosophers, playwrights, and politicians has frequently been thwarted by fire, pestilence, natural disaster, and invading armies. Manguel nods, rather presciently, to this seeming futility of library building in The Library at Night:
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 sadly doomed to failure.
The library of Alexandria may be the most recognized example of a lost library. Manguel devotes a digression to it in Packing My Library, acknowledging how little we really know about the famous library’s beginning somewhere in the third century BCE, or its end some three centuries later; Kells, whose fifteen chapters take a more or less chronological view of library history, points to the library of Alexandria as “the greatest scroll library in all history,” ideally positioned “downstream from the main source of papyrus.” The great library’s project, “to assemble books from all the known countries and in all the languages,”—eerily reminiscent of Google’s doomed universal library project—was certainly ambitious, and involved dubious methods of obtaining these books. “To expand the great library’s famous collections,” Kells point out, “the authorities at Alexandria adopted a famous policy. Whenever a ship arrived at the city’s port with scrolls on board, the scrolls were taken to the library for copying. When the copying was finished, the new facsimiles were returned to the ship, and the originals stayed in the library.”
Kells’s book is resplendent, at times overly so, with the kind of details that appeal to a hard-core bibliophile. There is the true story behind the creation of the Gutenberg printing press and the backstabbing apprentice who colluded in taking down the inventor, as well as the checkered history of one of the most important monastic libraries in the world, the abbey library of St. Gall in Switzerland, where “scissor-happy monks” sliced priceless manuscripts. We also learn about the surprising youth, relatively speaking, of the Vatican Library’s holdings, few of which date back earlier than 1600, owing to numerous fires, thefts, and other disruptions. Kells also describes some of the most notorious bookmen (and they were all men), including the nineteenth-century Italian book thief Count Libri who would do just about anything to obtain rare manuscripts, including brazenly stealing whole volumes from multiple European libraries, or cutting out valuable portions of manuscripts on-site with his concealed stiletto. Tucked between each chapter is a short digression, much as in Manguel’s book, where Kells shares such eccentricities as certain writers’ penchant for sleeping with their books (Jeanette Winterson as a youth slept on a bed of books in order to hide her reading selections beneath her mattress from her strict, religious parents). Other digressions involve cabinets of curiosities that often appear alongside the books in libraries, less-than-flattering descriptions of bibliophiles and their obsessions, and famous book vandals who commit the crime of biblio-abuse by, for instance, shockingly keeping books in the lavatory.
Kells’s final chapter, “A Love Letter: Libraries for the Future,” concludes the book on exactly the note we might expect: having looked back at the long and remarkable history of libraries in all their forms, he considers the current state of our public libraries. Under constant threat of reduced funding “in the arid, clinical, neoliberal, managerial paradigm of inputs and outputs and outcomes,” public libraries are at a crossroads. Just what are libraries for in our time, with their makerspaces and three-dimensional printing facilities, when Google uploads such volumes of literary output, all at the touch of a finger, and physical books become increasingly fetishized as artifacts of a bygone age? What purpose do our libraries serve? Alberto Manguel and Stuart Kells and many others like them certainly have no difficulty answering these questions, but as Kells points out:
Throughout most of the modern world, that very paradigm guides how public funds are spent. The inputs for libraries (books, librarians, capital) are easy enough to identify, and to count. But what are the “outputs” of a library, and how might the “outcomes” be measured? The “performance” of libraries resists evaluation as much as the “customers” of libraries resist classification.
The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders, remarkable for both its breadth and depth of research and analysis, is destined to become a classic, go-to work of scholarship on book history, but understandably it doesn’t convey the same personal, emotional tone of Packing My Library. Kells prefaces his book with the briefest mention of his own entrée into the world of book collecting, but then he disappears entirely from the narrative, focusing instead on the people and events that have shaped our ideas of the library over many centuries. Manguel’s book, on the other hand, is all about his own story in the present as a reader and what he lost and indeed gained when his library went away.
With a hint of hopefulness, Manguel writes toward the end of his book that, “the emptying of a library, however heartbreaking, and the packing of its books, however unjust, need not be seen as a conclusion.” He may have lost one library, but in being appointed to the directorship of the National Library of Argentina, he has gained another, and with it considerable responsibility to imbue new energy into this great institution, a task that has not been without its challenges and its critics. The final chapter of Packing My Library presents a sort of multipart credo, cautiously optimistic, regarding the function and purpose of a national library, one with which Kells would no doubt agree. If, as Manguel believes, a library is “a place in which material is stored for future readers to find clues in order to imagine better worlds,” then the necessity of dedicating sufficient resources to the building and revitalizing of national and, indeed, all libraries cannot be overstated. In order to achieve this goal, however, many things are needed: “Money, work, imagination, and an ongoing social dialogue, and more imagination, more work, and more money.”
As hundreds of library branches in the United Kingdom close, and funding to libraries in the United States and Canada continues to be at risk, it is difficult to remain confident that our brick-and-mortar libraries will not eventually be altered beyond recognition, becoming something more akin, for better but more likely for worse, to information-management centres. Manguel suggests that history teaches us that in every loss there is the desire to rebuild, that “the impulse to create in the face of impending destruction…is a powerful and unquenchable impulse.” Let’s hope this observation is true, and that whatever form our libraries may take in the future, they remain spaces for exploring, remembering, imagining, and connecting to each other, our past, and to our understanding of who and what we are and may become.