“Loss helps you remember, and loss of a library helps you remember who you truly are”, writes the remarkable Argentine-Canadian wordsmith, Alberto Manguel. Nine years ago, I had the great fortune of spending an afternoon in his company. It was just after a visit to the special collection of a library in the French province of Champagne where I had seen manuscripts from the Middle Ages. The librarian responsible for them handled the treasures in white cotton gloves and, for understandable reasons, would not allow anyone else to touch them. Still spellbound, I told Mr Manguel of the encounter with the precious books and how much I had longed to touch their pages. That is when I found out about his own famous library, located in the home he shared with his partner near Paris, and containing thousands of books, some as ancient and unique as the ones I had seen. And in his kindness, he said that if I ever came to visit, he would allow me to hold these books in my hands.
Sadly, I never had the opportunity to take him up on this generous offer, but the dream remained with me until I read Packing My Library, Alberto Manguel’s farewell to the library he told me about, an extraordinary collection of thirty-five thousand books “housed in an old stone presbytery south of the Loire Valley, in a quiet village of fewer than ten houses.” He doesn’t go into details why the home – and the library – had to be packed up in 2015, but the experience had been clearly traumatic. To adapt an African proverb: When an old library dies, a man burns to the ground.
“I’ve often felt that my library explained who I was, gave me a shifting self that transformed itself constantly throughout the years.” With the help of friends, the books are catalogued and put into boxes before being shipped to Canada. Packing My Library is, as the subtitle suggest, a lament for the absent books and the lost space where they had come to rest for many years, where the author “never felt alone”. Manguel recalls how the library took shape throughout his nomadic life, how individual titles became part of the collection and how they influenced the author’s reflections. The digressions of the subtitle are short pieces on topics as diverse as literary creation, revenge and Jorge Luis Borges, the writer who at one stage of his life became the director of the National Library of Argentina, a post now occupied by Manguel.
Most known for his outstanding A History of Reading, Manguel has been sharing his love of language and reading with us for decades. Packing My Library is a touching tribute, an obituary to a self formed and informed by a library now dormant until – hopefully – its next “unpacking”.
Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions
by Alberto Manguel
Yale University Press, 2018
Review first published in the Cape Times on 2 November 2018.