Thursday, September 13, 2018

Alberto Manguel: Packing My Library

Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions by Alberto Manguel is an enjoyable and entertaining account of the author’s experience packing up his library of some 36,000 volumes when he and his partner left France in 2015.  Interspersed with that narrative are ten digressions about books, libraries, words, and the literary life in general.  Manguel is a born raconteur and incapable of being boring.  At 146 pages, this is a quick and pleasurable read.    

The one weak spot in this book, however, is Manguel’s account of the circumstances under which he had to leave France and, hence, pack up his library.  He refuses to tell us why.  He cryptically refers to “reasons I don’t wish to recall because they belong to the realm of sordid bureaucracy” but that will not do.  As readers we need to know what happened.  He claims that the packing of the library was emotionally painful to him and even compares it several times to his own burial.  If we’re to sympathize with his suffering it doesn’t help that he’s being so evasive.  It inevitably raises suspicions.  Maybe there’s more to this story than he’s telling us.  Perhaps he’s not the helpless victim he claims to be.  One fancies that if the sordid French bureaucrats could give their side of the story (and they can’t) Manguel might look a little silly in the sackcloth and ashes he’s donned for his readers. 

But despite that flaw Packing My Library is an outstanding book.  It's everything we mean when we call a book "a good read" - pleasurable, informative, engaging, the author's vivid personality coming through on every page.  It's the kind of book you want to go on for another hundred pages.  I thought the digressions were the best part.  They cover a variety of topics: the library of Alexandria, dreams, artists and suffering, dictionaries, etc.  It’s in these pieces that the author shines.  His immense learning comes into play, as well as his undiminished enthusiasm for whatever the subject at hand.  Yet he never comes across as a showoff or a know-it-all (which is probably the greatest accomplishment that a showoff or know-it-all can have).  Manguel believes in books; he is their evangelist.  

And he covers a lot of ground in a short space. In the sixth digression, for instance, Manguel (who is of both Jewish and Argentinian descent) writes about the concerns within the Jewish tradition about the power of words, the legend of the Golem (who is created and destroyed by words), and Jorge Luis Borges’s life-long fascination with the Golem figure, as well as his critique of Dante’s Commedia (that's Borges's critique of Dante, not the Golem's - though if there was such a text, Manguel would have read it).  And along the way, of course, there are many fascinating anecdotes.  My favorite from this digression: “When the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel, built its first computer, Gershom Scholem [the scholar of Jewish mysticism] suggested that it be named Golem I.”  I could easily fill my review with many similarly entertaining quotes and anecdotes from this brief book but I won’t; I will leave them for you to discover. OK, one more:   Apparently Ralph Waldo Emerson took great pleasure in reading the dictionary. Why? "There is no cant in it," he observed.

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