The archbibliophile writes nostalgically of his “last library,” the most recent of a succession of collections that have defined him over a lifetime.
Now director of the National Library in his native Argentina, a post formerly held by Jorge Luis Borges, Manguel (Curiosity, 2015, etc.) professes to a certain discomfort at public libraries: he values the materiality of having one’s own books in which there is no guilt taken in writing in the margins. He wholly endorses Petrarch’s observation, “I feel that I have never enough books.” Departing from Walter Benjamin’s famed essay on “unpacking the library,” Manguel writes of the heartbreaking challenge of boxing up the 35,000 volumes he housed in the Loire Valley of France, “a fantastic creature made up of the several libraries built up and then abandoned, over and over again, throughout my life.” Benjamin had to abandon his own library under more fraught circumstances, a step ahead of the Nazis, but that does not diminish the elegiac quality of Manguel’s slender book, made up of a main essay punctuated by 10 “digressions” that take in love of the book among peoples of the book, Shakespeare, Callimachus, and other tropes of bibliophilia and bibliomania. Borges figures, of course, and his spirit is always close to the main text as well, especially as Manguel takes up residence in the library in Buenos Aires and finds himself not just the book lover and writer of old, but also “accountant, technician, lawyer, architect, electrician, psychologist, diplomat, sociologist, specialist in union politics, technocrat, cultural programmer, and, of course, administrator of actual library matters.” Add philosopher to that list, for the author closes with a meditation on what books have to say about how our lives are lived and governed, with a reminder that they “are reminders of better things, of hope and consolation and compassion.” The tropes are well-worn, but the author brings a fresh hopefulness to the enterprise of books and reading.
Vintage Manguel—a pleasure for his many readers and admirers.