Alberto Manguel. Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2018. 146 pp.
Review by Timothy Morris
1 April 2020
I have always believed that personal libraries are, well, personal. Very personal. Recently, this became even more clear when I found myself packing and relinquishing parts of three different collections brought on by major life changes. Enter Alberto Manguel, described on the book jacket as “a writer, translator, editor, and critic, but who would rather define himself as a reader and lover of books.” When reading Manguel’s book, I felt like I had met a kindred spirit and wished it had been available to read before entering my own metaphysical odyssey.
Four years ago, upon my father’s death, I was responsible for executing his desire that his library be sold to a used book store in the neighborhood of the University of Chicago. My father spent his career in the insurance industry. But his collection of more than eighteen hundred volumes focused on books in the history of Western philosophy, political philosophy, and bioethics and healthcare policy. It reflected a life-long love of books that he acquired in the so-called “Hutchins College” at the University. Like Manguel, my father “would rather define himself as a reader and lover of books.” As I watched the used bookstore people box up his library and take it away, I remember thinking that two very important things had died at pretty much the same time—my father and his library.
About a year later, I had the task of dealing with two more libraries. This time, they were mine. I was both retiring from my position in college teaching and changing residences at the same time. So I was really going through two collections at once, one at work and one at home. As I sorted through my collections totaling about three thousand volumes, I knew when and where I purchased each of those books and which ones had come from my father’s library. I knew whether I had read them or not, whether I had used them in a course I taught, whether I had ever recommended any of them to a student, for example. I could pull many of my “friends” off of my bookshelves and have an instant conversation with a stranger of my choosing, depending upon the moment.
With space for about 1,500 volumes, I had to make the agonizing decision of what books to keep. Then I gave others the chance to take whatever books they wanted. Finally, an academic bookseller came in and took the rest. It was a painful process with many sleepless nights both during and after. My big worry was whether I was relinquishing some books somewhere in the process that I would later regret. When the day arrived for the academic bookseller to come in and take the books I could not keep, I watched every box that was packed as I had done with my father’s library. I couldn’t really explain what or how I felt to anyone. I simply felt awful in an existential sort of way. I felt as if a part of me had died, never to return again.
When I read Manguel’s book, I realized there was at least one other person who understood my grief, anguish and sense of loss. Manguel’s book is subtitled “An Elegy and Ten Digressions.” There is a lot packed into this small, compact volume, and I will only be able to share some snippets that resonated most with my own experience. After talking about the “geography” of his library (how he organized his collection), he states that his books “were part of who I was” (p. 4) and that his library “explained who I was” (p. 5). His libraries (packed and moved numerous times) were a “sort of multi-layered autobiography” and his own memory “is less interested in me than in my books” (p. 10). Though he values public libraries, he admits that he cannot work beneficially in one, and he admits to being “not comfortable in a virtual library” (p. 12). Materiality, the physical nature of the books, is quite important to him. He speaks of “the generosity of his books” and that “they were still kind to me” (p. 28).
I alluded earlier to my very real sense of mortality upon surrendering my own library as well as that of my father. Manguel captures this perfectly: “Because if every library is autobiographical, its packing up seems to be something of a self-obituary” (p. 48). Adding to this, he further states, “Perhaps the books we choose determine perdition or salvation in the eyes of whimsical gods” (p. 49). His books provide him with comfort and a “quiet reassurance” (p. 49), and the volumes in his library “promised me comfort, and also the possibility of enlightening conversations” (p. 50). They translated into “friendships that required no introductions” (p. 50). My sentiments exactly, but expressed much better than I could have ever expressed them.
There were other insights that I gained from reading Manguel. There were words of wisdom from his grandmother, that “you learn to enjoy not what you have but what you remember” (p. 62), and in a similar vein, Manguel also gives Don Quixote credit for helping him understand loss better: “Loss helps you remember, and loss of a library helps you remember who you truly are” (p. 53). Finally, an observation about contemporary life and something any serious book lover and reader will understand and appreciate: “We suffer from the contrary of agoraphobia: we have become haunted by a constant presence. Everyone is always here” (pp. 14–15).
The next time I pack my library, one book that will definitely come with me is Packing My Library. It is, so to speak, part of my permanent collection, and it is certainly something that will be of value to other readers when I am no longer around.