A few weeks ago, I witnessed a young twentysomething stand in front of a large shelf of books and comment how she wanted to be photographed on the floor in front of the books wearing a huge, bulky sweater. Her friend, another twentysomething, did not chide her in any way but agreed to photograph her. They both carefully looked at the spines of the books, debated which ones to place around her on the floor, and then took the photo. They then both looked at me at one point if they were committing a transgression in our digital age but I merely smiled at their actions. Of course, they are not alone in their desire of reading and reflection in this digital age. But the desire and the action of reading seems melancholy and antisocial in our busy reality. And that is the same feeling I felt as I read Alberto Manguel’s Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions.
Page 13 First Digression
All our plurals are ultimately singular. What is it then that drives us from the fortress of our self to seek the company and conversation of other beings who mirror us endlessly in the strange world in which we live? The Platonic myth about the original humans having a double nature that was later divided in two by the gods explains up to a point our search: we are wistfully looking for our lost half. And yet, handshakes and embraces, academic debates and contact sports are never enough to break through our conviction of individuality. Our bodies are burkas shielding us from the rest of humankind, and there is no need for Simeon Stylites to climb to the top of a column in the desert to feel himself isolated from his fellows. We are condemned to singularity.
Every new technology, however, offers another hope of reunion. Cave murals gathered our ancestors around them to discuss collective memories of mammoth hunts; clay tablets and papyrus rolls allowed them to converse with the distant and the dead. Johannes Gutenberg created the illusion that we are not unique and that every copy of the Quixote is the same as every other (a trick which has never quite convinced most of its readers). Huddled together in front of our television sets, we witnessed Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, and not content with being part that countless contemplative crowd, we dreamt up new devices that collect imaginary friends to whom we confide our most dangerous secrets and for whom we post our most intimate portraits. At no moment of the day or night are we inaccessible: we have made ourselves available to others in our sleep, at mealtimes, during travel, on the toilet, while making love. We have reinvented the all-seeing eye of God. The silent friendship of the moon is no longer ours, as it was Virgil’s, and we have dismissed the sessions of sweet silent thought which Shakespeare enjoyed.
Alberto Manguel has been one of the few non-fiction writers these days that I insist on reading. He captures a love of not only the craft of reading but the solitude that readers require for their habit in a way that encourages those of us who still race home from a long day to read a volume and ponder it’s meaning. His book A History of Reading is a cornerstone in my personal library, and I have given many copies of that book to friends as a must-read and a testament that quiet reason exists in the world. He has written many other enlightening and heart-warming volumes since that book but it was his volume The Library at Night that made me seriously begin to organize my bookshelves. I shared Manguel love of organizing books in my own fashion as he did for his library in Loire, France. And I lamented lost books as he did as well. (I sadly left a copy of The Library at Night on a table at an ex-girlfriend’s, in hope that she would rekindle her love of books and me but I fear that either she or one of her following loves may have used it’s pages for rolling papers for smoking dope.) But now we come to this book where Manguel must pack up and leave his library in order to take on a new career.
Page 31 Packing My Library
There can be no resignation for me in the act of packing a library. Climbing up and down the ladder to reach the books to be boxed, removing knick-knacks and pictures that stand like votive figures before them, taking each volume off the shelf, tucking it away in tis paper shroud are melancholy, reflective gestures that have something of a long good-bye. The dismantled rows about to disappear, condemned to exist (if they still exist) in the untrustworthy domain of my memory, become phantom clues to a private conundrum. Unpacking the books, I was not much concerned with making sense of the memories or putting them into a coherent order. But packing them, I felt that I had to figure out, as in one of my detective stories, who was responsible for this dismembered corpse, what exactly brought on its death. In Kafka’s The Trail, after Josef K. is placed under arrest for a never-specified crime, his landlady tells him that his ordeal seems to her “like something scholarly which I don’t understand, but which one doesn’t have to understand either.” “Etwas Gelehrtes,” Kafka writes: something scholarly. This was what the inscrutable mechanics behind the loss of my library seemed to me.
Manguel has a gift for documenting something more than books and reading with his writing. He has captured something of the zeitgeist. I know I am not alone in my life surrounded by technology and egoists that I want to come home and ponder one of the many volumes that are on my shelves. Not only do they provide me with quiet enlightenment but act as insulation from busy, intrusive world. Any time I must pack up my shelves, I feel the same melancholia he does, until the items are unpacked and displayed again.
The books in my library promised me comfort, and also the possibility of enlightening conversations. They grant me, every time I took one in my hands, the memory of friendships that required no introductions, no conventional politeness, no pretense or concealed emotion. I knew, in that familiar space between the covers, that one evening I’d pull down a volume of Dr. Johnson or Voltaire I had never opened, and I would discover a line that had been waiting for me for centuries. I was certain, without having to retrace my way through it, that Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday or a volume of Cesare Pavese’s poems would be exactly what I required to put into words what I was feeling on any given morning. Books have always spoken for me, and have taught me many things long before these things cam materially into my life, and the physical volumes have been for me something very much like breathing creatures that share my bed and board. This intimacy, this trust, began early on among readers.
Alberto Manguel has given us readers something unique and quietly profound in his book, Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions. While it is somewhat melancholy at times, many of us do not feel alone now with literary wants and desires after reading this book. As I am certain my young friend will too when she wears her bulky sweater and reads this well-crafted volume.