Volatile Rune

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Packing my Library, Alberto Manguel

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With something of the aura of an elegy about it, this book is about the dismantling of the library that Manguel wrote about so movingly and with such erudition in The Library at Night and other works.   Set “in an old stone presbytery south of the Loire Valley” his library collection had grown to some 40,000 volumes.  But if the author thought that he would be there forever, it was not to be.

He writes:

“I thought that once the books found their place, I would find mine.  I was to be proved wrong.”

He is offered, and finds himself accepting, a role as Director of the National Library of Argentina.  When the time comes for the library to be transported, it is like losing part of the self.  Friends come from all over the globe to assist in the task of mapping, cataloguing and packing of the books “in case I still wanted to find one after they were packed”.

“In my mind I am still able to wander through the vanished library and know exactly where to find a book.  I’ve heard that in Mennonite communities, when a barn is about to be built, friends and neighbours gather round to help put up the walls and raise the roof.  Here the generosity was the same but for the contrary purpose.”

We are connected to our libraries – those of us fortunate to have acquired one of any size – in ways which are difficult to elucidate or even comprehend.

I have a number of books but mine is not a true collection – I cannot quote freely from the volumes or make surprising connections between them the way Manguel can, my tomes are merely books that I have enjoyed reading.

But what is the role of a substantial library collection other than as a repository for books or storehouse of knowledge?  It is a question that becomes increasingly difficult to answer.  On a national level even more so.

He acknowledges that a library cannot be merely a static building or storage unit.  Its task is to persuade people of the importance of reading, first as a basic skill, second as a way to stimulate and free the imagination.

Manguel asks:  How can a national library convert non-readers into readers? How can it transform the perception that most nonreaders have of libraries as alien places and books as alien instruments into a cartography in which all share a common, effective intellectual space?

How to turn a nonreader into a reader is not a process that can be codified easily.  It is people who turn themselves into readers – but having a mentor or the example of a passionate reader in your life helps.  People have come to reading perhaps from book-free households, through their own endeavours just as some musicians have come from music free households, but the job is harder.

About the author:

Alberto Manguel was born to Jewish parents in Buenos Aires, 1948.  As a child he lived in Israel where his father was Argentine Ambassador returning to his native country at the age of 7.  As a teenager, by way of a part time job in a bookstore he met Jorge Luis Borges (then blind) and began to read for him.

Author of numerous works of fiction, non-fiction, essays and anthologies.   Manguel is a reader, translator, intellectual, essayist, anthologist, and a former Director of the National Library of Argentina

In September 2020 his collection was donated to the Centre for Research in the History of Reading in Lisbon.

This is #Book 7 of my 10 Books of Summer.


4 responses to “Packing my Library, Alberto Manguel”

  1. I agree with Michael, and am inspired to find out more after reading about Alberto Manguel. Thanks for writing about him!


The Volatile Muse

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Runes are ancient scripts, magical signs for secret or hidden laws.   I chose a name which I felt brought to mind the infinitely variable nature of the written word.


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