Many years ago, an Argentine writer named Alberto Manguel burst onto the English-language literary scene, although he’d been a prolific writer in the Spanish language for quite some time. The first book of his that I discovered, A History of Reading (1996), enthralled me with its flawless detail and pungent observations about the role of reading in various cultures. Suffice it to say that the succinct title says it all. Following ten years later with The Library at Night, Manguel pursues the somewhat elusive history of libraries. These two books spoke to me in a way that few books ever have.
Manguel’s books about books stirred up latent feelings in me about books and reading.
Like most North American children fortunate to grow up in a time when libraries and education received – mostly – adequate funding, I took my public library for granted. The minute I could sign my name, which came a wee bit before I could actually read, my father took me to get my own library card. What a joy I felt when I signed my name on that small salmon-pink rectangle of cardstock. The closest I ever came to recapturing that frisson of excitement happened when I opened the envelope containing my first passport.
Both the card and the passport symbolized the larger world to me. Like the giant iron keys to a medieval castle, when I held one or the other, I held the keys to the kingdom of learning.
With Manguel’s words prodding me, and monopolizing my thoughts, I remembered times and places where – figuratively anyway – I’d been starved of books. From there, I soon stepped into a stream of uncomfortable scenarios.
In many places where I lived overseas, books often cost more than a month’s wages for household help. And schools rarely could offer elementary students their own textbooks, so students shared. The cost of schooling also made exorbitant demands on family finances, keeping many children away from classrooms. This affected girls’ lives more than boys’. Education for those children is not a given. And if they receive the gift of schooling, they hold on to it with a fierceness and pride that seems lacking among so many students in my own country and culture.
While I usually had access to books through the U.S. Embassy’s Cultural Affairs library, most books on hand fell into the category of romance or just plain old and worn out, pages eaten up by the acid in the paper. Peace Corps also provided each volunteer with a footlocker filled with random titles. Only once in all those years could I buy English-language books at nearly the same breakneck speed that I did stateside: in Rabat, Morocco. There, an Englishman, with a very brittle personality, opened a small bookstore near the Medina. But in spite of his personality, he delivered the goods. Current bestsellers, classics. Anyone who loved to read English books crowded that shop on delivery days. Most of the books came from England, too, not the U.S., and so I discovered a whole new world of reading and publishing as well.
Imagine this: Alberto Manguel’s new book, Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions, is due out March 20, 2018.
“In June 2015 Alberto Manguel prepared to leave his centuries-old village home in France’s Loire Valley and reestablish himself in a one-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Packing up his enormous, 35,000‑volume personal library, choosing which books to keep, store, or cast out, Manguel found himself in deep reverie on the nature of relationships between books and readers, books and collectors, order and disorder, memory and reading.”
Sounds like something tailor-made for me, because I recently divested myself of many thousands of books. Sometimes the painful jettisoning of certain books became so intense to the point that I could almost swear I heard this book or that one begging me to take it with me when I moved.