The Web, and its promise of a voice and a site for all, is our equivalent of the mare incognitum, the unknown sea that lured ancient travellers with the temptation of discovery. Immaterial as water, too vast for any mortal apprehension, the Web’s outstanding qualities allow us to confuse the ungraspable with the eternal. Like the sea, the Web is volatile: 70 percent of its communications last less than four months. Its virtue (its virtuality) entails a constant present—which for medieval scholars was one of the definitions of hell.
Alberto Manguel in The Library at Night
And I, brought up with the internet, of course wanted to post this quotation online. To keep it for posterity, to rescue it from oblivion in the pages of a mere book.
Great 1994 documentary here in the NZ On Screen archives.One I wish I’d found circulated soon after Peryer’s sudden death in November last year.
“I think there’s been an emotional maturing in my image-making. In many ways I was moving from West to East in my attitudes. I think I mean that they have moved from the crucified Christ to the laughing Buddha. That is what I mean by a maturing. I think the laughing Buddha is a far more interesting and rewarding subject matter to deal with. It is easy to make photographs that are full of pain.”
A friend and I were speaking recently about some of the Pacific’s remote islands, a topic which, since spending the first three conscious years of my life living on Rarotonga, has long interested me. Chris spoke about Disappointment Island, which he had previously written about:
“Disappointment Island, in true New Zealand fashion, is a terrific understatement. Much like the Pitcairn Islands, the story begins with a ship navigating the southern oceans. A week after leaving setting sail from Australia with 2,576 ounces of gold (about 73 kilograms, worth $3.2 million, in today’s US dollars), the ship collided with the Auckland Islands, which is disappointing at the least. Fifteen of the 83 on board made it out alive, and rowed for what is now Disappointment Island. They eventually settled on Auckland Island, where they found a habitable hut. After 9 months, four of the crew sailed to New Zealand, and were never seen again. The rest waited a further nine months, when they flagged down another ship. Despite numerous attempts, some deadly, the gold has never been found.
Chris’ Disappointment Island is south of New Zealand, in the Auckland Islands group. But while reading the first published account of Cook’s second voyage to New Zealand, I was surprised to find the map above, which showed a clearly marked Disappointment Island north of New Zealand, in the middle of the Pacific.
My first thought was that the map might be wrong, since, clearly, news hadn’t quite reached London that Stewart Island was, in fact, an island, and not a phallic protrusion off the end of the South Island. (That eventual news would cause the South Island to long be called the “Middle Island”). But of course, Disappointment Island is marked so definitively that it had to exist—on Google Maps it won’t show up until you’ve zoomed right in, yet here it is more than visible.
I did find the Wikipedia page for the northern Disappointment Islands (now part of French Polynesia), which notes simply that “These islands are arid, and are not especially conducive to human habitation,” and that “British explorer John Byron named Napuka and Tepoto “Disappointment Islands” because he found the natives to be of a hostile disposition toward him.” But in this case, Wikipedia didn’t offer a rabbit hole to go down, so I had to turn elsewhere.
By coincidence I had also requested to the library John Hawkesworth’s 1773 volumes of (and this is a very abbreviated version of the title) “An account of the Voyages undertaken by the order of His Present Majesty for making Discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere…” (Aside: Boswell apparently said to Cook, who disliked Hawkesworth’s volumes, that “He has used your narrative as a London tavern keeper does wine. He has brewed it.” Hawkesworth himself was so embarrassed by the negative reception to his volumes, which had made him rich, that he apparently “died by the vilification he suffered.”)
The first volume of Hawkesworth’s series includes, as the eighth chapter, Vice-Admiral John Byron’s (that’s Lord Byron’s grandfather) account of “The run from the Western Entrance of the Streight [sic] of Magellan, to the Islands of Disappointment.” The actual story is a lot more interesting and ironic (if cringe-inducing today) than the Wikipedia entry makes out.
For a start, the islands appeared anything but arid and inhospitable. On the 31st of May 1765, Byron records that,
The wind shifted from N. by W. to N.W. by W. and the number of birds that were now about the ship was very great; from these circumstances, and our having lost the great south west swell, I imagined some land to be near, and we looked out for it with great diligence, for our people began now to fall down with the scurvy very fast.
I stood for the small island, which as we drew near it had a most beautiful appearance; it was surrounded by a beach of the finest white sand, and within, it was covered with tall trees, which extended their shade to a great distance, and formed the most delightful groves that can be imagined… We soon perceived that it was inhabited; for many of the natives appeared upon the beach, with spears in their hands… I sent the boat with an officer to look for an anchoring-place, who, to our great regret and disappointment, returned with an account that he had been all round the island, and that no bottom could be found within less than a cable’s length of the shore, which was surrounded close to the beach with a deep coral rock.
Scurvy is the key to the Disappointment Islands. Byron’s account was so painful to read that after reading the rest of it I went outside the Weston Library to eat some oranges I had in my bag, almost just to relieve some of the crews’ suffering.
The scurvy by this time had made dreadful havoc among us, many of my best men being now confined to their hammocks; the poor wretches who were able to crawl upon the deck stood gazing at this little paradise which Nature had forbidden them to enter, with sensations which cannot be easily conceived; they saw cocoa-nuts in great abundance, the milk of which is perhaps the most powerful antiscorbutic in the world: they had reason to suppose that there were limes and bananas, and other fruits which are generally found between the tropics; and to increase their mortification they saw the shells of many turtle scattered about the shore. These refreshments [love this euphemism for turtles], indeed, for want of which they were anguishing to death, were as effectually beyond their reach as if there had been half the circumference of the world between them; yet their being in sight was no inconsiderable increase of the distress which they suffered by the want of them.
For two days Byron’s ship and smaller boats circle the islands, trying to find a place to anchor or a way to land some men on the islands, but with no luck. The islanders, more than understandably, did not seem to want to welcome the Englishmen to their island paradise. At this point in Byron’s narrative you can read him trying to weigh up the possibilities: keep trying to get ashore while his men (and himself, without doubt) sink deeper into their scurvy, or hurry away in the hope that other more friendly paradises lie not far away.
Eventually, on Saturday the 8th of June, they give up. Byron “fires a nine pound shot from the ship over their [the islanders’] heads, upon which they ran into the woods with great precipitation.” A most petulant farewell.
At ten o’clock the boats returned, but could get no soundings close in with the surf, which broke very high upon the shore… At half an hour after ten, we bore away and made sail to the westward, finding it impossible to procure at these islands any refreshment for our sick, whose situation was becoming more deplorable every hour, and I therefore called them the ISLANDS OF DISAPPOINTMENT. [emphasis original]
Surreally, just after I finished writing these notes the BBC published an account of someone visiting the Disappointment Islands. The journalist found them not so disappointing, though his account is on the quaint, romantic side (“Night fell fast and the stars blew me away. I gawked upwards from the empty beach as if catching the night sky for the first time, the Milky Way scrawled like a diagonal swath of pink gauze”, etc).
Having packed and unpacked many nascent libraries over the past decade, this was a book I needed. Manguel grew up in Israel to Argentine diplomat parents; after schooling back in Buenos Aires he set off for Europe at 21. Since then he has lived in France, Canada, Tahiti, New York and Buenos Aires again, where since 2016 he has been director of the National Library. My own diplomatic upbringing meant Manguel’s peripatetic perspective spoke to me, and his latest book offered the promise of (finally) a way to think about the paradox of diplomatic and educational itinerancy combined with the desire for the permanence and solidity of physical books.
Recently, in Oxford, I have been surrounded by all the books of one of the world’s great libraries, and yet I’ve felt oddly cut off from them. My own books, the ones I’ve annotated and dog-eared and which have followed me from place to place, are packed in boxes and kept in storage just as Manguel’s books are. Here I go each day to the libraries but request books in advance and say goodbye to them each evening; I have none of the serendipitous reading that I had back home. Of course, this is partly grass is greener syndrome, for at home I was frustrated that no library in New Zealand had some of the books I was wanting to read.
Manguel is a guide through many of these thoughts, the odd and sometimes embarrassing feelings of wanting to possess leaves of paper between two covers. This slim book is purportedly about Manguel’s experience of packing his 35,000-volume library in a small French town when for bureaucratic reasons (he never explains more) he and his partner moved to New York City. Riffing on Walter Benjamin’s famous Unpacking My Library essay in at least one chapter, the book soon becomes a musing on the role of public libraries. I wanted more of the Packing My Library and a bit less of Manguel’s role at a public library; he is at his literary best when writing about the personal role of books, rather than the institutional or societal.
On first reading I didn’t read the book the way Manguel wanted it to be read. Each of the ten “chapters” (each just a few pages long) is followed by a “digression” picking up on one of the ideas of the previous chapter. It felt as though Manguel had written the key storyline and then interspersed the digressions later, and so I began skipping the digressions to read the primary essays. I then went back to the digressions afterwards.
Some of the best chapters I had already read: what felt to me like the essay upon which the whole book rests, for instance, Manguel had published in 2008 in a New York Times Home & Garden essay. The book’s opening pages come from this essay, albeit with a slight modification. Where in 2008 Manguel, living happily in France with his library in the old barn, had written “I knew that once the books found their place, I would find mine”, here in 2018, after packing his library, he adds “I was to be proved wrong.”
I found it curious to trace the editorial changes between that 2008 essay and the chapter in this book. Again, from 2008:
The library of my adolescence — a time when the simultaneous discoveries of sex and the injustice of the world called for words to name the frightening stirrings in my body and in my head — contained almost every book that still matters to me today; of the thousands that have been added since, few are essential.
Come 2018, whether for editorial reasons or some kind of embarrassment, Manguel has adjusted this simply to “After this came the library of my adolescence, which, built throughout my high school years, contained almost every book that still matters to me today.” What happened to the discoveries of sex and the injustice of the world in the interim?
Some of Manguel’s most vivid and even heart-wrenching writing seems to sneak up, mid-paragraph, with no warning. These make whole the idea of the book as an elegy for a lost library, and for time passed. Standing at a street-side second hand bookseller’s stall in New York reading the same volume of a book now in storage, Manguel muses that “the fingers that now turn the pages as I stand on the sidewalk among the passerby execute the same gesture they made long ago, on a morning when they were not stiff and speckled and gnarled. But now the gesture has become part of a conscious ritual, enacted every time I come across the same book with the same remembered cover…”
In later sections Manguel thinks about the societal implications of public libraries, and on the habits of mind brought about by the internet. “Negative freedom (answering the question “What is allowed to me?”), Manguel suggests, “might correspond to the Alexandrian kings’ ambition to collect everything, reflected today in the vast scope of the Web, collecting facts, opinions, information and misinformation, and even deliberate lies “because everything should be allowed to me.” Better, Manguel suggests, to think of Rawls’ notion of “freedom’s worth”—and it is allowing citizens to act according to that notion that is the central function of a national library.
While critically important, these latter sections didn’t feel like Manguel at his best. They read like Yeats’ “sixty year old smiling public man” saying what he knows he needs to say, rather than what he wants to say and most deeply feels. I finished the book without the answer to my confusions over the strength of my desire for physical books—but, Manguel would say, that was inevitable. “Reading Kafka”, he writes “I sense that the elicited questions are always just beyond my understanding. They promise an answer but not now, perhaps next time, next page.”