Alberto Manguel Packs His Library

Alberto Manguel Packing My Library book review

Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions, by Alberto Manguel. Yale University Press, 2018.

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.”

Printing and Typography in New Zealand: A Short Bibliography

History of Printing in New Zealand
Endpaper of R A McKay’s “A History of printing in New Zealand 1830-1940”, created by the Wellington Club of Printing House Craftsmen in 1940. “The most beautiful book ever produced in this country?”

My latest obsession, as some of my recent essays here might attest. But I’m currently in the wrong country to be learning about New Zealand printing—and I would have found a short bibliography most helpful as I began to learn. Below are some of the sources I found particularly useful and interesting, in the rough order that I think it would have been most effective to have read them in.

But first, some background. Printing in New Zealand began as it did in Europe, out of theological necessity. The Church Missionary Society (CMS) operated the first presses out of Northland, and as Don McKenzie points out in his Oral Culture, Literacy & Print in Early New Zealand : The Treaty of Waitangi, the NZ case provides a fascinating look at a society moving from a primarily oral culture to a print-based one almost four hundred years after Europe went through the same shift. The first item ever printed in New Zealand was a pamphlet of catechisms in Maori, printed by Reverend William Butler Yate at Kerikeri in 1830. But as surviving copies show, Yate didn’t really know what he was doing with the printing press, and he soon went back to Sydney to have a professional print 1,800 (shoddy) copies of the Bible in Maori.

The first item ever printed in New Zealand — William Yate’s flawed pamphlet.

Four years after Yate’s botched attempt, William Colenso arrived at Paihia with a better printing press—and, more importantly, the knowledge of how to use it. (Don McKenzie mused on this: “Technology itself is nothing without a human mind…”) Within weeks of his arrival, after having some missing parts of his press re-made, he too had printed sheets of Maori catechisms, plus the first item in English: an announcement, with hindsight ironic, of the New Zealand Temperance Society. And two years later, in 1936, Colenso would start printing his run of 5,000 copies of sections of the Bible, the first full “book” printed in New Zealand. Colenso is today probably best remembered for being the printer of the Treaty of Waitangi, and for his record of the days and ceremonies surrounding the Treaty itself.

Robert Coupland Harding has been called (by McKenzie) “New Zealand’s first and most eminent typographer” (here’s a more recent summary of his life and work). Printing properly from the 1860s through the end of the century, Harding worked in the craft tradition of typography, culminating in his journal Typo. His international reputation in printing and typography was apparently significant, maybe presaging New Zealanders’ twenty-first century influence in global typography (I’m thinking of Kris Sowersby and his Klim Type Foundry, whose work I love and which I come across on more and more websites, among others).

Then there are the twentieth-century big names: Denis Glover and Leo Bensemann at The Caxton Press, and Robert “Bob” Lowry, first with the Auckland University College Students’ Association Press, and then later both Pelorus and Pilgrim presses. Numerous other private presses operated in the twentieth century (including McKenzie’s own Wai-te-Ata Press at Victoria University), but for sheer influence, Glover and Lowry get the credit.

With that too-brief summary, here’s the reading list I wish I’d had when I became interested in the topic:

  1. A History of Printing in New Zealand, by R A McKay & Wellington Club of Printing House Craftsmen, 1940. First printed in a limited edition of 600 copies, this has been described as “the most beautiful book ever produced in this country.” It is interesting both for its content and for its quality. Includes various essays on aspects of early and contemporary printing in NZ, plus illustrations throughout.
  2. A Book in the Hand: Essays on the History of the Book in New Zealand, edited by Penelope Griffith, Peter Hughes and Alan Loney, Auckland University Press, 2000. A fantastic set of essays on printing in NZ. I particularly enjoyed Donald Kerr on “Sir George Grey and his book collecting activities in NZ” (this was really great), Peter Hughes on Bob Lowry, and Alan Loney’s essay on typography.
  3. Book and Print in New Zealand: A Guide to Print Culture in Aotearoa, edited by Penny Griffith, Keith Maslen and Ross Harvey, 1997. Essays on all aspects of printing and publishing in New Zealand. Probably one of the most thorough books I’m including here, but it doesn’t capture the lives of those involved as well as the others here—it seems more aimed at those interested in printing from an industry point of view, so if that’s you, start here.
  4. Printing, bookselling & their allied trades in New Zealand circa 1900: extracts from the Cyclopaedia of New Zealand compiled as materials towards a history, compiled by D.F. McKenzie and K.A. Coleridge. The Wai-te-Ata Press, 1980. This is a “brain dump” of materials, itself cheaply printed; not so much a history as a way to find things to look up that you might not come across elsewhere. Research has gone further than this since, but I was still interested in this pamphlet as an example of McKenzie’s bibliographic research in NZ.
  5. The National Library of New Zealand’s “Book History at the Turnbull” guide. An online resource with a huge number of links and sources, not all solely related to NZ. This is a great bibliography, but the reason I’m writing my own rather than directing readers to it is that I didn’t really know where to start with their list—not all their sources are equally useful.
  6. Picking Up the Traces: The Making of a New Zealand Literary Culture 1932-1945, by Lawrence Jones. Victoria University Press, 2003. This is a great book, but isn’t focussed just on printing. The printing history is incidental to the thrust of the book, but this gives a much better idea of the role printing and typography played in the years of literary nationalism.
  7. Oral Culture, Literacy & Print in Early New Zealand : The Treaty of Waitangi, by D F McKenzie. Victoria University Press, 1985. This really should be a classic in NZ, and I was ashamed that I hadn’t heard of it before this reading. It’s based on a speech McKenzie gave at the British Library, where he took up the NZ case of the Treaty of Waitangi to make a broader point about the meaning and nature of texts. The only reason it’s not higher in this list here is because it is primarily focussed on the text of the Treaty; but the early sections about Yate’s and Colenso’s printing efforts are brilliant.
  8. PRINTING TYPES: New Zealand Type Design Since 1870, by Jonty Valentine. This is the brochure accompanying a 2009 exhibition at Auckland’s Objectspace. From Harding to Jack Yan, Warren Olds and Kris Sowersby, this is an inspiring look at typography in this country.
  9. A Bibliography of the Literature Relating to New Zealand, by Thomas Hocken. Printed by J Mackay, Government Printer, Wellington, 1909. What it says on the tin. This was reprinted in 1979 so copies can be found quite easily.
  10. Early New Zealand Books, online database by Auckland University. This is a great chronological list of materials published about and in New Zealand, with many digitised books.
  11. The Lure of New Zealand Book Collecting, by Johannes Carl Andersen. Whitcombe & Tombs, 1936. Printing from a collector’s standpoint: covers books earlier than printing began in NZ, but includes a number of good sections on early books produced in/about NZ. I didn’t bother reading this right through, though—and it looks like no one else here in Oxford has either, because some of the pages were still uncut in the Bodleian’s copy.
  12. The William Colenso Bibliography, 2013. This is a huge scholarly undertaking, but allows one to easily find further Colenso sources. I used it to find materials in the library here, including some of Colenso’s early printing.

Thanks to everyone who pointed me in the direction of some of these sources. I hope it proves useful to others.

The Smell of New Zealand Books

Landfall New Zealand Charles Brasch, Oxford, books
The wonderfully textured paper of the early Landfalls.

Perhaps it’s obvious, from some of the essays I’ve recently posted here, that I’m missing New Zealand. As soon as winter seeped into Oxford my reading turned to home, and I began to spend each evening at the library with piles of books on New Zealand ordered from the closed stacks. (The Bodleian has a good pre-1950 collection of NZ-related books, I think because New Zealand publishers must still have fallen under the legal deposit). I decided not to return home over the Christmas break but instead to travel to Italy, Amsterdam and Berlin—and I took with me the only book from home I could find in time, a copy of the 1960 Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, with Allen Curnow’s famed introduction.

Because I hadn’t brought any books with me from home when I moved here, I also began to buy second-hand books on New Zealand whenever they popped up in bookstores in Oxford or online. The first I bought was a set of the second volume of Landfall, from 1948. They arrived in the mail, I opened them—and the experience was for me the equivalent to the old Proustian Madeleine.

The smell! Immediately, I was back in my grandparents’ living room, foraging in their bookshelves for the not-seen-in-forty-years third-row-deep books. Instantly, it was summer in Wellington with pohutukawa in bloom down the street, and I felt again my fear of getting any sunscreen on the books. Or maybe it was winter, and I was in my Mum’s old villa beside the fire, youthfully dog-earing pages of books that now I think should be kept behind glass. Smelling the covers again now—those peculiarly knobbled, rough covers of the early years of Landfall—all the same memories and feelings flood back.

I remember reading (though cannot find the book here in Oxford to check the quotation) of John Mulgan’s first winter in the UK, and the arrival of a letter from home containing some leaves his parents had clipped from their back garden in Auckland. He described in his diary the feelings and memories they brought back, and the consequent longing for home. Well, my equivalent leaves are the leaves of Mulgan’s Man Alone, and of so many other touchstones of our culture. Their smells make what I’m missing so much more palpable.

But back to Landfall: there was something more to the smell of their pages than simply the knowledge that they were from home, or that the words they contained were significant to me. They smelled like New Zealand, of specifically what I have come to know New Zealand’s culture to smell like. Writing this seems odd, even laughable. Now, when books are digitally printed and publishers source paper from ever more similar (read: cheaper) suppliers, the material differences between books have been so reduced as to be barely worth commenting on. But it wasn’t always like that.

I don’t know if The Caxton Press found their paper in New Zealand (maybe someone can help me on this?), but I do know that the paper Glover and Bensemann printed on—especially their covers!—I haven’t seen or smelled elsewhere. Horizon, Cyril Connolly’s quarterly that Brasch and the others modelled Landfall on in the early days, feels and smells (not to mention looks) cheap in comparison. Partly this may have been war shortages limiting materials; but more likely, I just don’t think the same sense of art was given to their printing as was given to Landfall.

Many important New Zealand books were printed in England (many still are), so this thought of a specific smell to New Zealand books can’t extend too far. Mulgan’s Man Alone was printed at the start of the war in the UK, and few copies even made it to New Zealand. John Beaglehole’s journals of Cook were published by the Hakluyt Society in London. But even then, I wonder if New Zealand dust smells differently, peppering the pages in an air not to be found elsewhere. After all, is the smell books acquire over time not simply the condensed smell of the air in which they live?

I won’t take those thoughts further (smells slip away the moment they’re put in words). But to any friends who catch me awkwardly lifting Landfall too frequently to my nose, let these thoughts suffice as an (admittedly odd) explanation.

Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants by Mathias Enard

Fitzcarraldo Editions, Mathias Enard, Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants, Charlotte Mandell

What if cultures were not as hermetic as we sometimes imagine them to be? What if the modern foundations of “Western culture” were based, in fact, on influences from the “East”—and vice versa? What if, let us imagine, someone as renowned as Michelangelo had travelled to somewhere like Constantinople—had built there a bridge, both literal and metaphorical, had seen the Hagia Sophia, had read at Ottoman Sultan Bayezid’s library—and had come back to Rome filled with the grandeur of all he had seen? That is precisely Mathias Enard’s premise with this novella, first published in French in 2010 by Actes Sud and in English in 2018 by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

The young Michelangelo in 1506 is invited by the Sultan to design a bridge over the Golden Horn. This there is historical evidence for. Giorgio Vasari mentions it, Michelangelo’s friend Ascanio Condivi recounts it, and, even more compellingly, Leonardo da Vinci’s designs for exactly such a bridge (never built) still survive at the Museum of Science in Milan. A sketch for a bridge in the Ottoman archives was recently attributed to Michelangelo, but is not definite. The facts Enard truly has, and which he seems to structure the story around, are letters from Michelangelo to his brother Buonarroto, as well as sketches and plans of the Hagia Sophia sent to Rome. These are quoted intermittently in the story, but seem to be where Enard’s imagination leaped off from.

I first heard of Mathias Enard with his novel Zone, famously written in a single sentence. I haven’t read it, and perhaps Tell Them of Battles was meant for me, an easier read as a way in to Enard’s imagination and his reverse-Orientalism. The novella is easy to read, enticing, and I spent perhaps as much time researching Michelangelo and Constantinople after finishing the book as I did reading it (not copious amounts of time, as I read the book in two sittings).

Fitzcarraldo Editions is publishing what I believe is some of the best contemporary fiction and non-fiction, but something I’ve noticed is at times a strange ordering to the texts—almost over-vigorous editing. Here, Tell Them of Battles begins with a sub-plot, a non-consummated affair Michelangelo has with an androgynous dancer. The text is here the most overtly “literary” in the novel (“Night does not communicate with the day. It burns up in it. Night is carried to the stake at dawn,” the book begins), but it takes time for this storyline to develop, with it interspersed almost evenly throughout the text. It seemed to me that it had been written in a different order and edited later, feeling by the end slightly stilted. And this is the same feeling I had with the concurrent storylines in Dan Fox’s Limbo and Joshua Cohen’s Attention, both also published by Fitzcarraldo in late 2018. A minor gripe, but the publishing house’s style and its founder Jacques Testard’s preferences seem maybe a little too visible through these different books.

Enard does what fiction does best, imagining alternative histories and lives. That he does so with an implicit project as his aim—a kind of counter-Orientalism—seemed strange to me at first but, having read this book, makes more sense. It is not a totalising vision of world cultures, collapsing one into another in order that we can see a single “world culture”. I think it’s far more subtle than that, showing how individual lives and even individual encounters subtly and softly nudge what cultures are and what they mean. This I find appealing—but it is secondary, because Tell Them of Battles is simply imaginative and enjoyable to read.