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.”

The Harsh Clarity of New Zealand Typography

New Zealand typography signage design, Robin White
Robin White, Fish and chips, Maketu (1975). Held at Auckland Art Gallery, copyright Robin White.

I’m reminded of an American friend who visited me in New Zealand. We took a road trip down the West Coast, from Wellington to Queenstown, and after a few days of driving through small towns, my friend said something along the lines of: “Typography and signage in this country are fascinating. Everything is so clear, direct and uncluttered.”

Peter was talking specifically about shop signs and billboards—the Tip Top dairy and Fish&Chip shop kind of signs. But his comments stuck with me for some time afterwards.

Comparing some twentieth century NZ and British printing for instance, New Zealand’s is refreshing in its simplicity. Yet it’s a simplicity with strength and directness; it’s not watered-down “minimalism” or any kind of Instagram-age aesthetic (it has obviously existed long before any of that, as Robin White’s painting shows). I almost want to say that printing work like the Caxton Press’ has a “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur”. I’ll stop just short, but it’s nice to think about the signage of your local fish-and-chip shop in the same way as Winckelmann once pondered the Apollo Belvedere.

Maybe, perhaps, possibly the “harsh clarity of New Zealand light” is expressed somehow in our typography, and maybe our book printing? Perhaps the peculiar quality of our direct and un-ozone-mediated light influenced our typographers as it was said to influence the likes of Rita Angus, Christopher Perkins and Colin Mccahon?

I’m not as interested in causes as I am effects. Our signage and our typography is as it is (is as great as it is)—what now? Kris Sowersby’s National typeface is now in use all around the world, from the Huffington Post’s website to a new biography about Mies van der Rohe. (Of all accolades for a modernist-tradition designer, being called upon to help sell Mies’ design must surely be among the highest.) My personal favourites are Sowersby’s “Untitled” typefaces, a kind of distillation of type design to a level where our subconscious barely recognises them as design at all. They have a kind of simplicity to them, even a noble one, but that’s coupled with a—well, screw it, a quiet grandeur. They aspire.

Kris Sowersby Klim Type Foundry New Zealand Typeface
Kris Sowersby and Klim Type Foundry’s Untitled Serif. The choice of sample text is his not mine.

Sowersby is drawing on the “Super Normal” philosophy of Naoto Fukasawa and Jasper Morrison, where design is so subtle as to be invisible. He didn’t invent the idea. But again, a New Zealander is at the cutting edge in typography, as, supposedly, one was at the end of the nineteenth century. In the 1890s it was said by a “leading English typefounder” that “‘For the future historian of typefounding of the present generation we shall certainly have to go to New Zealand”—this being a reference to the work of Robert Coupland Harding and his Typo journal.

To belabour the point about Kris Sowersby and his Klim Type Foundry: what I am most enamoured with is the insistence that (as he titled an exhibition last year at Objectspace) “There is no such thing as a New Zealand typeface.” That’s right! This is not a New Zealand typeface. It’s just a typeface, a really good one. One that happens to have been made by a New Zealander. Whether you’re talking about his “National” or his “Untitled”, or even his “Newzald“, they’re just typefaces. They also just happen to be some of the best that designers around the world can get their hands on.

In an interview in 1944 Jackson Pollock said:

“The idea of an isolated American painting, so popular in this country during the thirties, seems absurd to me, just as the idea of creating a purely American mathematics or physics would seem absurd… And in another sense, the problem doesn’t exist at all; or, if it did, would solve itself: an American is an American and his painting would naturally be qualified by that fact, whether he wills it or not. But the basic problem of contemporary painting are independent of any one country.”

I think that’s what Sowersby and Objectspace were getting at with “There is no such thing as a New Zealand typeface.” It’s also why I don’t really believe in “New Zealand art”, or “New Zealand writing”. If it’s good it’s just “art” or “writing” or “a typeface”, and the New Zealandness problem “solves itself”, because a New Zealander is a New Zealander and his or her work will inevitably be shadowed by that fact.

Peter Robinson was then half right with his 1998 work Strategic Plan, where the challenge was laid down: “Mission statement: First we take Manhattan then we take Berlin.” Well, they’re being taken—but not quite with Robinson’s instructions, like “Always attempt to speak the native’s language”, and “Cash in on fashionable contemporary dialogues such as ethnicity, marginalisation and globalism.” Robinson’s work is still in Auckland, but the typographers are well and truly in Manhattan and Berlin.

I’m being unfair to Robinson. His work is much more nuanced than that, and points out the hollowness of those “instructions” as much as it implies we should follow them. But I raise it because really, the New Zealanders doing some of the most groundbreaking work, in art, writing and typography are doing it in the most New Zealand way possible: so damn modestly that it’s sometimes hard to even see. No emphasising idigeneity, no American-style self-promotion. Just fantastic work. The best seem to have absorbed the lesson of Allen Curnow that somehow or other was forgotten along the postmodern way: “It is not by harping on what is native, indigenous, insular that any of these songs are news: if they are good they cannot but be news of the human condition.”

One more quotation, this one Donald Judd’s: “The importance of art done in the United States since World War II… is most easily explained by saying that a few artists simply decided to do first-rate work.” Granted, it was maybe a little more complex than that; but unless artists know they’re doing first-rate work, what can dealers, curators, publishers and politicians ultimately do? I end with this quotation because people who happen to have passports issued by New Zealand are doing first-rate work.

Can you tell I’m excited?

Peter Robinson New Zealand art
Peter Robinson, Strategic Plan (1997). Held at Auckland Art Gallery, copyright Peter Robinson.

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.

Don McKenzie and the University

Don McKenzie Victoria University Wellington Oxford University
Danny Abse, “The Green Field”, as printed in the pamphlet by Wai-te-Ata Press commemorating the life and work of Don McKenzie.

I spent yesterday reading some of the books and ephemera held by the Bodleian by and about D F McKenzie, New Zealander, bibliographic scholar and long-time professor here at Oxford. I had only previously read excerpts from his famous Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts, so this was my first real engagement with his work—it seemed appropriate too to read on the 6th and 7th of February his work on the Treaty of Waitangi.

What a coincidence, then, to receive an email reminding me that that very day, at 5pm, would be held the 23rd D F McKenzie lecture, this year to be given by Professor Kate Nation on “linking biology and culture via cognition.” The timing couldn’t have been more strange, so I walked straight from the library to the talk.

But I want to write here not about that lecture, and instead about one given by McKenzie himself in 1997 at Victoria University when he received his honorary doctorate.

Some background: in 1997 the New Zealand Government published a “green paper” discussion document titled “A future tertiary education policy for New Zealand.” This built on explicit promises made less than a year earlier in the coalition agreement between the National and New Zealand First parties to review tertiary education. The paper sparked strong debate, and obviously great concern from the universities—for this was one of the moments when the commercialism that had long been encroaching upon the universities was made explicit, and accelerated.

In his speech McKenzie weaved back and forth between graciousness and praise for his colleagues, a story of his life and career, and explicit concern about what the proposals laid out in the green paper might do to the university that he so loved. The speech was given less than a year after Don’s retirement from his professorship at Oxford, and less than two years before his death. It was reprinted in the service pamphlet passed out at his funeral in 1999 at Old St. Paul’s in Wellington (probably the most beautiful pamphlet printed in New Zealand, by Wai-te-Ata Press which Don himself founded in 1962).

There are two academic traditions which could be noted here, the Socratic and the Sophistic. In the Socratic tradition, the end of knowledge is virtue. Socrates simply says, ‘This is so, is it not?’. If you say ‘Yes’, then you fully accept as your own the truth you’ve arrived at. There can be no question of being badly taught and then later sueing your teacher, because at every stage, your participation implies a responsibility on your part to question and resolve the point at issue before you proceed further. This is the way in which, in the humanities, we have traditionally taught and learned. Within this tradition, a phrase like ‘the knowledge of business’, for example, is a solecism.

The Sophistic tradition, however, is money-based. Sophists are information-providers. They advertise and say: ‘I know, and for a price I’ll tell you’. There’s a financial contract which implies an efficient transfer of information, and if it doesn’t happen, the student who pays may claim compensation. The Green Paper would like us all to be Sophists.

It’s not surprising therefore that the Green Paper pays scant attention to those definitions of a university given in the Education Act of 1989. Let me remind you of three of the most pertinent: (1) universities are primarily concerned with more advanced learning, the main aim being to develop intellectual independence; (2) their research and teaching are closely interdependent and most of their teaching is done by people who are active in advancing knowledge; (3) they accept a role as critic and conscience of society. All three, I believe, are now at risk.

For New Zealanders, and for many people around the world, the state of affairs that McKenzie worried about has sadly come to pass. Two years ago the New Zealand government published a report on “New Models of Tertiary Education”, in which some of the more worrying parts of the 1997 report have become hidden foundations. (I published my own concerns about that report in this essay).

But then again—I am here, studying at a university, with the freedom to read the words of someone like Don McKenzie. The worry about the future of the university itself sometimes seems a sign of the success of the university in the kinds of things that McKenzie quoted from New Zealand’s Education Act. The worry remains, though, about numbers—how many people feel the freedom to do this kind of reading? Ever fewer, from accounts of professors. And this reading itself can sometimes seem ever more difficult as the instrumentalist logic of reports like the Green Paper seeps into every corner of the library.

Of the poem I photographed above, McKenzie said: “It’s one which shows how blind we are when the variety of our human and natural worlds is obscured by our distance from the objects of study.” Thanks to Don McKenzie for the ever-fresh reminder of what we’re really here for—for being A New Zealand Scholar. And thanks to all those who continue his work, and keep his lecture series running.