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.”

What It Means to be Against Everything: A Brief Review of Mark Greif’s Book

“We have no language but health. Those who criticise dieting as unhealthy operate in the same field as those who criticise overweight as unhealthy. Even those who think we overfixate on the health of our food call it an unhealthy fixation. But choosing another reason for living, as things now stand, seems to be choosing death. Is the trouble that there seems to be no other reason for living that isn’t a joke, or that isn’t dangerous for everyone–like the zealot’s will to die for God or the nation? Or is the problem that any other system than this one involves a death-seeking nihilism about knowledge and modernity, a refusal to admit what scientists, or researchers, or nutritionists, or the newest diet faddists, have turned up? As their researches narrow the boundaries of life. 

Health is our model of all things invisible and unfelt. If, in this day and age, we rejected the need to live longer, what would rich Westerners live for instead?”

Greif’s overarching criticism across many of his essays is that we live as if the point of living was to extend life. In Against Exercise he criticises our use of time simply on self-maintenance and self-prolongation, whereby we give up life to supposedly extend it. The same applies to food: we spend our days thinking and worrying about what to eat, restricting what we eat, so that we may be “healthy”, as if health was the point of life rather than its means. As soon as we became secure in our food supply, we began restricting our diets in a kind of confusion of what to do with our newfound freedom.

Individual phenomena are used in Greif’s work as examples of his overarching critique: that we value the wrong things without realising it. “I had to show”, Greif writes in the introduction to his collection of essays, Against Everything, “how every commonplace thing might be a compromise. The standards universally supposed might not be “universal.” Or they simply might not suit a universe in which my mother and I could happily live.” ‘Foodieism’ and exercise are where he deconstructs most destructively the ends towards which we direct our lives.

Health—through food, and exercise—is precisely the area where we feel, as a society, that we are making progress. The prevailing narrative is that we’ve seen through the destructiveness and dangers of large-scale food capitalism, and are now aware enough to ‘do the right thing’—buying local and organic, for a start. To critique that improvement can seem curmudgeonly, perhaps rash. We improve ourselves, and try to improve the planet, and yet here Greif is to criticise, to tell us we’re mistaken. Would there ever be a world in which he wouldn’t find something to criticise, even his own utopia?

And yet he manages to criticise gracefully. Tactfully, even, so as to avoid knee-jerk anger at his own naysaying. I read Greif as a countervailing voice, someone who knows (and maybe even hopes) he won’t be taken fully seriously, and yet hopes that by arguing “against everything”, we will be able to find a middle way through our problems, avoiding the worst of the dangers. It is hard to believe he wants to be taken seriously—he is arguing, essentially, that we are all mistaken in our thinking about food, the logical conclusion to which is that we simply should not think about it, eating whatever we want whenever we want. But by reminding of the dangers of the path we are on, we can improve that path and avoid its pitfalls.

Greif acknowledges the endlessness, and even the destructiveness, of being “against everything”. But for him it is not a negative attitude towards modern society; it seems more a state of being where one always maintains the belief that things can be improved. “I knew a ‘philosopher’ to be a mind that was unafraid to be against everything”, Grief says; “Against everything, if it was corrupt, dubious, enervating, untrue to us, false to happiness… To wish to be against everything is to want the world to be bigger than all of it, disposed to dissolve rules and compromises in a gallon or a drop, while an ocean of possibility rolls around us.”

So when he is against exercise, and against modern food, and against “the concept of experience”, reality television, YouTube and the hipster, Greif at his core merely wants to show that modern life need not be all-encompassing. The ocean of possibility rolls all around, and ultimately, “No matter what you are supposed to do, you can prove the supposition wrong, just by doing something else.”

Grief’s essays shed light on that opposite, cutting through prevailing narratives, and showing that the very things life seems to demand of us are what we should be most sceptical of.

The Man Who Made Yale-NUS Yale-NUS

 

It’s coming up on four years since I sat nervously at my family’s home in Wellington and waited to receive a Skype call that would determine the next four years of my life. I ran through the possible questions I might be asked by the Yale-NUS admissions officer, practising possible formulations of answers, reminding myself to remain calm yet formal.

My computer rang, I took a deep breath, then answered. In a rapid-fire voice at times very deep and, when excited, melodious, the admissions officer told me his name was Austin Shiner, he’d been with Yale-NUS for a year or so since himself graduating from Yale, and that he was excited beyond belief about what Yale-NUS might become. His smile was infectious and I was smiling too within a minute of talking, and his facial expressions seemed to mimic perfectly what he was saying: something serious was said with head tilted slightly downwards and a furrowed brow to give no doubt this was serious; something frivolous, with head tilted backwards and eyes smiling. His cheeks were red, as if to emphasise the extent to which he couldn’t contain his excitement when speaking of Yale-NUS.

“What books do you like to read?”, Austin asked me. I could talk about that no problem, even though it wasn’t a question I’d thought of beforehand. I talked for a bit about books, and then trailed off, expecting the next question. Austin instead started talking about his own favourite books, and offered me some recommendations. King Rat by James Clavell, he told me to read: historical fiction telling the story of prisoners of war (including some Americans and some New Zealanders) during World War 2, set at Changi Naval Base in Singapore. I ordered the book right after the call. A recommendation from Austin, especially when it comes to food or books, we’ve all come to realise, is not something to be ignored. (His YouTube channel sums up the man: “These videos deal with food. Hence, they deal with life.” Austin last night became the first person to eat at all 108 of Singapore’s hawker centres).

It is hard to think of that Skype call as an interview. It was merely a conversation between two people both excited about this thing called Yale-NUS, one of whom had just moved half way across the world to a new country called Singapore to work there, and the other who (I would find out in a few months’ time) was about to.

That “interview” was prescient, because in a matter of minutes Yale-NUS (which at this point, remember, had not a single student nor its own campus) was made tangible for me. And it was made tangible with a sense of infectious excitement, intellectual passion, and a desire to see and explore everything that Singapore and Southeast Asia has to offer. Those are three qualities that I think many would agree define the Yale-NUS experience today.

Some might put it as a chicken-and-egg problem: was Austin chosen to work here because he had the qualities they wanted this school to embody, or is Yale-NUS like that today because of Austin Shiner?

But for those of us here, and especially for those of us in the class of 2017 who have been here since the beginning, the chicken-and-egg riddle is easily solved. As he flew off last night to Taiwan for a new chapter of life, it can be said with seriousness and with immense gratitude that one person, perhaps above all others, has left an indelible mark of good at Yale-NUS College. Future classes of students who never met Austin will nonetheless know Austin precisely because they know Yale-NUS.

Thank you, Austin. Have a great year; keep the videos coming; and see you at graduation.

On Excellent Sheep: What is College for?

ExI read Bill Deresiewicz’s book Excellent Sheep (subtitled The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life) at the beginning of the year, over a period of a few days before starting second semester of my junior year at college.  I had bought the book at Politics & Prose in D.C. and, perhaps appropriately, finished it moments before the Amtrak I was on pulled into New Haven—as if, now armed with an extreme scepticism of all I was about to encounter, I was ready for the next semester.

Deresiewicz was formerly a professor at Yale until he left to write, which (rightly or wrongly) comes across as a decision to practice much of what his book preaches. Purportedly focussing by its title on elite, liberal education, the latter part of the subtitle gives away the fact that Excellent Sheep is far more wide-ranging, and comes closer to being no less than a manifesto on humanity today—“Society is a conspiracy to keep itself from the truth” and similar comments are tucked away mid-paragraph throughout. The book deals in turn with four “characters”: Sheep, Self, Schools and Society.

Deresiewicz has a wonderful and all-too-rare skill for capturing and putting into words the inner fears, thoughts and questions that so many people try to dismiss as quickly as possible. By forcing many permutations of these fears onto the page, he speaks to the various ways that each of us formulates these doubts and concerns.

“One of the saddest things for me in all of this is listening to kids in high school, or those who’ve just arrived at college, express their hopes for their undergraduate experience and knowing how likely they are to be disappointed. For despite it all, the romance of college remains: the dream, as Bloom puts it, of having an adventure with yourself. Beneath the cynicism that students feel they are forced to adopt, beneath their pose of placid competence, the longings of youth remain. There is an intense hunger among today’s students… for what college ought to be providing but is not: for a larger sense of purpose and direction; for an experience at school that speaks to them as human beings, not bundles of aptitudes; for guidance in addressing the important questions of life; for simple permission to think about these things and a vocabulary with which to do so.”

At another point, speaking of what one gives up by pursuing higher education, Deresiewicz draws attention to how college also closes down opportunities as well as opening them. This is a side to education rarely spoken of.

“What then, finally, is it all for? Our glittering system of elite higher education: students kill themselves getting into it, parents kill themselves to pay for it, and always for the opportunities it opens up. But what of all the opportunities it closes down—not for any practical reason, but just because of how it smothers you with expectations? How can I become a teacher, or a minister, or a carpenter? Wouldn’t that be a waste of my fancy education? What would my parents think? What would my friends think? How would I face my classmates at our twentieth reunion, when they’re all rich doctors or important people in New York? And the question that exists behind them all: isn’t it beneath me? So an entire world of possibilities shuts, and you miss your true calling.”

This question of “What is university for?” is a thread throughout the book, one that cannot be answered in a single paragraph—it bears, in this sense, an uncanny resemblance to the question “What is modernity?” that college students may be all too familiar with. The book itself is Deresiewicz’s answer, and he takes a stab at answering the question directly at numerous points, in addition to the paragraph I quoted above.

“Why college? College, after all, as those who like to denigrate it often say, is “not the real world.” But that is precisely its strength. College is an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance. It offers students “the precious chance”, as Andrew Delbanco has put it, “to think and reflect before life engulfs them.”

“Practical utility, however, is not the ultimate purpose of a liberal arts education. Its ultimate purpose is to help you learn to reflect in the widest and deepest sense, beyond the requirements of work and career: for the sake of citizenship, for the sake of living well with others, above all, for the sake of building a self that is strong and creative and free.”

“College helps to furnish the tools with which to undertake the work of self-discovery… The job of college is to assist you, or force you, to start on your way through the vale of soul-making.”

But I find Deresiewicz’s most poignant answer in a separate article, where he discusses college’s purpose directly in terms of the advent of modernity (thereby answering college students’ two most persistent questions in one deft move):

“Modernity is a condition of ever-increasing acceleration, but only, until recently, for adults. For the young, modernity means — or meant — something different. The modern age, in fact, invented the notion of youth as an interval between childhood and adulthood, and it invented it as a time of unique privileges and obligations. From the Romantics, at the dawn of modernity, all the way through the 1970s, youth was understood to have a special role: to step outside the world and question it. To change it, with whatever opposition from adults. (Hence the association of youth and revolution, another modern institution.) As college became common as a stage of life — one that coincides with the beginning of youth — it naturally incorporated that idea. It was the time to think about the world as it existed, and the world that you wanted to make.

But we no longer have youth as it was imagined by modernity. Now we have youth as it was imagined by postmodernity — in other words, by neoliberalism. Students rarely get the chance to question and reflect anymore — not about their own lives, and certainly not about the world.”

Deresiewicz often seems unsure about who to blame for our education system’s failure to live up to the promise of the liberal arts. Much of the book is directed against universities (and by implication their administrators, as in a whole chapter on “The Institutions”), as are his articles (like The Neoliberal Arts, from which the above quotation was taken from). And yet he quotes Ross Douthat, who talks about how Harvard “remains one of the best places on earth to educate oneself”, but how “it will not actively educate you, will not guide or shape or even push back in any significant way.” These are two separate approaches to living up to the liberal arts, Deresiewicz’s being institution-focussed and Douthat’s, individual-focussed.

I wondered whether, even if universities entirely adjusted their missions back to an ideal liberal arts-style education as Deresiewicz seems to want, students would reject this wholesale. An education of the kind that Deresiewicz describes, “a self inflicted wound”, as he quotes Lewis Lapham, must be exactly that. Self-inflicted. There is, besides, no such thing as an inflicted education, since it seems impossible to educate someone against their will. I think the promise of liberal education depends entirely on individual students, so long as universities have the right tools for students to use.

My college experience has been transformative, and the longer I am at college the more I learn how to educate myself. Each semester I learn how to better grab at the opportunities I have, to use books to give meaning to my experiences, to discuss what I read with professors who can tell me what book should then come next.

On the one hand, Excellent Sheep grabbed my shoulders and shook them, as only books that describe deep and unspoken experiences are able to. I saw all-too-clearly the miseducation that Deresiewicz describes, the need for “something more” in education, the waste of minds that happens so frequently. But on the other hand, I realised that what was also grabbing me as I read was how my college education matches, to a surprising extent, the education that Deresiewicz’ idealises and spends much of the book lamenting the death of.

Deresiewicz seems to me trapped by his age and position: he feels he can write most directly to American “adults” (non-students) and the university administrators he worked with for so long, but realises that the people who have most to gain are current and future college students themselves. This is visible in his continual switching between third-person (“Do students ever hear this?”, he laments seemingly to politicians who solely speak of STEM subjects) and second-person (“Once you get there, keep your eye on the ball. You can’t just passively absorb an education.”) And Deresiewicz cannot be blamed for this. On the contrary, it is a great gift to raise these questions so succinctly and so poignantly, no matter who the questions are directed to.

But these questions I had while reading Excellent Sheep left me feeling that colleges are not particularly to blame. Sure, I would like it if there were more of an overt institutional focus on the humanities and on the classical tradition of the liberal arts. My own experiences leading up to college and during it make me inclined to agree with Deresiewicz on all this. But even were that done, it might not do anything for students themselves. What is needed instead, it seems to me, is a new generation of college-aged champions of the liberal arts to inspire other students to grab hold of the education we already have at our fingertips. We need students to start changing the prevailing narrative away from education-as-a-way-to-a-job, and towards education-as-a-way-to-a-meaningful-life. We need to escape all the subtle aspects of the existing narrative, like how university rankings are often done based on average graduate earnings, and have people show in actions even more than words how we can live our time at college focussed on a far greater purpose.

And make no mistake: that greater purpose is life itself, as Deresiewicz shows so well in this book. Yet college seems so often understood solely as the way to a prestigious career. Champions of the liberal arts will be those people who show us how college itself deals with life, with our lives, and who therefore show us how these four years can be grasped and not squandered on just a part of the whole.

Deresiewicz’s immense contribution may be as the person who gave rise to these new champions, these standard-bearers who will make the liberal arts cool again. And that is, essentially, what this is all about: understanding, as students, the true worth of four years to transform our lives.