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.

More—and Better—Liberal Education

In 2015 Fareed Zakaria joined the crowd of those publishing polemics on liberal education. His was different to many of the others, however, in that it self-consciously wrote for an audience far wider than academic circles. Where others were written from an academic perspective, and largely for academics, Zakaria took his experience growing up in India and then choosing to study at Yale to explain in more universal terms the appeal of a liberal education.

In amongst a range of issues, Zakaria suggests that “The solution to the problems of a liberal education is more—and better—liberal education.”

That seems right to me, though why it does has taken some thought. The sentence even seemed vaguely circular, for to me liberal education’s problems are largely definitional: colleges provide the resources for a liberal education, but because students aren’t clear on what exactly that is supposed to mean, they don’t know how to best make use of them to gain a liberal education. Is a liberal education a faster way up a managerial career ladder? Or is it four years to transform your life, to discover how to build meaning into your days? Those two words can mean different things to different people, even in the same conversation, and solving liberal education’s “problems” has meant for me encouraging a coherent view about what value it can really bring to people’s lives.

And I found it hard to decipher which view of liberal education Zakaria subscribed to, since at various points he discusses both. The first part of the book focusses on the extrinsic reasons for a liberal education, repeating the often-cited data of how it encourages the skills that employers these days want most. And yet the latter part—and seemingly Zakaria’s conclusions—focus on a more intrinsic, meaning-focussed view of the liberal arts, where students learn to become good people.

I need to think more on whether the two views of the liberal arts are mutually exclusive, but for now I interpret Zakaria as intending a broad definition of the liberal arts. His view of the liberal arts is not so much what happens inside it—whether it is career-focussed or meaning-focussed—but rather that the liberal arts in general, as opposed to the education systems of the rest of the world, are a good thing and should be expanded. The “better” part of the sentence is what is particularly confusing, then, as that requires determining which parts of liberal education itself, and which interpretations of it, are worth pursuing and bettering. And ultimately, without at the same time bettering liberal education, I’m unsure if its mere expansion is enough to fix its problems.

Regardless, I’m merely questioning small parts of what overall I agree with. Zakaria’s is a straightforward and compelling exposition of liberal education and why it’s worth defending.

And in a separate discussion I’ll perhaps save for another day, it was interesting to read Zakaria’s strong case for Yale-NUS College, which he calls “the most interesting and ambitious effort to reform liberal education in the twenty-first century”. It is always fascinating to hear others speak of Yale-NUS in broad brushstrokes as an idea, a project, when I’ve lived it daily for three years.

It Is Futile To Write About Liberal Education’s Value

How to explain the value of something whose value can only be understood by having been felt?

That is the paradox confronting anyone who has felt, and believes in, the power of a liberal education. By its very meaning (the liberal arts always stood in relation to the servile arts), a liberal education cannot be rationalised into a productive end. A practical education (vocational training, in other words) can be described in terms of its value in employment opportunities, and lifetime earnings—numerically measurable concepts that lend themselves to being understood in an instant. In explaining liberal education, by contrast, we can only fall back on vague notions of a transformative experience, life-changing and life-affirming ideas, and of learning how to live.

Those who read books about the value of liberal education are far more likely to be those who already understand its value.

The paradox cannot be resolved. And yet the knowledge that liberal education has this inexplicable value can make it far easier, in the moment when that value makes itself known, to actually grasp it, rather than pushing it away because it does not immediately serve one’s coursework or one’s career.

So, with an awareness of the futility thereof (and of the irony in this essay’s title), I’ll nonetheless keep writing and keep talking about that inexplicable power that some of us have felt in liberal education, in hope for the off-chance that others feel it too.