“Like a funeral”: Alberto Manguel on the dismantling of his collection of 35,000 books

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Although he runs the largest library in his country, Alberto Manguel is not a big fan of borrowing books.

“I love the libraries. I love the building, I love the feel, I love the rows of books,” said the director of the National Library of Argentina.

“But if I ask for a book and I like it, I want to take it away and I want to write in the book, which of course is not allowed.

“It’s too tempting. I want the books I read to be mine and take them to bed. You can’t do that with books from a public library.”

It is this attitude that has helped him develop a habit of collector bordering on pathological – and a library to which it is very difficult to say goodbye.

Mourning a collection

When Manguel, also a renowned writer and critic, recently moved from his large country house to a small apartment in the city, that meant dismantling his collection of 35,000 books and putting them away.

He likens the process to a funeral.

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Listen to Alberto Manguel describe the personal crisis he experienced while packing up his collection of books.

“You put things in boxes. Sometimes at night they come back to you, but most of the time it’s oblivion,” he says.

“It’s not an exercise that I enjoy.”

The sense of grief he describes losing his collection is palpable.

“But then the bureaucracy came in and all these other nasty things, and we sold the house and packed the books and left.

“You think you are in Heaven and you forget that Heaven is the place you are doomed to lose.”

He wrote about the dismantling of his collection, organized differently by language or subject, in his book Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions.

How to grow an obsessively large library

If you aspire to a collection like Manguel’s and have real estate on the shelf, here are some tips to get you started.

The first step? Do not lend books.

“I never lend a book. Lending a book is tempting the reader with theft. Books are rarely returned,” says Manguel.

“If I want someone to read a book, I would buy the book for that person and give it to that person.

“I believe in Polonius’ advice to his son – I have [Shakespeare’s Hamlet] in my library: “Neither borrower nor lender is”.

Alberto Manguel is seated on a chair in his library.
Alberto Manguel says that paradise is the place we are doomed to lose.(Getty: Alain Jocard / Stringer)

Step two: follow your nose.

Manguel says his collection reflects his “cornucopia of interests”.

It has thousands of detective novels, but very few spy stories, more Plato than Aristotle, the complete works of Zola, hardly any Maupassant, all of John Hawkes and Cynthia Ozick, but few authors on the list. of the New York Times bestsellers.

“I don’t feel like I have to own a book. I don’t feel like I have to read something because I’m told it’s a classic or because I hear it’s on the best- list. sellers, ”he says.

And he rejects the idea that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

“I let myself be guided by my tastes. I’m interested in the title or the cover of a book, or something I’ve heard about the author,” he says.

“I bought a book which I loved and which bears this irresistible title: Dostoyevsky reads Hegel in Siberia and bursts into tears.

“How not to read a book with this title? “

“Nothing wrong” with obsessions

Manguel is happy to admit that his collection of books is obsessive.

“But there’s nothing wrong with having an obsession as long as it doesn’t make you commit a crime,” he says.

The fact that her habit did not have a circuit breaker was the source of some tension in her household.

“My partner once complained that we had two volumes of an Economic History of Nigeria; why would we want this? ” he says.

But he draws a line in the sand of the book collection.

“I’m happy to say I don’t have a John Grisham in the library,” he said.

“Mark Twain once said that a good way to start a library is to leave out the work of Jane Austen. I would say the same with John Grisham.”

Books provide “safe” places

Although Manguel is a collector and not a borrower, libraries will always be his safe place.

He opposes the order of a library to the disorder of the world.

“The most obvious thing we know about the world is that it is chaotic, that it has no meaning, that there is no rhyme or reason in everything around us”, he said.

“There are natural laws of course, but the history in which we are inserted makes no sense.

“Yet what we take, we take from the world, our experience of the world, and this experience written in the books, is a kind of order.”

This order, he says, helps to understand and find peace in a chaotic world.

“I feel a lot when I’m in the library that I’m in an orderly place, and even though the order is arbitrary – whether it’s numeric or alphabetical or even by subject – there is a certain feeling that I’m in an orderly place. consistent and safe place. “


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