FOR the past month, I have been trying to put together a picture of the writer Alberto Manguel. The internet gives me access to him through a range of texts: books, articles, YouTube clips, etc. I have learned about his Argentinian origins, his emigration to Canada, how he befriended the elderly writer Jorge Luis Borges, how his father was Argentina’s ambassador to Israel, and how he worked for five years in Tahiti.
It is difficult not to form an impression of Manguel based on his press photographs — white professorial beard, spectacles, black polo-neck sweater, a scarf swung over one shoulder. He appears jovial and expansive, but when we meet properly I find him refreshingly shy and humble.
Manguel has lived all over the world, from Tel Aviv to Tahiti, and his interests have a Renaissance breadth. A Reader on Reading (Yale, 2010, £18 (£16.20); 978-0-300-15982-0), his brilliantly engaging new book, is an erudite anthology that mixes essays on philosophy, religion, and literature with personal memoir. So we are offered reflections on the legend of Che Guevara, the young Manguel’s growing awareness of his Jewishness, an essay on St Augustine’s practice of reading aloud, and a portrait of Borges’s romantic infatuation.
It is no surprise that this book reads like a miniature library, because there is one motif that runs through Manguel’s life and thinking: “the library”. Real libraries, fictional libraries, legendary libraries such as the one in ancient Alexandria; and the library as a metaphor for the human condition.
There is a clear link with Borges, who famously used the image of the library to speak about the limits and possibilities of human knowledge. Manguel explains that his concern with libraries is more concrete and historical. He is interested not only in the concept, but in the physical form of libraries — how they are organised and designed, how far you have to bend down or reach up to fetch a book.
At the centre of Manguel’s thinking is his personal experience of building a library at his home in the Loire region. The shelves of books that fill his converted 15th-century barn are not the result of obsessive collecting, but a physical expression of Manguel’s memory: or, as he calls it, a “multilayered autobiography”.
Visitors are allowed, but this is essentially Manguel’s “private realm”, an extension of his mind and body, “organised according to his own requirements and prejudices”. This is a place for private contemplation and exploration. And the final purpose of the library, Manguel says, is “consolation”, the consoling assurance that the universe has meaning and that we have a place in it.
Manguel wants me to know that his library is a subjective “point of departure” for reflections that “illuminate or clarify” universal human questions. Manguel uses the discussion of libraries to speak to us about human nature: “I believe we are, at the core, reading animals,” he says, “and the art of reading, in its broadest sense, defines our species.” So libraries are not just storage areas for books, but illustrate our belief “that in giving the library an order we can achieve an image of the order of the universe”.
“The main features of our universe”, writes Manguel in The Library at Night (Yale, 2009, £10.99 (£9.90); 978-0-300-15130-5), “are its dearth of meaning and lack of discernible purpose. And yet, with bewildering optimism, we continue to assemble whatever scraps of information we can gather in scrolls and books and computer chips, on shelf after library shelf . . . pathetically intent on lending the world a semblance of sense and order.”
Manguel writes frequently about the Bible — “how can we understand Western culture without it?” — but he thinks it is a mistake to think of the Bible as “a book”: “If, under divine guidance, you put together a ‘book’ which included Grimm’s Tales, Herodotus’s History, Rilke’s poetry, and The Alexandria Quartet . . . it would be a ‘book’ that is not really there, but a collection of texts. It is astonishing that we can accept that the Bible speaks with one voice to our civilisation,” he says.
“What interests me is that the Bible is a creation of reading. . . The Bible is a ‘book’ that has grown through generations of readers, layer upon layer of imagination and translation has enriched the text beyond anything that its authors could have supposed. The Bible is paradigmatic of reading in general.”
I wonder, then, what Manguel believes about “truth”, if all we have is different “readings” of a text. He pauses before answering this question. “Truth lies in the multiplicity of experience. We humans do not have final definitions . . . ambiguity, multiplicity, and change are as close as we get to the apprehension of what something is.”
I am curious about this answer, because elsewhere Manguel speaks passionately about honouring the testimony of victims of injustice. It may not matter whether we “read” Hamlet as a hero or a fool, but the true reading of Hitler is a different matter. Manguel nods emphatically in agreement. “Yes . . . the truth is perhaps the contemplation of something that you have not fully understood.”
“That sounds like mysticism.”
“Yes, mystical thinkers, like St Augustine, believed that the truth is something very definite, even if our understanding is incomplete. Like approaching the top of a clouded mountain. Or it’s like time. We speak of the past, present, and future. But this is not time. Time is not concerned with us.”
For Manguel, reading is also political, with a small “p”. “All true readings are subversive,” he writes; but what does he think needs subverting? Manguel answers without hesitation: “Reading must be subversive . . . of the recalcitrant stupidity that is imposed on us by a system that wants us to be nothing but consumers. . . Reading forces us to think, to embrace the value of difficulty and slowness. . . Everyone wants answers, reading just gives us better questions. No answer is ever fully satisfying.”
Manguel’s engaging and elegant novel All Men are Liars (Alma Books, 2010, £12.99 (£11.70); 978-1-84688-109-1) has just appeared in English. Four narrators offer their version of the life and unexplained death of an author. I ask Manguel whether the resemblance to the structure of the four Gospels is deliberate, and he points out that there are plenty of other examples of multiple narration, for example in Genesis. “If a story reduces a person to one account, I can’t believe that person. The truth about someone rings more true if seen through a number of different eyes. There is no purified and single version of a person.”
We are back to the question of personal identity, and Manguel’s belief that it is through literature that we discover ourselves. This is why he is suspicious of the internet, with its illusory promise of an infinite library available at the push of a button. Manguel suspects that the internet offers an impoverished experience of reading, with few of the joys, or personal nourishment, of a material library, where our hands can feel the texture of the page, and where we must make choices about the order of the literature around us.
Manguel’s writing is not only an eloquent defence of the practice of reading. His beautifully written essays provide the reader with some of the joy and consolation that, Manguel believes, are the soul and purpose of literature.
The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is the author of The Myths of Time: From St Augustine to “American Beauty” (DLT, 2004).