Alberto Manguel’s Packing my Library is a delightfully serendipitous journey for the bibliophiles. The real story, dismantling his library of thirty-five thousand volumes in France when he had to move to a modest apartment in the United States, is only an excuse for him to stray once more into the books he had read and enjoyed, retained and cherished. Packing and unpacking of books give the author an opportunity to reminisce as he takes an expedition in that ocean of experiences, others’ experiences, that became his own, through reading.
Alberto Manguel calls his book an ‘elegy’: ‘……if every library is autobiographical, its packing up seems to have something of a self-obituary.’ His history as a reader is the history of his life. His life story can be traced in his readings. The author can easily find an analogy of every sentiment, every emotion, each fragment of his thoughts in the larger corpus of texts he carries in his head — or his recollection. Or perhaps in his notebook that he lugs around for jotting down ‘certain lines’ from his readings?
Alberto Manguel is a disciplined reader who takes notes and preserves them. The experience he thus gathers from his readings reinforces his own life’s experiences. This writer’s erudition is as ‘punctilious’ as that of Callimachus, the Greek poet and critic and one of the earliest scholars to work at the famed library of Alexandria. Alberto Manguel remembers minute details of what he read and is a master in applying the information that he gathered from reading, where it is the most appropriate.
But Packing my Library is not merely a record of the author’s experiences as a reader. It is also a journal of his observations on various aspects of reading, writing, authorship, book collection and libraries. He delineates his ideas about the translator’s art and while writing on dreams, he indirectly touches upon the art of fictional writing while narrating if dreams can be described. The most splendid of all his thoughts are those on dictionaries and the art of lexicography. Dictionaries are the ‘guardian angels’ of his library and he explains the indispensability of them in a wonderfully matter-of-fact manner when he asserts: ‘For my generation (I was born in the first half of the previous century) dictionaries mattered.’ Alberto Manguel describes the dictionaries as ‘our talisman against oblivion’ as if he is relying on the magical powers of those venerable tomes to bring back words and languages from the darkness of permanent obscurity.
Alberto Manguel has written other books, A History of Reading or The Library at Night that showcases his love of books. Packing my Library is a great addition to that list. Will books and the habit of reading contribute to make the world a better place? The author’s conviction that books and literature are ‘perilously effective’ against the dictatorial powers that rule the world shines throughout the book. A very good read!