“…time as a river and life as a voyage and a battle…” #Borges #Manguel


As I’ve mentioned many times, Twitter can be a dangerous place for booklovers – all those pictures, all those recommendations, all those wonderful books you’ve never heard of before!!! And as I revealed in my end of August post, one particular recent arrival was prompted by just such a nudge – I think it may well have been a tweet on the occasion of Borges’ birthday, which resulted in the arrival of a slim volume simply entitled “With Borges” by Alberto Manguel.

Both Manguel and Borges have made a number of separate appearances on the Ramblings, but I can’t say that I knew there was a connection between them. So I was very excited to discover this book and the minute it arrived I had to read it straight away – yes, another new book bypassing the TBR and beating all the books which have been waiting there patiently for so long…

Borges should, of course, need no introduction; in fact, neither should Manguel! Borges is described by Wikipedia as “a key figure in Spanish-language and international literature” whereas they cast Manguel as “an Argentine-Canadian anthologist, translator, essayist, novelist, editor, and a former Director of the National Library of Argentina”. Both are connected by Argentina, of course, and this book came about because the 16 year-old Manguel (working then at a bookstore) was one of a number of young men who would read aloud to Borges, who was by that time (1964) completely blind. In the book, Manguel recalls fragments of his time with Borges and paints a portrait of the great author which is affectionate, atmospheric and moving.

Borges would ask almost anyone: students, journalists who came to visit him, other writers. There exists a vast group of those who once read out loud to Borges, minor Boswells whose identities are rarely known to one another but who collectively hold the memory of one of the world’s greatest readers.

It’s a tragedy, of course, that sometime like Borges should go blind and I believe this was hereditary. Despite his blindness, Borges retained his intense interest in literature and continued to write, often dictating poetry to his readers. As well as conjuring the actual times he would read to Borges in present tense, italicised paragraphs, Manguel also discusses the author more generally – his work, his legacy, his behaviour towards others – and all of this combines to make a short but evocative read which really captures both Borges and Manguel. Of particular interest, of course, is Borges’ library, and as well as a mass of reference books, there is a dazzling list of authors from Wells, Wilkie Collins and Joyce, through John Dickson Carr, David Garnett, Wilde, Carroll – well, I could go on, but he was obviously a varied and voracious reader!

Borges 1951, Via Wikipedia Commons

Manguel is, of course, a wonderful writer of non-fiction, and I have read two of his books about books – “A Reading Diary” and “The Library at Night“. I guess you could consider him as one of the heirs of Borges, whose own work ranges surprisingly far and wide over many topics. I’ve read a number of his collected short stories and after reading this I basically felt that I couldn’t read anyone else. So if nothing else “With Borges” has prompted me to pick up my chunky volume for the first time in ages and remind myself of what a unique writer Borges was. If you like either the author or the subject of this little gem of a book, I can highly recommend it!

A journey into the universe of libraries


The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel


As I’m someone who’s fairly obsessive about books it would come as no surprise that I’d be keen on reading books about books! And I have read a lot of them over the years; but the Manguel book, which was a birthday gift from Eldest Child, is one I’d been keen on reading for a long time, and as I’d reached a point where I wasn’t sure what I wanted to read next, I picked it up.

Old books we have known but not possessed cross our paths and invite themselves over. New books try to seduce us daily with tempting titles and tantalizing covers.

I’ve previously read one book by Manguel, “A Reading Diary”, which I loved very much; and many commenters mentioned how good “Library” was so it’s been on my radar for a while. And what a fascinating read it was. You could I suppose describe it as a series of essays, connected by the fact that they all consider the library as an entity, but each from a completely different point of view. So there are sections titled “The Library as Myth”, “The Library as Power” and “The Library as Survival”, for example. Within each chapter, Manguel mixes thoughts about his own library and its construction, the kind of books he houses there, other libraries through history, the uses of books and literacy in power struggles, how libraries can spring up in the most unlikely places and help people to survive dreadful situations, book burning – and so on.


There’s a dazzling display of erudition here – Manguel obviously knows books, libraries and their history well – and one of the elements I found most fascinating was the detail included about libraries from antiquity in cultures all over the world. It’s easy in our western, English-speaking world to think that we’re the repository of all knowledge and literature but that’s patently not the case, as there are civilisations going back centuries who were amassing records of stories and histories and philosophies in one form or another. Poignantly, Manguel relates the fates of the many, many libraries that have been lost over the years, from the ancient library of Alexandria, to the modern National Library of Lebanon. To any bibliophile these losses are traumatic, and it seems that culture and knowledge is one of the first things to suffer during wars and conflicts.

Of course, running through this volume is Manguel’s huge love of books and what they can tell us and where they can take us. So references abound, taking in everything from The Iliad to Dorothy L. Sayers. Borges, whom Manguel knew (and read to) is a recurring presence, and I hadn’t realised that he was a librarian for part of his life; famously, he said “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” Fittingly enough, there is a section on imaginary books and imaginary libraries and I think Borges would have approved!

It’s hard to encompass such a wide-reaching and wide-ranging book in a blog post, particularly as there is so much food for thought as well as so many new books and authors to be tracked down. The fact that there is a list of Manguel’s 100 favourite books at the end is not going to be helpful for the TBR either. Manguel celebrates the joy of random explorations of books, the chance finds whilst browsing and the happy accidents which bring us to a book we might never have consciously chosen.

We pick our way down endless library shelves, choosing this or that volume for no discernible reason: because of a cover, a title, a name, because of something someone said or didn’t say, because of a hunch, a whim, a mistake, because we think we may find in this book a particular tale or character or detail, because we believe it was written for us, because we believe it was written for everyone except us and we want to find out why we have been excluded, because we want to learn, or laugh, or lose ourselves in oblivion.

As well as more philosophical musings, there are sections on how to organise and catalogue your books – always a knotty problem – and a history of the Dewey system. Personally, it’s the cross-over books I find hardest – do I put all my Margaret Atwood books with the Viragos even though half are from different publishers? Or do I just put the Virago Atwoods with the Viragos and the rest with women authors? Or have a separate section for Atwood on her own? It makes my head hurt…

We tend nowadays to take for granted access to the written word in the form of books, newspapers, magazines, electrical devices and all of the material on the InterWeb. However, it’s sobering to realise that this is a relatively recent freedom we’ve had and one that we should guard jealously. The Manic Street Preachers famously stated that “Libraries gave us power” and certainly literacy is crucial to trying to resist dictatorship of all sorts. At several points in the book, Manguel relates situations where books and libraries and individuals have suffered at the hands of regimes like the Nazis; the literature has often helped them to survive and in dark times we still turn to books for the wisdom they can provide. “The Library at Night” was as powerful and involving as I expected, and I suspect it might have been even more effective had I read a chapter at a time and then read something else while I assimilated Manguel’s thoughts. As it was, “Library” sent me scurrying back to rearrange and explore my own personal collection; and I expect it to be a book I’ll return to over and over again.

The Joys of Re-reading


A Reading Diary by Alberto Manguel

Re-reading is usually a great pleasure, especially when it’s an old favourite that you know and love and aren’t at risk of being disappointed with. Imagine, therefore, spending a year simply revisiting some of your most-loved volumes as you go about your life, travelling round the world and making notes as you go. That’s the premise of this book by Alberto Manguel from 2004, and it certainly is a thought-provoking work.


Manguel is an author and essayist; originally hailing from Buenos Aires, he’s lived in Italy, England, Tahiti and Canada, finally winding up in France. The book spans the time from June 2002 to May 2003, and the dates are relevant, because the book is firmly rooted in the context of world events. The author visits a variety of places, from his family Buenos Aires (where he reads Adolfo Bioy Casares), London (The Island of Dr. Moreau) and Canada (Elective Affinities), as well as spending much time in his home in France. But filtered in with his thoughts on the books he’s re-reading are memories of the past and reflections on the state of the modern world.

The fact that Manguel is writing in an immediately post-9/11 landscape is particularly relevent; war is being declared on Iraq and the author watches in horror as history begins to repeat itself. Pertinently, much of the chaos he perceives around him is reflected in the novels, and Manguel ends up meditating on reading and its connections to reality. Perhaps the greatest books are timeless and can always be applied to the human condition?

… what I no longer recall is there, somewhere, on one of the carefully numbered pages of one of my books. And I, of course, will disappear; the new wall too will fall away, the books will be scattered. But that of which we all form part, a part however small, will stay on, fixed under the stars. And, as in the eye of a sculptor chiseling away at a stone, the whole will be all the more beautiful for our absence.


Despite the somewhat serious subject matter, the book has a light touch, and Manguel certainly has a wide knowledge of literature. As well as the books he’s discussing, ARD is scattered with gems from other authors. I was particularly taken with his quote from Nabokov’s “Pnin” which I must have overlooked on my reading of it:

He never attempted to sleep on his left side, even in those dismal hours of the night when the insomniac longs for a third side after trying the two he has.

“A Reader’s Diary” is described on its cover as “a love letter written to reading” and in a sense it is. However, it’s so much more than that; ranging over time back to Manguel’s childhood, and covering parts of his life and his experiences, it has a wider outlook on how things have changed during his lifetime. But it also makes the reader really stop and think about what great literature is; how it speaks to us over the centuries; and how books and writing are one of mankind’s greatest creations. Manguel’s written a good many more books about reading, I believe, and so this certainly won’t be the last of his I pick up.


For those wondering about the books covered, they are:

The Invention of Morel (Adolfo Bioy Casares)
The Island of Dr. Moreau (Wells)
Kim (Kipling)
Memoirs From Beyond the Grave (Chateaubriand)
The Sign of Four (Doyle)
Elective Affinities (Goethe)
The Wind in the Willows(Graham)
Don Quixote (Cervantes)
The Tartar Steppe (Dino Buzzati)
The Pillow Book (Sei Shonagon)
Surfacing (Margaret Atwood)
The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (Machado De Assis)

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