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Alberto Manguel and the Library of Babel

The Argentinian-born man of letters, cosmopolitan defender of books and reading, is exiled to a world of his own making

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Argentine-born writer Alberto Manguel pictured Sept. 11, 2007, in his house of Mondion near the city of Châtellerault, France. (Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images)

Stevenson and Borges are both all over Manguel’s most famous book, A History of Reading, from 1996. In the 2010 collection A Reader on Reading, which includes work from 1993 to 2009, every essay is prefaced by a quotation from Lewis Carroll’s writing. The Red Queen pops up in an essay called “Saint Augustine’s Computer,” the Caterpillar in the essay “Homage to Proteus,” Lewis Carroll himself in two more essays. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde appears in three essays, in one case as a mere fillip, mentioned when, one imagines, other books might do. Borges is mentioned in, by my count, about a quarter of the essays in this collection and is also the subject of a short book, With Borges. It’s a totally delightful book, by the way—and if I had spent my late teen years reading to John Updike or Raymond Carver or Grace Paley or, heck, Robert Ludlum, you’d better believe I’d work it into as many essays as I could.

What I cannot quite forgive is how uncritically Manguel approaches his favorite authors, how he suspends judgment and shrewdness. When he is writing about an author who is not on this short list, he can be very smart, especially in praising a writer. To read, say, his 2012 Guardian review of the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, one of his current favorites, is to be tutored in what specifically is great about a writer. But his all-time favorites Manguel deploys for personal comfort rather than for his readers’ instruction. You get the sense that he returns to Alice because she was a childhood friend of his, and he wants to keep her close by. When I asked him what it was about Alice that endeared her to him so, he replied, “I don’t know. To me, it’s mysterious, this falling in love with one person.

“In the beginning, Alice was me, and the world of crazy adults she was in was the world that I was confronting, with their absurd rumors and their nonsense logic. But then afterwards, before almost any situation, when we go through politics in high school and afterwards”—this was Argentina in the years of coups d’état—“when I was looking at languages and how to read and write and all that is in Alice, I play a game with myself of coming up with a subject and saying to myself, ‘Well, where is there a quote in Alice that corresponds to that?’ And there always is.

“So, Alice is a very intimate book, which I constantly translate into my own experience.”

It is not exceptional that Manguel relates to a book this way; most avid readers probably do. But Manguel has generalized a principle of affection into a principle of criticism. It is one thing to have books for friends, but the most enlightening readers also have some books for enemies. Manguel does not. He elevates enthusiasm to a first principle. I found only one book that he really seemed to detest: Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. When I asked, he confirmed that the book was uniquely loathsome. “American Psycho is simply two things,” he said. “It’s a list of brand names that we have already forgotten, and the very loving and accurate description of inflicting terrible pain on another human being, mainly women. And I find that, as a reader, unforgivable.”

***

Bret Easton Ellis aside, Manguel is a radical partisan for the author, the book, the character: They keep us from loneliness. This favoritism leads to his rather curious diagnosis of what ails publishing today. Worse than the usual suspects like e-books, the Internet, or the vanishing reader, topics on which he must pontificate everywhere he is paid to go, Manguel wanted me to know that there is an even more worrisome culprit, bringing writing, and writers, down: the editor.

“If I would have to find fault somewhere,” he said, “I would say that it is largely the fault of the mechanics of publishing that have imposed the idea of the editor.” He then added something about creative-writing classes, which also seem to be part of the problem, but mainly as adjuncts to the editor-driven industry. “Implied in these systems is the idea that a piece of writing is an object of consumption that can be perfected, aspiring to a certain model, in the same way that you can tell that a shoe is well made or a house well built. And literature simply doesn’t function that way. … If the model that exists today of perfecting the work through an editor and a course and even a formula … were to impose itself today, the oeuvre of writers like, to use a classic example, Milton, Shakespeare, etc., etc., could never exist! Could never exist, because you’d have an editor working on Macbeth and saying to Shakespeare, ‘Do we really need Lady Macbeth? Is it not better if we just have this one character struggling? And why are there three witches? Why are there not five?’ ”

This fundamentalist anti-editor stance privileges the author above everyone else, including those who might have something useful to tell her, like when she’s not doing her best work. It’s a kind of exaltation of the individual’s spirit over the expectations of society, which the editor, after all, represents. Editors are paid to bring authors in line, to help them produce stuff more fit for public consumption. But Manguel is completely uninterested in society, in man-in-general. He is not just a man without parents, but a man without a country, and without a people. He is the Luftmensch par excellence (to go polyglot, like Manguel).

Manguel reveres the writer as a citizen only of the Land of Art—as a man, or woman, beyond national borders or any conventional loyalties. Manguel has almost no use for blood or soil. Most of us, even writers and other artists, feel some affective ties to our family’s ethnicity or religion, as well as to our country of origin. But Manguel evinces almost no loyalty to either. I don’t make this point to insult or denigrate Manguel, but rather as a blunt statement of fact. He is a Jew without Judaism, and an Argentinian without Argentinian-ness. Or at least that’s what he aspires to be.

Manguel’s father’s family were German Jews who settled in Buenos Aires. His mother’s family were Russian Jews who moved to one of the agricultural colonies, established for Jews by the philanthropist Maurice de Hirsch, in the Argentine interior; from there, they later moved to Buenos Aires. I asked Manguel what Judaism had meant to his parents.

“Nothing,” he said.

“Nothing?” I asked again.

“Absolutely nothing. In fact, I did not discover—after having lived in Israel for seven years—I did not discover that I was Jewish until I was about 10. We kept none of the Jewish holidays.” Despite his father’s having been ambassador to Israel, the family celebrated Christian holidays, as befitted their residence in a Catholic country. His nanny, a Jewish refugee, did not want him to talk about Judaism. “She had a friend who had a number tattooed on her arm, and I remember every time we met her, she would say, ‘Above all, you don’t ask questions about the tattoo.’ … When we returned to Argentina, my grandmother, my mother’s mother, she went to synagogue and so on, and I remember blessing the candles and all that sort of stuff, but I didn’t know what it was, and I just thought it was something that she did. That was it.”

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Alberto Manguel and the Library of Babel

The Argentinian-born man of letters, cosmopolitan defender of books and reading, is exiled to a world of his own making