Cast Out of Eden

Michael Hayward

I like to think that when Jorge Luis Borges envisaged paradise as “a kind of library,” he was dreaming (as all unrepentant bibliophiles do) of the idealized personal library: that quiet, well-lit room, warm and dry, which has sufficient shelving—on every wall, extending from carpeted floor to rafters if necessary—to allow all of one’s books to be within reach at all times. For a time, between (roughly) 2 and 215, Geist columnist Alberto Manguel lived in just such a paradise, in an old presbytery with a ruined barn attached, somewhere south of the Loire Valley in France. The barn, once restored, became what Manguel hoped would be his final library, a comfortable home for his 3,-plus books. Manguel’s 26 book The Library at Night describes the creation of this library in loving detail, situating his personal library within the context of other libraries, among them the legendary Library of Alexandria. In the summer of 215 Manguel and his partner reluctantly decided to leave France, and began the painful process of dismantling the booklover’s Eden that they had created there. Of their decision to leave Manguel says only that the reasons “belong to the realm of sordid bureaucracy.” Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions (Yale University Press) is Manguel’s elegy for his lost library in France. If the unpacking of books is a creative act, packing them away, Manguel says, is “an exercise in oblivion.” He sketches the painful scene: with the help of friends, his books are carefully wrapped in protective paper, their original layout mapped, before being packed into labelled cartons, “until all the books were gone from the shelves and the library was transformed into a roomful of building blocks gathered in the midst of empty stacks.” What can follow but a “period of anger and mourning,” for something that once was real, but is now “condemned to exist […] in the untrustworthy domain of my memory.”

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