The Ultimate Reader


by Alberto Manguel
Yale University Press, 377 pp., $30.00
Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images
Alberto Manguel in his library near Châtellerault, in southwest France, 2007

When he was sixteen Alberto Manguel met the nearly blind Jorge Luis Borges in the Pygmalion Anglo-German bookshop in Buenos Aires and, from 1964 to 1968, read aloud to him on a weekly basis. The encounter now seems to have been destined, for if there’s anyone alive today who is as widely read and bibliomaniacal as Borges was in his day, it’s the author of Curiosity, the latest in a series of Manguel’s meditations about reading, libraries, and the spectral spaces in the human psyche that literary works occupy.

Books have defined Manguel’s life. Though he was born in Buenos Aires, he spent his first seven years in Israel, where his father served as the Argentinian ambassador, before returning to Argentina after the fall of Juan Perón in 1955. Raised by a Czech nanny, with whom he spoke German, Manguel could not communicate with his Spanish- speaking parents until after the family returned to Argentina. (“I spent no time with my parents,” he recalled in a recent interview. “I said good morning to them some mornings. That’s all I can remember.”) In his youth he became an obsessive reader, and early on books became a kind of homeland for him.

Thus, after residing in Paris, London, and Tahiti in the 1970s, and then moving to Toronto in 1982, Manguel left Canada in 2000 (retaining his Canadian citizenship), for no other reason than to find a spacious enough place to house his personal library of over 30,000 volumes. That library now fills a restored medieval presbytery near Châtellerault, in the southwest of France, where Manguel, when he is not traveling, lives with his extended family of books.

More than a mere collection, Manguel’s library represents the material and spatial extension of his readerly mind; he conveys a sense that posthumous voices and literary characters converse among themselves under his roof. “This transmigration of souls,” we read in Curiosity, “is literature’s modest miracle.” In the eighth chapter, Manguel recalls a priest of Basque origin whom he interviewed in his early twenties for a Buenos Aires newspaper. The priest had moved to Argentina in the 1930s and had a passion for beekeeping. He would speak to his bees in Basque in a gentle voice that contrasted sharply with the vehement tones and gestures with which he spoke Spanish:

It was he who told me that when a beekeeper dies, someone must go and tell the bees that their keeper is dead. Since then I’ve wished that when I die someone will do the same for me, and tell my books that I will not come back.

It is this devotion to books, and his ability to bring them alive in his own gentle beekeeper’s voice, that have endeared Manguel to his many admirers in America and abroad,…

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