Alberto Manguel is the epitome of the erudite idealistic booklover. He ushers us into his library of ideas, knowing that his and our enjoyment of books, the reading, the collecting, the savouring, will be mutually enhanced by the sharing of ideas. He is one of those rare authors who make you feel that he is putting into words your own unformed thoughts. ”Because I loved books (which I collected with miserly passion) I felt the guilty shame of someone in love with a freak.”
You recognise them on the page as your own, and are grateful for his immense skills of articulating what you didn’t know you thought, until you read them. And then he tells us so much more, he is showing us worlds, and he is our knowledgeable guide.
He doesn’t restrict his essays to books and libraries. They are about reading, about words, or Words, and their power. So his subjects are wide-ranging. He decries the falsity and hypocrisy of wordsmiths such as Maria Varga Llosa and his essays on Argentina’s dirty war. He chafes at the North American use of the editor in publishing. ”Before going out into the world, every writer of fiction in North America (and most of the British Commonwealth) acquires, as it were, a literary back-seat driver.”
He thinks that this is because of the “mercantile fabric of American society. Because books must be saleable merchandise, experts must be employed to ensure that the products are profitably commercial. At its worst this unifying task produces mass-market romances; at its best it cuts Thomas Wolfe down to size.” As always, he has quotations to fit every need. When Graham Greene was asked to change the title of his novel Travels with My Aunt, his eight word telegram said, “Easier to change publisher than to change title.”