Contents: With over 35,000 volumes in your library and a lifetime of close reading, how do you document your responses to what you’re currently reading? In other words, how do you keep track of those copious conversations and record the connections you make while reading?
Alberto Manguel: I don’t. Chance is a good librarian and the encounters she allows don’t follow any pre-conceived order or method. So it happens that, through my wanderings in the library, I remember some encounters and forget others, much as happens in my meetings with people. And the connections between these encounters weave and interweave, and form patterns that I can’t fully see or be conscious of. But they are there. So when a subject comes up in my mind, some of these interweavings, a few of these meeting-places are brought to mind, and then the subject is illuminated by the memory. Unfortunately, as I grow older, the memories are fewer and far between.
In “The Library as Identity,” you quoted Thomas Carlyle’s complaint that patrons used the library for purposes totally unconnected with scholarship and study. What’s the function and purpose of the ideal, inclusive public library? Has an existing institution come close to your ideal?
AM: Libraries have always, since Alexandria, been meeting places. (This is one aspect that the virtual library will lose, for better or for worse: The physical presence of other readers.) A public library should be many of the things I describe in my book, but above all, a place of social memory, a mirror for that society’s identity, changing according to that society’s changes. It must not become a café, an art gallery, a kindergarten, a flop-house, a free boarding room. It can have a few of these elements, up to a point, but it must not forget that it must still fulfill its essential function: to be a place where readers come to find and read books.
You’ve said previously that the memory of an electronic text is not the same as that of the book and that our relationship to paper is not the same as that on the screen—that a fragility exists within an electronic text that doesn’t apply to paper books. Since The Library at Night was published in 2007, a combination of electronic and print reading has become more common, and many ebook readers and formats have changed to allow easier annotation, highlighting, and bookmarking. Do you feel the same today as you did six years ago?
AM: Up to a point, my views have evolved. I see that the electronic technology can provide some of the interactive features of a printed book. However, I still maintain that it allows for a different relationship between reader and book: Less personal, less hands-on, less material, of course. And I’m still concerned by the enormous pressure that the industry inflicts upon the reading public, making us believe that the electronic technology is the solution for everything. They do this for commercial, not intellectual reasons, and try to make us forget to ask the question: cui bono?
Do you feel that there’s a parallel between Socrates, who despised books because he thought they were a threat to our gift of memory, and our own aversion to reading electronic texts?
AM: Every society fears a new technology, and when it eventually embraces it, it does it by declaring the death of the previous technology (which never dies completely) and adapts the vocabulary of the previous technology for its own uses. And yet, both in Socrates’ case, and in the case of the electronic technology, our active memory is threatened if we allow an instrument to do the memorizing for us. There is a distinction that is important between memorizing, as a book or a computer can do, and remembering, which we alone can do through the unfathomably complex system of thinking.
You’d written that “The web is quasi instantaneous; it occupies no time except the nightmare of a constant present. All surface and no volume, all present and no past…” Have your views of the web changed?
AM: In this particular sense, no.