Former director of the National Library of Argentina and world-renowned author took part in Dean’s Distinguished Speaker Series.
After writing about reading, libraries, and books for decades, Alberto Manguel admits that, “Everything that has happened to me throughout my life, happened first in books.”
“Ever since I learned to read at the age of three, the complicated experience of the world presented itself to me first in words, so that later, when I came across the real thing, I had stories with which to name them,” said Manguel to an audience at UCLA’s Northwest Auditorium on Oct. 11. The event was part of a celebration of “The Year of the Book,” commemorating the 60thanniversary of UCLA’s Department of Information Studies. Manguel’s talk was also part of the annual Dean’s Distinguished Speaker Series.
Born in Buenos Aires in 1948, Manguel has lived all over the world, due to his father’s diplomatic career. This experience has given his work a unique global perspective. While a teenager, Manguel worked in a bookstore where he met Jorge Luis Borges, who was gradually going blind and asked Manguel to read aloud to him. Between 1964 and 1968, Manguel had the life-changing experience of spending time with the famed author, enabling helping him to enjoy literature despite his diminishing sight and to help Borges find a new way to write after a long creative drought.
Manguel left Argentina at the beginning of military unrest, and embarked on his literary career after emigrating to Canada. He later moved to France and was appointed to lead the National Library of Argentina after a 50-year absence. He retired from the position earlier this past summer, which he describes as a fulfilling but difficult experience.
“Libraries are essential to a literate society because of the fact that in books lies our identity,” said Manguel. “As director of the National Library, I wanted to try to put my ideas about reading and libraries into action. I got my wish with a vengeance. I became from one day to the other an accountant, technician, lawyer, architect, electrician, psychologist, diplomat, sociologist, specialist in union politics, fundraiser, technocrat, cultural programmer, and of course… a librarian.”
Manguel described the reverence for literature that pervaded his upbringing, and recalled his Russian grandmother’s custom of kissing any book – even a phone book – that fell to the floor.
“Her respect for books was such that whenever I left my reading she would remind me to close my book before I left the room because if I left it open, the demon of oblivion would make me forget what I had learned,” recalled Manguel.
A conversation between Manguel, Maryanne Wolf, Visiting Professor at UCLA Education, and Wasserman Dean Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, explored the lessening appreciation of literature in the wake of the digital culture and the impact of Manguel’s “The History of Reading.”
“[Language] is the most important tool we have, and at the same time, it is a very weak tool,” said Manguel. “We have to defend it at a time when words are being derided, when language is seen as a blunt instrument and… the well-constructed argument, the well-constructed piece, seems false because it presents itself as an artifact, when the gut-Tweet seems like something that came out of your soul.”
Manguel is the author of “With Borges,” as well as several novels, including “News From a Foreign Country Came,” and “All Men Are Liars.” His non-fiction works include “Packing My Library,” “Curiosity, A History of Reading,” “The Library at Night,” and “The Dictionary of Imaginary Places” (with Gianni Guadalupi). Since the early 1980s, Manguel has edited numerous literary anthologies on a variety of themes ranging from fantastic literature, to mystery, to LGBT erotic literature.
For more information on “The Year of the Book” at UCLA’s Department of Information Studies, visit this link.
Above: Alberto Manguel, renowned author and former director of the National Library of Argentina, visited UCLA on Oct. 11 as part of the “Year of the Book” celebration to honor the 60th Anniversary of UCLA’s Department of Information Studies.
Photo by Todd Cheney, UCLA