Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a conference with Alberto Manguel. He is one of my favorite writers and it was such a thrill to see him and to listen to him lecture. I spent many happy enraptured hours perusing his Dictionary of Imaginary Beings and being engrossed in his monumental History of Reading. His writing is never too highbrow to detract from the clarity and vividness of the thoughts behind. And how can one not love a dictionary on imaginary beings? Naturally with the conference, I found myself looking though RWB’s shelves to discover something that I hadn’t read before. Of course, I discovered a pearl I hadn’t discovered before.
When he was 16 years old, while working at Buenos Aires’ Pygmalion bookstore, Manguel was asked by Borges if he would like to be his reader. Borges had already gone blind by the time he asked, and in fact had gotten into the habit of asking any and everyone. And so for four years, Manguel would visit three or four times a week to read to him. His book, With Borges, distills those years.
While his sessions with Borges were reading sessions, it was enough for an astute observer like Manguel to capture Borges’ essence as a writer. For fans of Borges, myself included, this is an invaluable addition to his writings. There is no doubt that Borges was a prolific and more importantly, a beautiful writer but short of having access to academic works or his biography, it is rare to find a volume that discusses his philosophy of writing in such a succinct yet elegant manner. We can never underestimate Borges influence on writing or other writers and even on his country. As Manguel points out, “Borges renewed the Spanish language…that his generous reading methods, allowed him to bring into Spanish felicities from other tongues: English turns of phrase or the German ability to hold until the end of a sentence its subject.” But more than refreshing the Spanish language, Borges’ writings have fixed Argentina permanently into the collective consciousness. “When Borges began writing, Buenos Aires (so far from Europe, the perceived center of culture), felt vague and indistinct, and seemed to require a literary imagination to impose it upon reality. Now Buenos Aires feels more real because it exists in Borges’ pages.” That’s quite a feat if you think about it.
My favorite passage, is that which talks about books. “For Borges, the core of reality lay in books, reading books, writing books, talking about books. In a visceral way, he was conscious of continuing a dialogue begun thousands of years before and which he believed would never end. Books restored the past.” As someone who lives and breathes books on a daily basis, this is one credo to live by.