After Borges became totally blind, he would ask a variety of people to read to him. Starting in 1964, one of the people who had that pleasure was Alberto Manguel, who was then a sixteen-year-old working at a bookstore near where Borges lived on calle Maipú.

One day, after picking up a couple of titles, he asked me, if I had nothing else to do, whether I would come and read to him in the evenings since his mother, already in her nineties, became easily tired. Borges would ask almost anyone: students, journalists who came to interview him, other writers. There exists a vast group of those who once read out loud to Borges, minor Boswells whose identities are rarely known to one another but who collectively hold the memory of one of the world’s great readers. I didn’t know about them then. I was 16 years old. I accepted, and three or four times a week would visit in the small apartment he shared with his mother and with Fany, the maid.

Manguel read to Borges for four years and has now compiled his memories of those days in a book, With Borges that will be published in the U.S. in October of this year.

Excerpts of the book have been made available in an article title How I learnt to see from a blind master and in Words Without Borders.

Manguel grew up to write a variety of books himself. A wonderful interview with Manguel by Robert Birnbaum is online at The Morning News.

Manguel, who has lived outside of Argentina for many years, talks about a range of topics including his life in Buenos Aires and his perspective on Argentina today: “When I go back to Argentina now ”“ first of all I don’t really feel I am an Argentine except in some bureaucratic sense. I am Canadian ”“ that’s the nationality I adopted. But when I go back, I go back to a city of ghosts. I go back to a place where everybody I knew is dead.”

When asked about the degree of influence of Borges, Manguel responded:

Everything. Everything. Borges is such a gigantic figure that he infects everything that came before and came after. Simply because he places himself, as a writer, less as the creator of certain books than as a form of looking at the world. And so it’s very difficult for me to read something without hearing the echo of how Borges would have read it or what he would have seen in it. Having met him at a very early age and worked for him, what he had taught about the generosity of the act of reading, about how powerful it is. How our reading changes the text. How we create the books we are reading, and so on ”“ all those are things that stay with you. So, when you find these ideas that weren’t original ideas, but he’s the one who grounded them ”“ when you find them come up again and again in books that you read written after Borges or before, it’s his voice that is there. And it’s very difficult not to simply repeat or disguise that you are repeating certain ideas that you came across in his writing. It’s hard because they are so perfect, so powerful.

I must admit that I’ve never heard of Alberto Manguel until about two months ago. But, he’s clearly a stimulating thinker. Surprisingly, he did not attend university:

I had a very good high school. We were very, very lucky in Buenos Aires. I did my schooling in Buenos Aires ”“ I landed in a high school where they were trying something out which worked very well for my generation, which was that the classes were not being taught by high school teachers but by university professors. And they gave them carte blanche, so what we had were people who were very enthusiastic about their field and who spent the whole year maybe teaching their one particular thing. But what you learn is that if you spend a whole year ”“ instead of studying, say Spanish literature from the Middle Ages to Garcia Marquez ”“ you only study, as we did, Don Quixote, for the whole year, the fact of reading one book in depth opens you up to everything else. So, not only Spanish literature but the literature of the rest of the world. What you learn is something more important than going by an official list of books. You learn how to read. And it was an extraordinary experience. The same was true of chemistry, whatever, mathematics.

If you’re fascinated with Borges, then you’re surely interested in learning and reading. Alberto Manguel seems to have a lot to say on those topics.

More from Manguel about Borges can be found in an article in the Guardian: “What Borges offered his readers was a philosophy, an ethical system, a method (but these words are too mechanical) for the art of reading that is to say, for the craft of following a revelatory thread through the labyrinth of the universe.”

Manguel also writes that English translations have yet to do justice to Borges and recommends that people learn Spanish to fully appreciate Borges. Indeed, there is a lyricism in the Spanish prose of Borges that is missing in the English translations.