The Books Interview: Alberto Manguel

How optimistic are you about the future of the book?
I don't think the book of paper and ink will disappear, as long as we allow for technologies to coexist. The notion that one must replace the other is simply the urge of the new to exist alone on the planet, but it doesn't happen - it didn't happen with photography and painting, it didn't happen with film and theatre, it didn't happen with video and film, and it hasn't happened with electronic technology and the printed page. I was delighted when Bill Gates, a number of years ago, wrote his book about the end of paper and then printed it on paper; I think that says a lot.

You don't use e-books yourself, then?
I don't. I have nothing against any of the gadgets, but I just use what I find useful. I mean, I find cars very useful and I don't drive.

What room does the culture make for books these days?
We have displaced the library and replaced it with the bank at the centre of our societies. These positions are not unmovable; even though our notions of value are now mercantile, those can eventually be changed. If making a financial profit is your aim, then you will say, "How does reading
make a financial profit?" And the answer is, “It doesn't." So reading gets relegated to an unessential corner in our society. It used to be that readers were relegated because they considered themselves far above society, and so the metaphor of the ivory tower developed. Now there's still this idea that the reader doesn't take part in the social game and in politics, the res publica, but for other reasons: he doesn't do it because he's not making any money.

Your new book, A Reader on Reading, contains an essay entitled "Notes Towards the Definition of an Ideal Library". Which library in the world comes closest to that ideal?
There's only one for me, which is now in danger of disappearing, and that is Aby Warburg's at the Warburg Institute in London. This is a library that is set up according to the image of your brain, to the way one thinks, where books are arranged by association, not by any other order. There are no corners, so there's no false division. This seems to me as close as you can get to an ideal library. It has now been entrusted to the University of London, which is thinking of dismantling it. If it did so, it would be committing one of the great crimes of our time.

You have an extensive library containing 30,000-plus books at your home in France. What classification system do you use?
Well, first of all, because it's a private library, I can do whatever I want with it, and so there is one main division of books, which is by the language in which the book was written. That is simply because that is my first association to a book. Under each language - under English, for instance - the authors are in alphabetical order, and essays, fiction, poetry, everything's together. But then the exceptions begin: these are the areas that particularly interest me - so general history from the 18th century to the present day is one area, the Middle Ages another. Then there are sections for books around the Bible, books about the Quran, Jewish mysticism, the legend of Don Juan, the legend of the Wandering Jew, mythology, crime fiction, cooking books, gardening, travel . . .

You travelled extensively as a child because your father was a diplomat. And you've continued to wander. Has your library always been a fixed point for you?
I think books have always been that for me. I remember, as a child, the confusion of not knowing what this place was where I was supposed to spend the night: it's a disquieting experience for a child. And what I would do was quickly unpack my books and go back to a book I knew well
and make sure the same text and the same illustrations were there. There was always an immense sense of relief. That was home. I've never really understood attachment to a place for reasons of birth. That my mother happened to give birth to me in a certain place doesn't, to my mind, justify any thankfulness towards that place. It could have been anywhere.

“A Reader on Reading" is published by Yale University Press (£18)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis