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"Books jump out of their jackets when Manguel opens them and dance in delight as they make contact with his ingenious, voluminous brain."—Peter Conrad, The Observer
— Peter Conrad
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In this major collection of his essays, Alberto Manguel, whom George Steiner has called “the Casanova of reading,” argues that the activity of reading, in its broadest sense, defines our species. “We come into the world intent on finding narrative in everything,” writes Manguel, “landscape, the skies, the faces of others, the images and words that our species create.” Reading our own lives and those of others, reading the societies we live in and those that lie beyond our borders, reading the worlds that lie between the covers of a book are the essence of A Reader on Reading.
The thirty-nine essays in this volume explore the crafts of reading and writing, the identity granted to us by literature, the far-reaching shadow of Jorge Luis Borges, to whom Manguel read as a young man, and the links between politics and books and between books and our bodies. The powers of censorship and intellectual curiosity, the art of translation, and those “numinous memory palaces we call libraries” also figure in this remarkable collection. For Manguel and his readers, words, in spite of everything, lend coherence to the world and offer us “a few safe places, as real as paper and as bracing as ink,” to grant us room and board in our passage.
"Books jump out of their jackets when Manguel opens them and dance in delight as they make contact with his ingenious, voluminous brain."—Peter Conrad, The Observer
— Peter Conrad
“Essays of this quality are worth reading, or rereading, wherever they are encountered.”--John Gross, New York Review of Books
— John Gross
“For those of us who are serious about books and literature, reading amounts to an almost sacred act. Many famous authors have extolled the pleasures of the printed page, of course, but to my mind none in recent years has done it so expertly or eloquently as Alberto Manguel. Happily, a collection of his best literary meditations is now on offer, A Reader on Reading, and it is a must for book lovers."--John Sledge, Mobile Press-Register
— John Sledge
From Michael Dirda's "LIBRARY WITHOUT WALLS" column on The Barnes & Noble Review
About twenty years ago I was invited to a cocktail party at an impressively large Central Park West apartment. I remember the evening well because of three people I met that night. One was our hostess, Carol Southern, not only the publisher of Clarkson Potter books but also the former wife of the writer Terry Southern, author (with Mason Hoffenberg) of the spoof porno-novel Candy. After a drink or two, I confessed to this glamorous woman that when I first read Candy, as a wide-eyed teenager, I was so transfixed by the sweet girl's sexual adventures that I -- "Good grief!"-- completely missed the humor.
The other two people I met that night I already knew through their books or because they had written pieces for me at The Washington Post Book World, where I then worked as an editor. One was Paul Monette, whose screwball comedy, Taking Care of Mrs. Carroll was the third or fourth book I ever reviewed. Paul was astonishingly good looking, had then been working in Hollywood for a while -- he wrote the novelization of the Klaus Kinski version of Nosferatu -- and was rather quiet and subdued. We spoke about gay literature and how, because of the AIDS epidemic, it was no longer possible to publish a light-hearted comic novel about a homosexual couple like that in Mrs. Carroll. Paul himself would die of AIDS in 1995, and his memoir Borrowed Time would become one of the most moving documents of those early plague years.
The third person I met was Alberto Manguel, who was thin, voluble, round-spectacled and utterly charming. He was there because Clarkson Potter was bringing out his novel News from a Foreign Country Came. So great was Alberto's sheer amiability that I instantly understood how he had managed to make himself at home all over the world. Born in 1948 to a Jewish family in Argentina, he had lived in the Middle East, Tahiti, England, Canada, and France. Without any snootiness whatsoever, he was effortlessly cosmopolitan, a gentle, easy-going citizen of the world. Of course, he had grown up speaking English, German, and Spanish, had learned French well enough to translate Marguerite Yourcenar, and also knew Italian and at least a smattering of Latin and Greek.
That evening we talked, naturally enough, about books, including a big project of his that ultimately became his much lauded A History of Reading. It turned out that we were both fans of ghost stories and detective novels, and I told him of my admiration for his Dictionary of Imaginary Places (written with Gianni Guadalupi) and his anthology of fantastic short stories, Black Water. In the course of the evening, I learned about, and envied, his friendship with the blind Argentine fabulist Jorge-Luis Borges, to whom he used to read aloud. At that time, Alberto was living in Canada, where he had become a power in the literary establishment, being much involved with the HarbourFront Literary Festival and the Banff Writers Center. In short, we had a wonderful conversation and took to each other immediately -- even though I felt that, in comparison to him, I'd done nothing with my life.
What was most deeply disconcerting to me, however, was the gradual realization that this Manguel person -- it was hard for me to admit this -- just might have read more books than I had. Subsequent years have only confirmed that initial suspicion.
In a series of essay collections (A Reading Diary; Reading Pictures) and highly original anthologies (God's Spies: Stories in Defiance of Oppression, The Gates of Paradise: An Anthology of Erotic Short Stories), Alberto Manguel has quietly established himself as the world's best-known reader. I say reader deliberately, for this Argentine-Canadian isn't fundamentally a critic or literary scholar, in the mould of, say, Erich Auerbach, Edmund Wilson, or George Steiner. His predecessors are, rather, those once famous, now half forgotten bookmen of the early 20th century, figures like George Saintsbury, who took all literature for his province, and Holbrook Jackson, author of the magisterial Anatomy of Bibliomania, and that genial Chicago litterateur Vincent Starrett, who championed neglected books, collected first editions, and penned the groundbreaking Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. All three of these men would certainly have loved Alberto's previous and most personal book, The Library at Night, his account of how he built and arranged a library for his 30,000 volumes in a small village in France, where he now lives.
In this latest volume of essays, A Reader on Reading, Manguel -- which I will now call him, having put on my critic's hat -- gathers together forty or so of his various talks, anthology introductions, and pieces of literary journalism. (Some of these last appeared earlier as part of Into the Looking-Glass Wood.) Throughout, Manguel heads each new chapter with a quotation from one of the two Alice books of Lewis Carroll, who is clearly -- along with Dante, Cervantes, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Borges -- in the select pantheon of his favorite writers.
For the most part, Manguel's voice in these pages is soft-spoken, even tempered, inviting; there's nothing in the least professorial about it. Occasionally, though, when singing the joys of reading, Manguel can gush just a little, in a kind of "adventures of a soul among the masterpieces" fashion, and he sometimes thus risks sounding corny, histrionic, or a bit preachy. But mostly his is a gentlemanly style, without even a suspicion that he might have swotted up his material rather than simply drawn, gracefully and appropriately, from a capacious and well-stocked memory.
Manguel the reader never quite expected to become Manguel the writer. Reading, he says in "Room for the Shadow," "is a contented, sensuous occupation whose intensity and rhythm are agreed upon between the reader and the chosen book." By contrast, writing is "a strict, plodding, physically demanding task in which the pleasures of inspiration are all well and good, but are only what hunger and taste are to a cook: a starting point and a measuring rod, not the main occupation. Long hours, stiff joints, sore feet, cramped hands, the heat or cold of the workplace, the anguish of missing ingredients and the humiliation owing to the lack of knowhow, onions that make you cry, and sharp knives that slice your fingers are what is in store for anyone who wants to prepare a good meal or write a good book."
Given this culinary analogy, it is appropriate that A Reader on Reading is throughout salted and peppered with shrewd observations about books and the literary life. Here are a few of them:
With one or two superb exceptions (Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Genet's Our Lady of the Flowers come immediately to mind) gay literature has no fantastic stories, no imaginary worlds. Instead its strength lies in the subversive possibilities of its language.
If I want someone to read a book, I'll buy a copy and offer it as a gift. I believe that to lend a book is an incitement to theft.
The ideal reader treads the beaten path. "A good reader, major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader." Vladimir Nabokov.
Some might say that the patron saint of editors should be the Greek robber Procrustes, who placed his visitors on an iron bed and stretched them or cut off the overhanging parts until they fitted exactly to his liking.
Karel Capek, in his wonderful book on gardens, says that the art of gardening can be reduced to one rule: you put into it more than you take out. The same can be said of libraries.
Every library has its shadow: the endless shelves of books unchosen, unread, rejected, forgotten, forbidden.
At times, Manguel can hook a reader with a good journalist's flair. "In Praise of Words" begins: "Rene Descartes believed that monkeys could speak but preferred to remain silent in order not to be forced to work." "At the Mad Hatter's Table" opens: "As most perceptive readers will agree, the distinctive characteristic of the human world is its insanity." Manguel even starts "Borges and the Longed-For Jew" as if it were a thriller: "In 1944, agents of Himmler's secret service began arriving in Madrid to set up an escape route out of Germany for the defeated Nazis. Two years later, for reasons of security, the operation was moved to Buenos Aires. . . ."
Borges is, in fact, a repeated reference point for Manguel. One essay discusses some spurious texts attributed to the Argentine master, including an entire pseudonymous novel. To explain the unlikeliness of this, Manguel quotes Borges: "To imagine the plot of a novel is delectable…. To actually write it out is an exaggeration." In yet another piece, Manguel looks back at the writer's tentative, almost masochistic attempts at love. None ended well. Borges, says Manguel, would later begin one of his lectures with the words, "Plato, who like all men, was unhappy…." He adds, "I think Borges felt this to be the inescapable truth." Still another essay, tangentially related to Borges, examines blindness and insight. In it, Manguel elaborates on the function of reading:
Literature is a collaborative effort, not as editors and writing schools will have it, but as readers and writers have known from the very first line of verse ever set down in clay. A poet fashions out of words something that ends with the last full stop and comes to life again with its first reader's eye. But that eye must be a particular eye, an eye not distracted by baubles and mirrors, concentrated instead on the bodily assimilation of the words, reading both to digest a book and to be digested by it. 'Books,' [Northrop] Frye once noted, 'are to be lived in.'
Continuing his theme, he goes on to suggest that "the reader too must acquire a positive blindness. Not blindness to the things of the world, certainly not to the world itself, nor to the quotidian glimpses it offers of bliss and horror. But blind to the superficial glitter and glamour of what lies all around us."
In a particularly heartfelt essay, "AIDS and the Poet," Manguel seeks to discover the justification for literature in a time of sorrow and heartbreak. To arrive at his answer he composes a litany recalling the catastrophes that have repeatedly beset humanity. It is not only stirring but also serves as an example of the breadth of reference that Manguel can bring to his writing:
Catastrophe: a sudden and violent change, something terrible and incomprehensible. When the Roman hordes, following Cato's dictum, razed the city of Carthage and plowed the land with salt; when the Vandals sacked Rome in 455, leaving the great metropolis in ruins; when the first Christian Crusaders entered the cities of North Africa and after slaughtering men, women, and children set fire to the libraries; when the Catholic kings of Spain expelled from their territories the cultures of the Arabs and the Jews, and the Rabbi of Toledo threw up to Heaven the keys of the Ark for safekeeping until a happier time; when Pizarro executed Atahualpa and effectively destroyed the Inca civilization; when the first slave was sold on the American continent; when large numbers of Native Americans were deliberately contaminated with smallpox-infested blankets by the European settlers (in what must count as the world first biological warfare); when the soldiers in the trenches of World War I drowned in mud and toxic gases in their attempt to obey impossible orders; when the inhabitants of Hiroshima saw their skin fly off their bodies under the great yellow cloud up in the sky; when the Kurdish population was attacked with toxic weapons; when thousands of men and women were hunted down with machetes in Rwanda; and when the suicide planes struck the twin towers of Manhattan, leaving New York to join the mourning cities of Madrid, Belfast, Jerusalem, Bogota, and countless others, all victims of terrorist attacks -- in all these catastrophes, the survivors may have sought in a book . . . some respite from grief and some reassurance of sanity.
As Manguel says, "For a reader, this may be the essential, perhaps the only justification for literature: that the madness of the world will not take us over completely though it invades our cellars (the metaphor belongs to Machado de Assis) and then softly takes over the dining room, the living room, the whole house."
While this man of letters admits that the future may belong to screens and e-books, he doesn't panic over the prospect: fiction and poetry and history will survive, no matter what the delivery system. Still, Manguel remains fundamentally a book person. After all, he owns 30,000 of these oblong objects. Besides, as all serious readers know, books are more than just the words they contain. Reading is intensely personal, deeply Proustian, such that merely picking up a favorite book will summon forth remembrance of its distinctive bliss: "Context, material support, the physical history and experience of a text are part of the text, as much as its vocabulary and its music. In the most literal sense, matter is not immaterial." As Manguel stresses, in turning the pages of a book we discover a record of our own experiences. "Reading is the ability to enter a text and explore it to one's fullest individual capacities, repossessing it in the act of reinvention."
The range of A Reader on Reading is in itself as intriguing as that of a good library. Here are reflections on the shape of the page, the full-stop at the end of the sentence, and the first person singular ("I"); on erotic literature, word games (e.g. charade sentences: "Flamingo pale, scenting a latent shark/ Flaming opalescent in gala tents—hark!"), and the ideal reader; on the story of Jonah and the Whale, Beatrice's smile in Dante's Paradiso, "How Pinocchio Learned to Read," and the comforts of "Don Quixote." All are thoughtful, benevolent, serenely learned.
There is, however, one kind of essay where Manguel shows much more fire: his reminiscences of and reflections on Argentina. In "The Death of Che Guevara," he examines the iconic importance of Che to his (and my) generation, sadly noting that the National Tourist Board in Bolivia now "conducts tours to the site of Che's final campaign and the hospital where his body was displayed." In other pieces he recalls classmates who were killed for voicing their political opinions, destroys with methodical relentlessness the arguments for granting amnesty to their torturers and murderers, wonders, with a sickened heart, about the beloved literature teacher who was an inspiration in the classroom and yet was simultaneously supplying information about his students to the secret police. (This man's almost unimaginable inner life became the subject of Manguel's novel, News from a Foreign Country Came.) To Manguel, the gratuitous inflicting of pain on another human being is, quite rightly, the worst sin. Little wonder then that he confesses to casting Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho into the trash, not wishing to have his other books contaminated by the novel's repellent cruelties.
Perhaps my own favorite essay in a book full of good things is "The Library of the Wandering Jew." Naturally, Manguel first relates the legend of the cobbler before whose door Christ stumbled on his way to Crucifixion. The man, named Ahasuerus, pushes Christ away, telling him to get moving. "'I will move on,' Christ answers, 'but you will tarry till I come!'" Ever since, Ahasuerus has wandered the world, able to speak every language, never aging but increasingly weary with all he has seen of men, and longing for the release into death that will only come with the Second Coming.
It is a romantic story, much favored by Gothic novelists and writers of fantasy and science fiction. (See, for instance, Walter M. Miller Jr.'s sf classic A Canticle for Leibowitz.) Not surprisingly then, the Eternal Wanderer haunted the young Manguel's dreams, albeit in an unexpected manner: "I did not feel his fate as a curse; I thought how wonderful it would be to travel alone and endlessly, to visit every country in the world and to meet all sorts of extraordinary people; above all, to be able to read any book that fell into my hands."
In some ways, the much-traveled Alberto Manguel has clearly lived out his boyish dream. In truth, though, reading can allow any of us to wander the world, as well as the world's past and future. Through books we acquire the means to understand what Manguel calls "our bewildering experience" of life; they orient us through their "mobility and stability, self-reflection and the gift of looking outward." Long ago now, Borges imagined the universe as a vast library. But could he have ever imagined that the young man who read to him on sunny afternoons would one day become such a genial guide to its treasures?
A Reader in the Looking-Glass Wood
"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 6
When I was eight or nine, in a house that no longer stands, someone gave me a copy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Like so many other readers, I have always felt that the edition in which I read a book for the first time remains, for the rest of my life, the original one. Mine, thank the stars, was enriched by John Tenniel's illustrations and was printed on thick, creamy paper that reeked mysteriously of burnt wood.
There was much I didn't understand in my first reading of Alice, but that didn't seem to matter. I learned at a very early age that unless you are reading for some purpose other than pleasure (as we all sometimes must for our sins), you can safely skim over difficult quagmires, cut your way through tangled jungles, skip the solemn and boring lowlands, and simply let yourself be carried by the vigorous stream of the tale.
As far as I can remember, my first impression of the adventures was that of a physical journey on which I myself became poor Alice's companion. The fall down the rabbit hole and the crossing through the looking-glass were merely starting points, as trivial and as wonderful as boarding a bus. But the journey! When I was eight or nine, my disbelief was not so much suspended as yet unborn, and fiction felt at times more real than everyday fact. It was not that I thought that a place such as Wonderland actually existed, but that I knew it was made of the same stuff as my house and my street and the red bricks that were my school.
A book becomes a different book every time we read it. That first childhood Alice was a journey, like the Odyssey or Pinocchio, and I have always felt myself a better Alice than a Ulysses or a wooden puppet. Then came the adolescent Alice, and I knew exactly what she had to put up with when the March Hare offered her wine when there was no wine at the table, or when the Caterpillar wanted her to tell him exactly who she was and what was meant by that. Tweedledee and Tweedledum's warning that Alice was nothing but the Red King's dream haunted my sleep, and my waking hours were tortured by exams in which Red Queen teachers asked me questions like "Take a bone from a dog: what remains?" Later, in my twenties, I found the trial of the Knave of Hearts collected in André Breton's Anthologie de l'humour noir, and it became obvious that Alice was a sister of the surrealists; after a conversation with the Cuban writer Severo Sarduy in Paris, I was startled to discover that Humpty Dumpty owed much to the structuralist doctrines of Change and Tel Quel. And later still, when I made my home in Canada, how could I fail to recognize that the White Knight ("But I was thinking of a plan /To dye one's whiskers green, / And always use so large a fan /That they could not be seen") had found a job as one of the numerous bureaucrats that scurry through the corridors of every public building in my country?
In all the years during which I've read and reread Alice, I have come across many other different and interesting readings of her books, but I can't say that any of these have become, in any deep sense, my own. The readings of others influence, of course, my personal reading, offer new points of view or color certain passages, but mostly they are like the comments of the Gnat who keeps naggingly whispering in Alice's ear, "You might make a joke on that." I refuse; I'm a jealous reader and will not allow others a jus primae noctis with the books that I read. The intimate sense of kinship established so many years ago with my first Alice has not weakened; every time I reread her, the bonds strengthen in very private and unexpected ways. I know other bits by heart. My children (my eldest daughter is, of course, called Alice) tell me to shut up when I burst, yet again, into the mournful strains of "The Walrus and the Carpenter." And for almost every new experience, I find a premonitory or nostalgic echo in her pages, telling me once again, "This is what lies ahead of you" or "You have been here before."
One adventure among many does not describe for me any particular experience I have had or may one day have but rather seems to address something vaster, an experience or (if the term is not too grand) a philosophy of life. It takes place at the end of chapter 3 of Through the Looking-Glass. After passing through her reflection and making her way across the chessboard country that lies behind it, Alice reaches a dark wood where (she has been told) things have no names. "Well, at any rate it's a great comfort," she says bravely, "after being so hot, to get into the—into the—into what?" Astonished at not being able to think of the word, Alice tries to remember. "'I mean to get under the—under the—under this, you know!' putting her hand on the trunk of a tree. 'What does it call itself, I wonder? I do believe it's got no name—why, to be sure it hasn't.'" Trying to recall the word for the place she is in, accustomed to putting into words her experience of reality, Alice suddenly discovers that nothing actually has a name: that until she herself can name something, that thing will remain nameless, present but silent, intangible as a ghost. Must she remember these forgotten names? Or must she make them up, brand new? Hers is an ancient conundrum.
After creating Adam "out of the dust of the ground" and placing him in a garden east of Eden (as the second chapter of Genesis tells us), God went on to create every beast of the field and every fowl of the air, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them; and whatever Adam called every living creature, "that was the name thereof." For centuries, scholars have puzzled over this curious exchange. Was Adam in a place (like the Looking-Glass Wood) where everything was nameless, and was he supposed to invent names for the things and creatures he saw? Or did the beasts and the fowl that God created indeed have names, which Adam was meant to know, and which he was to pronounce like a child seeing a dog or the moon for the first time?
And what do we mean by a "name"? The question, or a form of the question, is asked in Through the Looking-Glass. A few chapters after crossing the nameless wood, Alice meets the doleful figure of the White Knight, who, in the authoritarian manner of adults, tells her that he will sing a song to "comfort" her. "The name of the song," says the Knight, "is called 'Haddocks' Eyes'":
"Oh, that's the name of the song, is it?" Alice said, trying to feel interested.
"No, you don't understand," the Knight said, looking a little vexed. "That's what the name is called. The name really is 'The Aged Aged Man.'"
"Then I ought to have said 'That's what the song is called'?" Alice corrected herself.
"No, you oughtn't: that's quite another thing! The song is called 'Ways And Means': but that's only what it's called, you know!"
"Well, what is the song then?" said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.
"I was coming to that," the Knight said. "The song really is 'A-sitting On A Gate': and the tune's my own invention."
As it turns out, the tune isn't his own invention (as Alice points out) and neither are the Knight's careful distinctions between what a name is called, the name itself, what the thing it names is called, and the thing itself; these distinctions are as old as the first commentators of Genesis. The world into which Adam was inducted was innocent of Adam; it was also innocent of Adam's words. Everything Adam saw, everything he felt, as everything he fancied or feared, was to be made present to him (as, eventually, to every one of us) through layers of names, names with which language tries to clothe the nakedness of experience. It is not by chance that once Adam and Eve lost their innocence, they were obliged to wear skins "so that," says a Talmudic commentator, "they might learn who they were through the shape that enveloped them." Words, the names of things, give experience its shape.
The task of naming belongs to every reader. Others who do not read must name their experience as best they can, constructing verbal sources, as it were, by imagining their own books. In our book-centered societies, the craft of reading signals our entrance into the ways of the tribe, with its particular codes and demands, allowing us to share the common source of recorded words; but it would be a mistake to think of reading as a merely receptive activity. On the contrary: Stéhane Mallarmé proposed that every reader's duty was "to purify the sense of the words of the tribe." To do this, readers must make books theirs. In endless libraries, like thieves in the night, readers pilfer names, vast and marvelous creations as simple as "Adam" and as far-fetched as "Rumpelstiltskin." Dante describes his encounter with the three beasts in a dark forest, "in the middle of the road of life"; for his readers that half-run life becomes their own, and also a mirror of another forest, a place they once saw in childhood, a forest that fills their dreams with scents of pine and fox. John Bunyan describes Christian running from his house with his fingers in his ears so as not to hear the pleas of his wife and children, and Homer describes Ulysses, bound to the mast, forced to listen to the sirens' song; the reader of Bunyan and Homer applies these words to the deafness of our contemporary, the amiable Prufrock. Edna St. Vincent Millay calls herself "domestic as a plate," and it is the reader who renames the daily kitchen china, the companion of our meals, with a newly acquired meaning. "Man's innate casuistry!" complained Karl Marx (as quoted by Friedrich Engels in The Origins of the Family): "To change things by changing their names!" And yet, pace Marx, that is exactly what we do.
As every child knows, the world of experience (like Alice's wood) is nameless, and we wander through it in a state of bewilderment, our heads full of mumblings of learning and intuition. The books we read assist us in naming a stone or a tree, a moment of joy or despair, the breathing of a loved one or the kettle whistle of a bird, by shining a light on an object, a feeling, a recognition and saying to us that this here is our heart after too long a sacrifice, that there is the cautionary sentinel of Eden, that what we heard was the voice that sang near the Convent of the Sacred Heart. These illuminations sometimes help; the order in which experiencing and naming take place does not much matter. The experience may come first and, many years later, the reader will find the name to call it in the pages of King Lear. Or it may come at the end, and a glimmer of memory will throw up a page we had thought forgotten in a battered copy of Treasure Island. There are names made up by writers that a reader refuses to use because they seem wrongheaded, or trite, or even too great for ordinary understanding, and are therefore dismissed or forgotten or kept for some crowning epiphany that (the reader hopes) will one day require them. But sometimes they help the reader name the unnamable. "You want him to know what cannot be spoken, and to make the perfect reply, in the same language," says Tom Stoppard in The Invention of Love. Sometimes a reader can find on a page that perfect reply.
The danger, as Alice and her White Knight knew, is that we sometimes confuse a name and what we call a name, a thing and what we call a thing. The graceful phantoms on a page, with which we so readily tag the world, are not the world. There may be no names to describe the torture of another human being, the birth of one's child. After creating the angels of Proust or the nightingale of Keats, the writer can say to the reader, "Into your hands I commend my spirit," and leave it at that. But how are readers to be guided by these entrusted spirits to find their way in the ineffable reality of the wood?
Systematic reading is of little help. Following an official book list (of classics, of literary history, of censored or recommended reading, of library catalogues) may, by chance, throw up a useful name, as long as we bear in mind the motives behind the lists. But the best guides, I believe, are the reader's whims—trust in pleasure and faith in haphazardness—which sometimes lead us into a makeshift state of grace, allowing us to spin gold out of flax.
Gold out of flax: in the summer of 1935 the poet Osip Mandelstam was granted by Stalin, supposedly as a favor, identity papers valid for three months, accompanied by a residence permit. According to his wife, Nadezhda Mandelstam, this little document made their lives much easier. It happened that a friend of the Mandelstams, the actor and essayist Vladimir Yakhontov, chanced to come through their city. In Moscow he and Mandelstam had amused themselves by reading from ration books, in an effort to name paradise lost. Now the two men did the same thing with their identity papers. The scene is described in Nadezhda's memoir Hope Against Hope: "It must be said that the effect was even more depressing. In the ration book they read off the coupons solo and in chorus: 'Milk, milk, milk ... cheese, meat ...' When Yakhontov read from the identity papers, he managed to put ominous and menacing inflections in his voice: 'Basis on which issued ... issued ... by whom issued ... special entries ... permit to reside, permit to reside, permit to re-side ...'"
All true readings are subversive, against the grain, as Alice, a sane reader, discovered in the Looking-Glass world of mad name givers. The Duchess calls mustard "a mineral"; the Cheshire Cat purrs and calls it "growling"; a Canadian prime minister tears up the railway and calls it "progress"; a Swiss businessman traffics in loot and calls it "commerce"; an Argentinean president shelters murderers and calls it "amnesty." Against such misnomers readers can open the pages of their books. In such cases of willful madness, reading helps us maintain coherence in the chaos. Not to eliminate it, not to enclose experience within conventional verbal structures, but to allow chaos to progress creatively on its own vertiginous way. Not to trust the glittering surface of words but to burrow into the darkness.
The impoverished mythology of our time seems afraid to go beneath the surface. We distrust profundity, we make fun of dilatory reflection. Images of horror flick across our screens, big or small, but we don't want them slowed down by commentary: we want to watch Gloucester's eyes plucked out but not to have to sit through the rest of Lear. One night, some time ago, I was watching television in a hotel room, zapping from channel to channel. Perhaps by chance, every image that held the screen for a few seconds showed someone being killed or beaten, a face contorted in anguish, a car or a building exploding. Suddenly I realized that one of the scenes I had flicked past did not belong to a drama series but to a newscast on war in the Balkans. Among the other images which cumulatively diluted the horror of violence, I had watched, unmoved, a real person being hit by a real bullet.
George Steiner suggested that the Holocaust translated the horrors of our imagined hells into a reality of charred flesh and bone; it may be that this translation marked the beginning of our modern inability to imagine another person's pain. In the Middle Ages, for instance, the horrible torments of martyrs depicted in countless paintings were never viewed simply as images of horror: they were illumined by the theology (however dogmatic, however catechistic) that bred and defined them, and their representation was meant to help the viewer reflect on the world's ongoing suffering. Not every viewer would necessarily see beyond the mere prurience of the scene, but the possibility for deeper reflection was always present. After all, an image or a text can only offer the choice of reading further or more profoundly; this choice the reader or viewer can reject since in themselves text and image are nothing but dabs on paper, stains on wood or canvas.
The images I watched that night were, I believe, nothing but surface; like pornographic texts (political slogans, Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho, advertising pap), they offered nothing but what the senses could apprehend immediately, all at once, fleetingly, without space or time for reflection.
Excerpted from A Reader on Reading by Alberto Manguel. Copyright © 2010 by Alberto Manguel. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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I. WHO AM I?....................
A Reader in the Looking-Glass Wood.................... 3
Room for the Shadow.................... 11
On Being Jewish.................... 22
Meanwhile, in Another Part of the Forest.................... 26
The Further off from England.................... 37
Homage to Proteus.................... 42
II. THE LESSON OF THE MASTER....................
Borges in Love.................... 47
Borges and the Longed-For Jew.................... 62
Faking It.................... 66
The Death of Che Guevara.................... 79
The Blind Bookkeeper.................... 86
The Perseverance of Truth.................... 95
AIDS and the Poet.................... 104
The Full Stop.................... 115
In Praise of Words.................... 117
A Brief History of the Page.................... 120
The Voice That Says "I".................... 128
Final Answers.................... 137
What Song the Sirens Sang.................... 141
V. THE IDEAL READER....................
Notes Towards a Definition of the Ideal Reader.................... 151
How Pinocchio Learned to Read.................... 155
Candide in Sanssouci.................... 164
The Gates of Paradise.................... 172
Time and the Doleful Knight.................... 182
Saint Augustine's Computer.................... 187
VI. BOOKS AS BUSINESS....................
Reading White for Black.................... 201
The Secret Sharer.................... 207
Honoring Enoch Soames.................... 214
Jonah and the Whale.................... 218
The Legend of the Dodos.................... 227
VII. CRIME AND PUNISHMENT....................
In Memoriam.................... 231
God's Spies.................... 237
Once Again, Troy.................... 248
Art and Blasphemy.................... 251
At the Mad Hatter's Table.................... 254
VIII. THE NUMINOUS LIBRARY....................
Notes Towards a Definition of the Ideal Library.................... 267
The Library of the Wandering Jew.................... 270
The Library as Home.................... 278
The End of Reading.................... 282