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A Reader on Reading

A Reader on Reading

by Alberto Manguel

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this excellent collection of essays, Argentinean novelist and critic Manguel (The Library at Night) examines the act of reading and the enduring power of words. Beginning each essay with epigraphs from either Alice's Adventures in Wonderland or Through the Looking-Glass, Manguel is equally at ease with scholarly matters, such as the (im)possibility of defining gay literature, as with the personal, particularly his account of traveling between Paris and London as a young man. Manguel returns often to texts and authors who've most inspired him, particularly Don Quixote and fellow Argentinean Jorge Luis Borges, whom he knew personally. It is not only words that interest Manguel: he is also fascinated by punctuation and the physicality of the page itself. Though reading is often a solitary activity, Manguel reminds us of the community we join every time we open a book, be it something new or a treasured volume from our youth. (Mar.)
Library Journal
If there are such things as a musician's musician and a writer's writer, one could argue that Manguel (The Library at Night) is a reader's reader. In this collection of 39 reformatted versions of previous publications and lectures, he continues his love affair with reading. Although books are central to Manguel's discussion, his understanding of reading is broad. Buildings, pictures, societies, and the lives of others, he explains, are also read. Politics, he states in "The Death of Che Guevara," may also be read, at times, as literature. Naturally, libraries appear in his conversation. A section titled "The Numinous Library" provides four essays, including the poemlike "Notes Toward a Definition of the Ideal Library." As can be expected, "Notes Toward a Definition of the Ideal Reader" is located elsewhere in the volume. Manguel also writes about his personal transition from reader to writer, Borges, gay literature, erotic literature, and numerous other topics. VERDICT Those who enjoy more scholarly and thoughtful books on reading will surely be intrigued by this title. A great buy for all libraries.—Stacy Russo, Chapman Univ. Libs., Orange, CA
The Observer

"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

New York Review of Books

“Essays of this quality are worth reading, or rereading, wherever they are encountered.”--John Gross, New York Review of Books

— John Gross

Mobile Press-Register

“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

The New Yorker

“A meditation on ‘the art of reading’ . . . [and] a celebration of ‘the reader’s whims--trust in pleasure and faith in haphazardness.’ ”--The New Yorker

The Observer - Peter Conrad

"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

New York Review of Books - John Gross

“Essays of this quality are worth reading, or rereading, wherever they are encountered.”--John Gross, New York Review of Books

Mobile Press-Register - John Sledge

“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

Barnes & Noble Review - Michael Dirda

“The range of A Reader on Reading is in itself as intriguing as that of a good library. . . . A book full of good things.”--Michael Dirda, Barnes & Noble Review

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Yale University Press
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Read an Excerpt

A Reader on Reading

By Alberto Manguel


Copyright © 2010 Alberto Manguel
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-16304-9



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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Alberto Manguel is one of the world's great readers. He is a member of PEN, a Guggenheim Fellow, and an Officer of the French Order of Arts and Letters. He has been the recipient of numerous prizes, including the Prix Médicis in essays for A History of Reading, and the McKitterick Prize for his novel News from a Foreign Country Came. Among his most recent books is The Library at Night, also published by Yale University Press. His work has been translated into more than thirty languages.

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