From June 2002 to may 2003, Alberto Manguel set out to reread twelve of the books he likes best, and to share with us, his "gentle readers," his impressions and experiences in doing so. We travel with him as he leaves Canada to set up house in a medieval presbytery in France, visits his childhood home in Argentina and embarks on trips to various other places, always carrying a book in his hand.
The result is an immensely enjoyable collection for every lover of reading -- something between an intimate diary, a collection of literary thoughts, and the best travel memoir. A Reading Diary ranges from reflections on much-loved writers -- Margaret Atwood, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, Cervantes -- to seductive introductions to others about whom you will want to know more, such as Sei Shonagon and Adolfo Bioy Casares, simultaneously providing insights into the world of today, its changing seasons and pleasures, its shifting politics and wars -- all illuminated by the great novel he is reading at the time.
A Reading Diary is a walk through a year's worth of best beloved books in the company of an eclectically learned friend. Touching on themes of home and wandering, memory and loss, Alberto Manguel perfectly traces the threads between our reading and our lived experience.
Excerpt from A Reading Diary:
We have been in ourhouse in France for just over a year, and already I have to leave, to visit my family in Buenos Aires. I don't want to go. I want to enjoy the village in summer, the garden, the house kept cool by the thick ancient walls. I want to start setting up the books on the shelves we have just had built. I want to sit in my room and work.
On the plane, I pull out a copy of Adolfo Bioy Casares's The Invention of Morel, the tale of a man stranded on an island that is apparently inhabited by ghosts, a book I read for the first time thirty, thirty-five years ago. . . .
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" . . . that we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valour and generosity we have."
"Like every person of good taste, Menard abominated such worthless pantomimes, only apt -- he would say -- to provoke the plebeian pleasure of anachronism or (what is worse) to enthrall us with the rudimentary notion that all ages are the same or that they are different."
--Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones
There are books that we skim over happily, forgetting one page as we turn to the next; others that we read reverently, without daring to agree or disagree; others that offer mere information and preclude our commentary; others still that, because we have loved them so long and so dearly, we can repeat, word by word, since we know them, in the truest sense, by heart.
Reading is a conversation. Lunatics engage in imaginary dialogues which they hear echoing somewhere in their minds; readers engage in a similar dialogue provoked silently by words on a page. Usually the reader's response is not recorded, but often a reader will feel the need to take up a pencil and answer back on the margins of a text. This comment, this gloss, this shadow that sometimes accompanies our favourite books extends and transports the text into another time and another experience; it lends reality to the illusion that a book speaks to us and wills us (its readers) into being.
A couple of years ago, after my fifty-third birthday, I decided to reread a few of my favourite old books, and I was struck, once again, by how their many-layered and complex worlds of the past seemed toreflect the dismal chaos of the world I was living in. A passage in a novel would suddenly illuminate an article in the daily paper; a half-forgotten episode would be recalled by a certain scene; a single word would prompt a long reflection. I decided to keep a record of these moments.
It occurred to me then that, rereading a book a month, I might complete, in a year, something between a personal diary and a commonplace book: a volume of notes, reflections, impressions of travel, sketches of friends, of events public and private, all elicited by my reading. I made a list of what the chosen books would be. It seemed important, for the sake of balance, that there should be a little of everything. (Since I'm nothing if not an eclectic reader, this wasn't too difficult to accomplish.)
Reading is a comfortable, solitary, slow and sensuous task. Writing used to share some of these qualities. However, in recent times the profession of writer has acquired something of the ancient professions of travelling salesman and repertory actor, and writers are called upon to perform one-night stands in faraway places, extolling the virtues of their own books instead of toilet brushes or encyclopedia sets. Mainly because of these duties, throughout my reading year I found myself travelling to many different cities and yet wishing to be back home, in my house in a small village in France, where I keep my books and do my work.
Scientists have imagined that, before the universe came into being, it existed in a state of potentiality, time and space held in abeyance--"in a fog of possibility," as one commentator put it, until the Big Bang. This latent existence should surprise no reader, for whom every book exists in a dreamlike condition until the hands that open it and the eyes that peruse it stir the words into awareness. The following pages are my attempt to record a few such awakenings.
Part One -- 2002
June -- The Invention of Morel
We have been in our house in France for just over a year, and already I have to leave, to visit my family in Buenos Aires. I don't want to go. I want to enjoy the village in summer, the garden, the house kept cool by the thick, ancient walls. I want to start setting up the books on the shelves we have just had built. I want to sit in my room and work.
On the plane, I pull out a copy of Adolfo Bioy Casares's The Invention of Morel, the tale of a man stranded on an island that is apparently inhabited by ghosts, a book I read for the first time thirty, thirty-five years ago.
This is my first visit to Buenos Aires after the December crisis of 2001, which unhitched the peso from the dollar, saw the economy crash and left thousands of people ruined. Downtown, there are no visible signs of the disaster except that, just before nightfall, the streets fill with hordes of cartoneros, men, women and children who scrape a living by collecting recyclable rubbish off the sidewalks. Perhaps most crises are invisible: there are no attendant pathetic fallacies to help us see the devastation. Shops close, people look haggard, prices jump, but overall life carries on: the restaurants are full, the shops still stock expensive imports (though I overhear one woman complaining, "I can't find aceto balsamico anywhere!"), the city bustles noisily long past midnight. A tourist in a city that was once my own, I don't see the growing slums, the hospitals lacking supplies, the bankruptcies, the middle class joining soup-kitchen queues.
My brother wants to buy me a new recording of Bach's Magnificat. He stops at five bank machines before one agrees to release a few bills. I ask, what will he do when he can't find an obliging machine? There will always be at least one, he says, with magical confidence.
The Invention of Morel begins with a phrase now famous in Argentine literature: "Today, on this island, a miracle happened." Miracles in Argentina appear to be quotidian. Bioy's narrator: "Here are neither hallucinations nor images: merely real men, at least as real as myself."
Picasso used to say that everything was a miracle, and that it was a miracle one didn't dissolve in one's bath.
Table of ContentsA Year of Books
June: The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
July: The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells
August: Kim by Rudyard Kipling
September: Memoirs from Beyond the Grave by François-René de Chateaubriand
October: The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
November: Elective Affinities by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
December: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
January: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
February: The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati
March: The Pillow-Book by Sei Shonagon
April: Surfacing by Margaret Atwood
May: The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis