on 27 April 2011
Another beautifully written series of meditations on the book and literary culture, including libraries (of course) and some highly entertaining swipes at Anglo-Saxon publishing. Manguel wears his breadth of reading lightly and refuses to engage in (for example) Deleuzian theoretical pyrotechnics, insisting - implicitly - on truth to feeling and perception. There is deep thinking here but not theory. The 'unhistoric act' of reading, for Manguel - to allude to Eliot's jaw-dropping banality-complexity trope at the end of *Middlemarch* - 'contributes to the growing good of the world' simply because reading is simple, dignified, absurd, rich, complex - in short, human. Readers find meaning - and make their own meanings - everywhere. I find Manguel excellent reading company, urbane and humane, a friend and not a preacher.
Only four stars here, though, compared with the wondrously seraphic and Browneian *Library at NIght* and the hardly less majestic *HIstory of Reading*. Why? Unfortunately this is a publisher's potboiler, recycling some old material (yes, most of which is very good). Manguel has worked hard, though, to bring everything together, rewriting and adding an epigraph from Carroll's Alice stories to each essay. The worst thing about it - leaving aside one or two leaden and sententious Guardian-style political assertions (as if the expression of worthy opinion ipso facto makes the world a better place) - is the title, which is deliberately mendacious. In Manguel's capable hands, a reader (especially Manguel) writing about reading would be a wonderful self-reflexive project, pulsing with life and intelligence. But this is not what this title is, though you can see the publishers nudging themselves in the ribs and congratulating themselves on being 'clever'. The 'reader' here is just one of those dreary publishers' makeweight titles, a synonym for a rehash. Thus the title sucks the meaning out of Manguel's conception of the nobility of the simple and human act of reading. I metaphorically throw some heavy brickbats through the windows of the Yale University Press offices - although the production department there have done him good service, with a sensuously chiaroscuro still life cover and some delicious and generously spaced Fournier. Read it in spite of the title.
on 21 July 2012
After leaving school, this being one of the few things school and I agreed on, I went into work, training as a comme chef, bypassing the higher education route for a fixed income and an escape from all things educational. So although my love of literature continued, even grew, it was without formal structure. In fact, it could quite easily be said that my route through literature was more of a paper chase, where one clue led to the next, or led me off on some strange/wild tangent - this solely depending on the degree of communication between myself and the last book read. Via this means, I discovered my path through the reading world, where one writer begat another, who begat another, who....., until, like some large shadow, this accumulation of the written word trailed behind me, to remain forever linked with some part of me, whether as a point in time, a recollection or, on a deeper level, as some elemental condition of who I am, and in the process became my personal library. This library, being the sum total of everything I've read.This lifetimes reading forms my key, my starting point, my guide and my level playing field, for everything I will read, and yet this is just one of the bibliotheca, a reader has at their disposal, and by reader I mean one such as myself, someone who believes books are:
not something you pick up between programmes;
as valid a form of nourishment as any protein/vitamin;
not merely entertainment (although it can be);
truth, even if the form taken is fiction.
"We come into the world intent on finding narrative in everything, in the landscape, in the skies, in the faces of others, and, of course, in the images and words that our species create". So writes Alberto Manguel, in this fantastic, thought provoking joy of a book - A Reader on reading. He goes on to say, via the thirty-nine essays collected here, " when the world becomes incomprensible..... when we feel unguided and bewildered, we seek a place in which comprehension (or faith in comprehension ) has been set down in words" and through the narratives of Jonah, Homer & Dante, and through topics ranging from Pinocchio to comics, from Borges to Che Guevara, and even Lewis Carroll's Alice, we are guided into the writer's world. To Alberto Manguel, reading is a refuge, an escape route, reading is a compass that aids our discovery of the world and of ourselves. He argues that this most human of creative activities defines us, that at the core we are "Reading Animals" intent on reading our own lives and those of others.
One of my favourite essays, titled- Notes Towards a Definition of the Ideal Reader- starts with a list cataloguing his thoughts on what makes an Ideal Reader, here's a few.
The ideal Reader is The Writer just before the words come together on the page.
Ideal Readers do not reconstruct a story: they re-create it.
The ideal Reader is the translator, able to follow to dissect the text, peel back the skin, slice down the marrow, follow each artery and each vein, and then set on its feet a whole new sentient being. The ideal Reader is not a taxidermist.
Ideal Readers do not follow a story; they partake of it.
The ideal Reader never exhausts the books geography.
The marquis de Sade: "I only write for those capable of understanding me, and these will read me with no danger"---- The Marquis de Sade is wrong: The Ideal Reader is always in danger.
Reading a book from centuries ago, The ideal Reader feels immortal.
Pinochet who banned Don Quixote because he thought it advocated civil disobedience, was that books Ideal Reader.
The Ideal Reader is capable of falling in love with one of the book's characters.
This is one of those books that should be on the bedside table, of every reader, if you love books, if you have a library of a few books, or thousands, add this to it. To finish this post - just a few definitions towards an Ideal Library.
In 1250 Richard de Fournival compared the Ideal library to a Hortus Conclusus, a walled garden.
The ideal Library disarms the curse of Babel.
The map of the ideal library is it's catalogue
No shelf in the Library is higher or lower than the reach of the readers arm. The ideal library does not require acrobatics
The ideal library is meant for one particular reader. Every reader must feel that he or she is the chosen one.
In the current climate of closures to libraries, under the reasoning (???) of cost-cutting measures, I've chosen this one to finish with.
The Ideal Library symbolizes everything a society stands for. A society depends on its libraries to know who it is because libraries are societies memory.
on 6 October 2010
In the dying era of the book (see numerous books) the bookish are spoilt. I'm a sucker for essay collections (in England now the essay's believed dead; hah! - look west) and this one's sumptuous, scrumptious even; a veritable goody-bag -- and like a literary chocolate box there'll probably be one you leave till last (Don Quixote? ugh!) -- but it's mostly self-indulgence unless you're allergic to Alice who - cryptically, demurely and, it has to be said, pretty irrelevantly - serves as running epigraph, or frilly paper between the titbits.
The English intellectual doesn't know quite what to make of the rest of the world's infatuation with Alice. Is it that foreigners have never heard the word twee or simply that we absorbed Alice along with Moley and Milne with our mother's milk and therefore never consciously had to 'read' her? Or (perish the thought) is her appeal partly class-based and therefore somehow tarnished in the world Blair left us? Pooh has been 'democratized' (read: ruined) by Disney and The Wind in the Willows by the feeble stage version Toad of Toad Hall* (Toad's a SUBPLOT! It's like A Dance to the Music of Time being called Widmerpool. Next, Widmerpool! The Musical?) And what about the mortal blow dealt The Railway Children by that sugary film (yes I know everyone younger than me loves it and had a pash on Jenny A, but I remember the FIRST (live) TV adaptation of the early 50s - and how many of you out there have READ THE BOOK anyway?) Middle-class icons all - but in the past available (through our great libraries) to ALL children with the hunger. And then there's Alice, who has the inestimable advantage of being an independent female. She is not easily pigeon-holed or cartoonified and if she can avoid being deconstructed she will survive: but how many children today are as familiar with her words as we were with those of the King James Bible, even in a godless household like the one that nurtured me?
* When I wrote this I hadn't registered Alan Bennett's version; it sounds much puckerer