A Reader on Reading

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?

About the Columnist
Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post Book World. He is the author of the memoir An Open Book and several collections of essays. His most recent book is Classics for Pleasure.

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