Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Reader on Reading
by Alberto Manguel
Yale University Press 308 pages

One of the pleasures associated with reading literature is reading about the literature one has read, and even better, about the great literature that one has not yet read and—melancholy fate—probably never will. But in this age when such reading is considered dorky as well as obsolete, a shining rationale is also welcome.

Like Alberto Manguel’s insightful The Library at Night (published by Yale in 2008) this book is a collection of thematically linked pieces: a bit autobiographical, but mostly about specific authors and books (Borges, Conrad, Dante, Pinocchio) as well as cultural and political topics illustrated by authors from the Bible and Homer to Che Guevara.

Another pleasure of this kind of book is the apt quote, as this from Jorge Luis Borges (who Manguel knew in Argentina): “To imagine the plot of a novel is delectable. To actually write it out is an exaggeration.” And this (also Borges): “I’ve always said that the lasting aim of literature is to display our destinies.”

There is variety to choose from, and some chapters are especially tantalizing ( Manguel may have a fascinating book on Cervantes either aborning or aborted.) There is also enough sheer brilliance to make this a book to keep and savor.

Each chapter is headed by a mischievous quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, which pay off particularly in a late chapter, “At the Mad Hatter’s Table.” It begins: “As most perceptive readers will agree, the distinctive characteristic of the human world is its insanity.” Though he could not have foreseen it, Manguel’s reading of cultural politics implied in Carroll illuminates the current movement supposedly based on a different Tea Party. But he also notes that writing and reading are activities to lift the spirit, and perhaps the greatest human defense against the apocalyptic times.

The book ends with eloquent meditations on the meaning of reading itself. After confessing “As a child, I made no clear distinction between my own identity and that which books created for me,” he summarizes: “It may be that, of all the instruments we have invented to help us along the path of self-discovery, books are the most useful, the most practical, the most concrete. By lending words to our bewildering experience, books become compasses that emobdy the four cardinal points:mobility and stability, self-reflection and the gift of looking outward.”

Manguel then states something else that he’s so far implied: that reading can be a political act. It is not only pertinent as lived in time (he notes that he was reading of Don Quixote’s idealism during the political tumult of 1968), but as a perennial place to stand: “Reading at its best may lead to reflection and questioning, and reflection and questioning may lead to objection and change. That, in any society, is a dangerous enterprise.”

Reading provides us the power "to see with the eyes of others and speak with the tongues of the dead." "Reading is the ability to enter a text and explore it to one's fullest individual capabilities, repossessing it in the act of reinvention." Or as Emerson put it, when you are reading, "you are the book's book."

There is a chapter on wordplay, and the book's title is itself a pun. A Reader on Reading is autobiographical, with Manguel as the reader. But it is also a book of readings, often called a Reader. Manguel offers a chapter of adages on the ideal reader, such as "The Ideal Reader wishes to get to the end of the book and to know that the book will never end." "Reading a book from centuries ago, the ideal reader feels immortal." "The ideal reader is a novel's main character."

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