Thursday 19 December 2013

A Reader on Reading - Alberto Manguel

It's been a good year for finishing books about books.  There was the wonderful Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet, which is one of my books of the year and which I read over the course of a couple of days - there was Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night, and there was his A Reader on Reading.  The Manguels I dipped in and out of contentedly for years - my lovely friend Lorna bought me A Reader on Reading back in 2010 - and it was with a happy sigh that I finally closed its pages a month or so ago.

It's the sort of book that one inevitably reads with a pencil in hand, wanting to make little notes of agreement in the margins - or at least jot down page numbers to read again later.  Manguel's work is a touch more high-flown than bookish books I adore (like Jacques Bonnet's, or Susan Hill's Howards End is on the Landing) but even when he is discoursing on Argentinian highbrows I've never read of, I can't help loving him - because, at heart, he is simply a passionate reader.
I believe that we are, at the core, reading animals and that the art of reading, in its broadest sense, defines our species.
I had to give up making notes quite early on, because I knew that I'd essentially want to write down every page.  There are literary truths known only to the ardent reader on almost every page.  My head nodded in happy agreement so often that I've probably got whiplash (NB, I probably haven't).  Check out these two:
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.
(That's how I feel about I Capture the Castle and the curious 1970s edition I read.)
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.  
Of course, having read it over so long a period, I can't remember all that much apart from the things I jotted down... I know that I ended up skimming some of the stuff on Borges, and was surprised by how interesting I found a political section towards the end.  When he wrote about individual authors and books, I tended only to be riveted when I knew the books myself (and I love that he uses Alice's Adventures in Wonderland for the source of every chapter's epigraph) but I was most delighted when he wrote about reading or writing in general.

I realised that if reading is a contented, sensuous occupation whose intensity and rhythm are agreed upon between the reader and the chosen book, writing instead 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.

Yes, this post is fast becoming simply a list of quotations, rather than a review, but I think that's the best way to entice you to read Manguel.  (Plus, I've just come off the stage for the village's Christmas show, and this is the best you can get out of me...!)  And with that in mind, I'll end with the longest quotation yet - about anonymous authors.
The history of writing, of which the history of reading is its first and last chapter, has among its many fantastical creations one that seems to me peculiar among all: that of the authorless text for which an author must be invented.  Anonymity has its attraction, and Anonymous is one of the major figures of every one of our literatures.  But sometimes, perhaps when the depth and reverberations of a text seem almost too universal to belong on an individual reader's bookshelf, we have tried to imagine for that text a poet of flesh and blood, capable of being Everyman.  It is as if, in recognizing in a work the expression in words of a private, wordless experience hidden deep within us, we wished to satisfy ourselves in the belief that this too was the creation of human hands and a human mind, that a man or woman like us was once able to tell for us that which we, younger siblings, merely glimpse or intuit.  In order to achieve this, the critical sciences come to our aid and do their detective work to rescue from discretion the nebulous author behind the Epic of Gilgamesh or La Vie devant soi, but their laborus are merely confirmation.  In the minds of their readers, the secret authors have already acquired a congenial familiarity, an almost physical presence, lacking nothing except a name.
Thankfully Manguel isn't anonymous, so I can go out and buy other books by him - and the hardback editions of his essays are simply beautiful.  Despite being a die-hard fiction lover, I think my dream books are non-fiction literary essays - which are essentially what blogs are, of course.  My little shelf of books-about-books may not be as extensive or as personal as the wide (and widening) blogosphere, but it holds almost as special place in my heart, and I long to find well-crafted examples to add to it.


  1. Books about books are wonderful, and also a very dangerous thing - much like reading book blogs, they can have a bad effect on the wishlist and the bank balance and the amount of space remaining in your house! Nevertheless, they are wonderful fun and I fear these will be going onto that wishlist...... :)

    1. This is true! Perhaps it's good to read generic ones about reading, rather than ones about specific books, because they tend to make me appreciate my own books rather than want to buy more...

  2. That note about how the edition one first read becomes one's definitive edition is so resonant with me - I've been re-reading a lot of Agatha Christie of late on my e-reader and they just don't seem quite 'right' without those surreal and gory 60s/70s covers which, when I first read her books, were so cheap secondhand and thus perfect for my teenage budget.

  3. Heh, kaggsy is so right! I've never read any Manguel, although I have a couple of his books.

    And I too agree about editions! I have one or two books which are really quite skanky now but I cannot replace them with smart new copies because that would be Wrong.

    Merry Christmas!

    1. I think you'd like his essays a lot, Helen... treat yourself to reading one of yours over the Christmas holiday :D

  4. I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed reading this post. It's been a while since I've read a book about books, I think in part this is a result of book blogging and reading book blogs. I just may pick up a book on books in the new year.

  5. The only minor quibble I have with Manguel is how often he talks about Borges. But in every other way, he is the perfect person to discuss books and reading, being so eloquent and unsnobbish.

  6. I have seen many great quotes about reading by this great mind. The book goes on my wishlist. Thank you very much for the recommendation.

    Marianne from Let's Read


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