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A Reader on Reading

By Alberto Manguel,
Yale University Press, 2010

Holding a light bulb in one’s hand produces a set of possibilities, each of them equally plausible: if screwed into a socket and charged with electricity, the light bulb either will work or will not work – the bulb is in equal parts useful and useless. And, in its convoluted way, this seems to be Alberto Manguel’s central belief about any given book. The novel (any novel, if read correctly) is a useful thing – certain texts cast light on our lives in such a way that we might consider ourselves anew, notice beauty in corners previously shadowed; and also it is useless – no book will never stop the spread of HIV or the abuse of political power or even our own dark fears, whatever they may be.

In A Reader on Reading, Manguel carries around his library a diverse array of light bulbs – one is called Don Quixote, one The Divine Comedy, one The Odyssey, and so on – and for three hundred pages he screws and unscrews them into different fixtures – art, politics, religion, sexuality, Alberto Manguel. Though now and again he clumsily blows a fuse or shakes loose a perfectly good filament, he proves himself a master electrician, able to make old and dusty bulbs glow bright. Reader, then, is a weird chandelier – both a functional structure providing light to any reader who wishes to read beneath it, and also a lamp colorful and original enough itself to be considered art.

A Reader on Reading is meticulously arranged; A Reader on Reading is utterly disorganized. Speaking of his library, which holds over 30,000 books, Manguel says, “I have organized it simply according to my own requirements and prejudices. A certain zany logic governs its geography.” The same could be said of Reader. (Indeed, Manguel has a history of letting spontaneity guide him. In the introduction to his book Reading Pictures, he admits that the narrative was organized by “Chance, private attractions, and the suspicion of an interesting story…. I have not attempted to devise or discover a systematic method.”) There are thirty-nine chapters spread among eight sections. The distinctions between each chapter are mostly irrelevant. A two-page parable about the demise of the publishing industry (“The Legend of the Dodos”) follows a ten-page re-imagining of Jonah and the Whale.

Some of its erratic structure, though, probably arises from the fact that A Reader on Reading was not conceived in any linear fashion. Rather, it is an accumulation – a Best Of – of essays that Manguel has published in the last twenty years. Remarkably, though the arguments here span decades and defy conventional definitions of unity, gathered together there is an undeniable coherence to his thoughts.

Manguel gives literature a catholic definition. He makes no attempt to joust with books and defeat them (as Nabokov might be said to do in his Lectures on Literature), nor does he endeavor to compartmentalize books into theoretical categories (the terms modernist, postmodernist, realist, and surrealist have no place here). Rather, Manguel asserts that everything is literature. The Odyssey is literature and The Da Vinci Code is literature and the cover of The Da Vinci Code is literature and the Old Testament and sexual intercourse and a car battery and the childhood of Alberto Manguel. (About the only thing he excludes from his definition – singled out at three separate times in the book – is the work of Bret Easton Ellis.) Manguel follows happily in the footsteps of his fellow countryman Jorge Luis Borges – one of Reader’s sections, “The Lesson of the Master,” is devoted to Borges’s work and influence – and Manguel’s philosophy closely resembles that of the eponymous character from Borges’ story “A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain”: “He believes that ‘great literature’ is the commonest thing in the world, and that there was hardly a conversation in the street that did not attain those ‘heights.’”

In A Reader on Reading, simply everything can be read and interpreted for meaning (“Puns,” he says, “reveal behind their at times doubtful humor the weblike coherence of the cosmos”) and Manguel’s arguments are so seductive that his readers can’t help but to adopt his view: the world is an incredibly meaningful place, even if often cruel and ungraspable:

Alice and her Wonderland shadows play out for us the parts we enact in the real world. Their folly is tragic or amusing, they are themselves exemplary fools or they are eloquent witnesses to the folly of their shadowy brethren, they tell us stories of absurd or mad behavior which mirrors our own so that we may better see and understand it. The difference is that their folly, unlike ours, is framed by the margins of the page, contained by the however-uncertain imagination of their author. Crimes and evil deeds in the real world have sources so deep and consequences so distant that we can never hold them entirely in our understanding, we can merely clip them in a moment, box them in a judicial file, or observe them under the lens of psychoanalysis…. The folly of the world is unintelligible.

Alberto Manguel

What separates Manguel from Roland Barthes and similar-minded poststructuralists that attempted to democratize the definition of literature, though, is that Manguel isn’t trying to overhaul canons or establish new norms. His views aren’t reactions against previous theories. He simply seems to be recording the world as he sees it, the way a carpenter might look at a forest and see rocking chairs and bed frames, without ulterior aspirations of converting readers to his views (the carpenter, to carry out the analogy, has not brought his saw with him).

There is no thesis or central narrative. The first couple chapters might best be described as memoir-ish, as Manguel explains how he first fell in love with books. When the third chapter, “On Being Jewish,” deviates somewhat from this structure – it is less about Manguel’s Judaism than his thoughts on “constructed identity” – I was a little put off. I found myself hoping for a memoir, and was disappointed in Reader for a few pages because it didn’t conform to my expectations. Manguel is an Argentine Jewish homosexual, and he writes about Argentina and Judaism and homosexuality, but rarely delves into how these things have affected him personally. At a certain point, though, I abandoned my own logic and submitted to the author’s – or rather, as I kept reading, my own notions of logic seemed more and more arbitrary.

Though it may not be a memoir, one senses that Reader exposes Manguel’s innermost feelings and thoughts. He’s writing about books, sure, but he’s also writing about AIDS, politics, martyrdom, and Truth. And himself. His brain and chest are turned inside-out, their contents translated into prose. “In the midst of uncertainty and many kinds of fear, threatened by loss, change, and the welling of pain within and without for which one can offer no comfort, readers know that at least there are, here and there, a few safe places, as real as paper and as bracing as ink.”

Ultimately what comes through above all else is Manguel’s love of reading, which he designates the “most human of creative activities”:

What remains invariable is the pleasure of reading, of holding a book in my hands and suddenly feeling that peculiar sense of wonder, recognition, chill, or warmth that for no discernible reason a certain string of words sometimes evokes…. I believe there is an ethic of reading, a responsibility in how we read, a commitment that is both political and private in the act of turning the pages and following the lines. And I believe that sometimes, beyond the author’s intentions and beyond the reader’s hopes, a book can make us better and wiser.

One chapter is an ode to the full stop, one a meditation on page size and paper quality, and another simply an appreciation of words. My harshest criticism, to which I think Manguel might be acutely sensitive, is that the font of Reader is slightly too small.

The book would be a failure, though, if all it did was to appreciate. But Manguel is unafraid to admit to the shortcomings of prose, and does so frequently. He warns against forgetting that the great novels and stories that have come from the Holocaust and Vietnam and Argentina’s Dirty War do little to mitigate the tragedies from which the art has arisen. Without these concessions, Reader would be nothing more than a book-long justification of one man’s solipsistic hobby. It may matter to the world that Don Quixote was written, but it will never matter to the world that Manguel (or I) read it individually. By acknowledging the weaknesses of literature, though, Manguel’s faith in it becomes all the more potent. The implicit question is why, in the face of the possible uselessness of reading, Manguel continues to read. His answer is that reading is a means to asking more questions, and questioning the world is his first step toward illuminating it. “Literature, as we know all too well, does not offer solutions, but poses good conundrums,” he says. “I am tempted to say that perhaps this is all that literature really does.”

Of course this idea isn’t anything new – Manguel offers incisive, surprising readings of The Odyssey and The Divine Comedy, but his larger ideas will likely have flashed previously across the minds of his readers – but his path toward it is self-beaten and worthwhile to follow.

Reading, we come to learn by the end of the book (or, perhaps, just have reaffirmed) is at once pleasurable, powerful, and sorrowful. The paradox of it – sitting alone in one’s room with a book as a way to connect with the world – makes a little more sense, or seems to. And the selfishness of it seems a little more justified. The sun will never shine for any one of us, but we are all, Manguel might say, entitled to our bedside lamps.

Max Ross‘s reviews have appeared in The Boston Globe, The Star Tribune, The Harvard Review, and The Rumpus. He lives in New York.