Archive for the ‘Alberto Manguel’ Category

Young Boy Reading by Henri Lebasque

Reading through Packing My Library by Alberto Manguel, there were almost endless quotes I wanted to write down and share with you.  Some I’m saving for my review but others, like this, demanded to be shared immediately.  I love Manguel’s description of his school library as a place without order, rich for exploration and exciting discoveries.  That is what every school library should feel like to a child.

My earliest public library was that of Saint Andrews Scots School, one of the several elementary schools I attended in Buenos Aires before the age of twelve.  It had been founded as a bilingual school in 1838 and was the oldest school of British origin in South America.  The library, though small, was for me a rich, adventurous place.  I felt like a Rider Haggard explorer in the dark forest of stacks that had a earthy smell in summer and reeked of damp wood in winter.  I would go to the library mainly to put my name on the list for the new Hardy Boys installment or a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories.  That school library, as far as I was aware, didn’t have a rigorous order: I would find books on dinosaurs next to several copies of Black Beauty, and war adventures coupled with biographies of English poets.  This flock of books, gathered with no other purpose (it seemed) than to offer the students a generous variety, suited my temperament: I didn’t want a strict guided tour, I wanted the freedom of the city, like that honor (we learned in history class) that mayors bestowed in the Middle Ages on foreign visitors.

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I adored the first two Alberto Manguel books I read: A Reading Diary and The Library at Night.  I am always searching for books about books and, of the ones I have read, Manguel’s have been by far the most eloquent.  He has a gift for describing his library and his reading experiences in a way that is very intimate but also recognizable.  I always come away feeling that he’s captured my experience exactly, though he is talking about himself.  For example, I think that most bibliophiles view their book collection not just as a library of knowledge and favourite stories but as a repository of very personal memories and experiences, specific to each book and the circumstances under which it came into their life.  Manguel understands this perfectly:

The library of my adolescence contained almost every book that still matters to me today; few essential books have been added.  Generous teachers, passionate booksellers, friends for whom giving a book was a supreme act of intimacy and trust helped me to build it.  Their ghosts kindly haunt my shelves, and the books they gave still carry their voices, so that now, when I open Isak Dinesen’s Gothic Tales or Blas de Otero’s early poems, I have the impression not of reading the book myself but of being read to out loud.  This is one of the reasons I never feel along in my library.

A Reader on Reading by Alberto Manguel is full of wonderful quotes like this but on the whole I can’t say I adored it as much as I did his other books.  I think I was just overwhelmed by the amount of information here and the dizzying array of topics covered.  The book is a collection of essays and while all of them incorporate Manguel’s experiences as a reader somehow, a large number are not particularly book-ish in focus: these are definitely essays by ‘a reader’ but they are certainly not always ‘on reading’.  Argentinean politics, gay literature and how to classify it, Voltaire and Frederick the Great, lots of Borges and Homer (as usual), ponderings on the digital age, even a consideration of proper comfort reading for hospital stays (Cervantes)…Manguel covers an overwhelming number of issues, of varying degrees of interest to this reader.  I certainly skimmed some of the sections – if you’re interested in Borges you will be well served by one section; I am not, so it was dispensed with quickly – but on the whole I was enraptured by Manguel’s thoughts, in awe, as always, of his vast literary knowledge.  This was also a more personal book than the other two I’ve read, giving more insight into his family background, his cosmopolitan early childhood, his school years and the many different book-related jobs he’s held as an adult all over the world.     

Reading Manguel just for the beauty of how he writes is always a pleasure but there is also a joy that comes with all of his literary references, particularly the obscure ones.  I am in awe of Manguel’s familiarity with all these books and poems and people and can only dream of what it must be like to have such a broad range of interests and to be so knowledge about them.  The reverence and respect I feel for him as a reader, not even as a writer, is part of what makes every Manguel reading experience so precious and why I take my time with his books.  Manguel, bless him, is a prodigious quoter, dropping in lines of poetry and passages from novels with delightful frequency and whether they are familiar to me or brand new they are always perfectly chosen and worth contemplating.

My favourite of the essays was “The Gates of Paradise”, a consideration of how erotic love is expressed by writers.  He examines the works of St John of the Cross, John Donne, a Sumerian poet circa 1700 BC, Nabokov, D.H. Lawrence, Marian Engel…the list goes on and its variety is part of what makes this essay so engaging. 

And then there are his lists: “Notes Towards a Definition of the Ideal Library” and “Notes Towards a Definition of the Ideal Reader”.  I love any kind of list but these – so delightfully random! – are better than most.  Here are a few points from each:

Notes Towards a Definition of the Ideal Library

  • The ideal reader is a cumulative reader: every reading of a book adds a new layer of memory to the narrative.
  • Ideal readers never count their books.
  • Reading a book from centuries ago, the ideal reader feels immortal.
  • For the ideal reader, every book reads, to a certain degree, as an autobiography.
  • The ideal reader is not concerned with anachronism, documentary truth, historical accuracy, topographical exactness.  The ideal reader is not an archaeologist.
  • 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.

Notes Towards a Definition of the Ideal Reader

  • The ideal library has comfortable but supportive seats with armrests and a curved back, like those of the lamented Salle Labrouste at the Bibliotheque nationale de France.  The ideal library has ample desks, preferably with smooth leather tops. Sockets for electrical equipment (on condition that they perform in utter silence), and soft individual lights that remind you of the green-glass reading lamps at the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires.
  • The ideal library allows every reader access to the stacks.  A reader must be granted the freedom of chance encounters.
  • In the ideal library there are no forbidden books and no recommended books.
  • The ideal library (like every library) holds at least one line that has been written exclusively for you.

Reading Manguel allows me to indulge in the fantasy that I am more intelligent, more sophisticated and far better reader than I am in fact.  It is a valuable fantasy that brings me a warm, if deluded, inner glow.  Part of Manguel’s magic is making his readers feel included rather than condescended to, whether they are familiar with the books his is discussing or not.  I love writers who write about the books I read – the wonderful Anne Fadiman for instance, – love recognizing my own reactions in theirs and love getting to know a familiar book better through other eyes.  But I love Manguel for reminding me just how vast the world of literature is, how many centuries and continents I’m yet unacquainted with, and how beautifully poetry, novels, history, memoirs, etc all compliment one another, how all have something new and thrilling to share with their readers.

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A Reading Diary very nearly made my Top Ten Books of 2010 list so I was understandably excited to read The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel.  And, as expected, I adored it.  Manguel is one of those authors I knew very little about a year ago but then when I started blogging it seemed that everyone knew about him, had read his works, and loved him beyond measure.  And now I have (very happily) become one of those people.  Indeed, I love him even more because first and foremost he identifies himself as Canadian though he’s Argentinean by birth and currently lives in France. 

I don’t like to read Manguel quickly – even when I consciously slow my reading rate down and take lots of breaks to copy out beautiful passages everything goes too fast.  Though, in the case of The Library at Night, the book is much shorter than it first appears with huge margins and many pictures filling up the pages.  But each sentence is so beautifully constructed, each thought so worthy of appreciation and reflection that to read without consideration, just to take each new piece of information in and not to let it spark an internal monologue of your own, seems ill-mannered.  Manguel makes me want to compose decadent sentences about luxuriating in his sumptuous prose…but I think such a departure from my usual style might alarm readers so I’ll try to restrain myself.

In The Library at Night, Manguel considers the impact libraries have had on our civilization, from both a historical and personal perspective.  While I never tire of learning about libraries ancient and modern its Manguel’s personal reflections that delight me most.  Everything flows so well that it’s like one wonderful long conversation with a favourite learned friend, a master storyteller who holds you rapt for the duration of his tale which, long or short, always seems to have passed too quickly.  I envy Manguel’s friends for the evenings they spend with him in conversation for he seems the kind of man who could talk intelligently and artfully on any subject and to do so outside, as he describes, would be heaven:

Inside the library, my books distract us from conversation and we are inclined to silence.  But outside, under the stars, talk becomes less inhibited, wider ranging, strangely more stimulating.  There is something abut sitting outside in the dark that seems conducive to unfettered conversation…

In the light, we read the inventions of others; in the darkness, we invent our own stories.

The book is divided into fifteen different chapters, each an essay on the different identities of libraries (as Myth, as Power, as Workshop, as Survival, as Imagination, etc).  My favourite by far was “The Library as Order” which considers the many different ways a library can be ordered.  I never tire of ordering and reordering my books, grouping by theme first, then perhaps nationality, then changing my mind a few weeks later and trying something new and strange but sensible in my own mind (if no one else’s).  In fact, this is something that has given me much pleasure over the last few days since my belongings have finally arrived and I have many books to unpack and shelve.  Considerable thought has been expended over this and it has been a most delightful pastime.

And, rather significantly in these days of aggressive technological advancements, Manguel knows that there is more to being a reader than simply taking in the words alone:

As any reader knows, a printed page creates its own reading space, its own physical landscape in which the texture of the paper, the colour of the ink, the view of the whole ensemble acquire in the reader’s hands specific meanings that lend tone and context to the words.  (Columbia University’s librarian Patricia Battin, a fierce advocate for the micro-filming of books, disagreed with this notion. ‘The value,’ she wrote, ‘in intelligent terms, of the proximity of the book to the user has never been satisfactorily established.’  There speaks a dolt, someone utterly insensitive, in intellectual or any other terms, to the experience of reading.) (p. 74-75)

I love Manguel because he understands not just the romance to be found in books but in the act of reading.  And that is more than enough for me.

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There are books that we skim over happily, forgetting one page as we turn to the next; others that we read reverently, without daring to agree or disagree; others that offer more information and preclude our commentary; others still that, because we have loved them so long and so dearly, we can repeat, word by word, since we know them, in the truest sense, by heart. (p. ix)

A Reading Diary: A Year of Favourite Books by Alberto Manguel documents a twelve month period where, each month, Manguel commits to rereading one of his favourite books and recording his thoughts on it.  Of the twelve titles that Manguel reacquaints himself with there were those I was familiar with (Kim, The Sign of Four, The Wind in the Willows), those I knew by reputation (The Island of Dr. Moreau, Don Quixote, Surfacing) and those I had never heard of before in my life (The Invention of Morel, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas).  Not being familiar with a title in no way impaired my enjoyment of reading about it though.  Even if the experience did not make me eager to read the book itself, it was still fascinating to hear of it and to read of the thoughts and emotions in elicited from Manguel.  Indeed, it is the very randomness of his thoughts, the graceful and yet careless way he careens from one topic to another, than makes Manguel so very readable.  The joy of reading something by some so educated, so cultured and yet so accessible really cannot be overstated.

Like the best reading diaries, this small volume is eclectic and occasionally disjointed, bouncing from one fascinating tidbit (which is by no means guaranteed to have anything whatsoever to do with the book being discussed) to another.  Manguel quotes widely and freely from poets I have never heard of, performs his own translations from German, Spanish, and French, and shares with us conversations held with learned friends – discussions, for example, with Rohinton Mistry on Kim (…he finds Kipling’s dialogue, and the descriptions of the vast troupe of Indian characters, absolutely true to life. P. 48) and Margaret Atwood on Robert Frost (Once Atwood said to me that Robert Frost’s line ‘The land was ours before we were the land’s’ has no meaning in Canada. P. 217).  How not to be fascinated by a man with such a circle?  Particularly fascinating for me, as many of the authors he seems on good terms with are, like Manguel, Canadian writers, whatever their origins might have been.

What A Reading Diary does better than most books of its kind is to capture the true reading experience – as with my own reading diaries, very little has to do with the actual book Manguel is reading, consisting mostly of the endless quotes he is reminded of, themes that lead him to other books and authors.  Tangents, spreading outwards in all direction, entwining vine-like around new ideas that must be explored, must be discussed.  To have such a memory, to be able to make these links unaided – it is a very special gift and one I am in awe of. 

And when Manguel does direct his thoughts to the books themselves, they are fond ones.  After all, this is an adventure in rereading – a journey where the goal is pleasure and enjoyment.  There is no need for harsh analysis here, as Manguel’s thoughts on Kim reveal:

Kim is one of the few books that constantly delights me: it grows friendlier with each reading.  I want to apply to it a word used in Quebec to denote a particular state of happiness: heureuseté.  I love the tone of the telling, the vividness of every minor character, the moving friendship between the lama in search of a river and the boy in search of himself.  I never want their pilgrimage to end.  (p. 46)

I think my greatest take-away from this reading experience is that I adore the way Manguel writes.  It is beautiful.  At times funny, at times thought-provoking, his prose is always gorgeous and makes me eager to read more of his works (A Reader on Reading has been on my TBR list for some time now but will clearly be bumped up in priority now).  I found myself reading passages aloud to an empty room just to glory in how they flowed so perfectly together.  It’s a simple style, clear and elegant, and I could not be more pleased by it.

As I read, I scribbled down countless passages in my own reading diary, ranging from the humourous to the profound or nostalgic:

I will sleep one night in the library to make the space totally mine.  C. says that this is equivalent to a dog peeing in the corners. P. 25

 Spent yesterday rearranging the detective fiction.  We’ve put it up in the guest bedroom, now to be known as the Murder Room. P.98

 We read what we want to read, not what the author wrote. P. 52

I recall the physical pleasure of coming to the end of my book and then daydreaming about the characters (if I liked them) for many days after, imaging their ongoing lives and other endings.  Now it seems impossible to find such periods of long calm. P. 157


And, finally, the quote that sums up my own experience as a reader:

It seems to me that as I read I am taking notes, without knowing it, for what I will one day experience, or what I once experienced but failed to understand. P. 247

 Is that not the perfect sentiment?

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