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A Reader on Reading

A Reader on Reading

Alberto Manguel
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 450
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    A Reader on Reading
    Book Description:

    In this major collection of his essays, Alberto Manguel, whom George Steiner has called "the Casanova of reading," argues that the activity of reading, in its broadest sense, defines our species. "We come into the world intent on finding narrative in everything," writes Manguel, "landscape, the skies, the faces of others, the images and words that our species create." Reading our own lives and those of others, reading the societies we live in and those that lie beyond our borders, reading the worlds that lie between the covers of a book are the essence ofA Reader on Reading.

    The thirty-nine essays in this volume explore the crafts of reading and writing, the identity granted to us by literature, the far-reaching shadow of Jorge Luis Borges, to whom Manguel read as a young man, and the links between politics and books and between books and our bodies. The powers of censorship and intellectual curiosity, the art of translation, and those "numinous memory palaces we call libraries" also figure in this remarkable collection. For Manguel and his readers, words, in spite of everything, lend coherence to the world and offer us "a few safe places, as real as paper and as bracing as ink," to grant us room and board in our passage.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16304-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. I. WHO AM I?

    • A Reader in the Looking-Glass Wood
      (pp. 3-10)

      When I was eight or nine, in a house that no longer stands, someone gave me a copy ofAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. 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. Mine, thank the stars, was enriched by John Tenniel’s illustrations and was printed on thick, creamy paper that reeked mysteriously of burnt wood.

      There was much I didn’t understand in my first reading of Alice, but that didn’t seem to matter....

    • Room for the Shadow
      (pp. 11-21)

      I wasn’t going to write. For years the temptation kept itself at bay, invisible. Books had the solid presence of the real world and filled my every possible need, whether read out loud to me at first, or later read silently on my own, but always repeating their assurance that what they told me would not change, unlike the rooms in which I slept and the voices heard outside the door. We traveled much, my nurse and I, because my father was in the Argentinean diplomatic service, and the various hotel rooms, and even the embassy house in Tel Aviv,...

    • On Being Jewish
      (pp. 22-25)

      I seldom read books with titles such asThe French Identity, An Essay on Masculinity, orWhat It Means to Be a Woman. It was therefore with some considerable hesitation that, a few years ago, I picked up a copy of Alain Finkielkraut’s cautionary essayThe Imaginary Jew. Through one of those curious autobiographical associations that a book sometimes conjures up, I suddenly recalled an event I had forgotten from far away and long ago. One afternoon when I was seven, on the bus back from the Buenos Aires English high school that I had started to attend, a boy...

    • Meanwhile, in Another Part of the Forest
      (pp. 26-36)

      In the days when I was an avid reader of comic books, the line that thrilled me most, because it promised to reveal something that had been taking place beyond the more obvious bits of the plot, was “Meanwhile, in another part of the forest . . .” —usually inked in capital letters in the top left-hand corner of the box. To me (who like any devoted reader wished for an infinite story) this line promised something close to that infinity: the possibility of knowing what had happened on that other fork of the road, the one not taken, the...

    • The Further off from England
      (pp. 37-41)

      Between the end of high school in Buenos Aires and the beginnings of a full-time publishing career in Europe, I spent a splendid decade in Paris and London reading in an almost perfectly haphazard way, dipping into books that were too expensive for me to buy, skimming over others that incautious friends had lent me, borrowing a few from public libraries for company rather than for instruction’s sake, and hardly ever finishing anything. No method, erudite order, sense of duty, or rigorous curiosity ruled my reading. In body as in mind, I drifted.

      The year of the Beatles’ last LP...

    • Homage to Proteus
      (pp. 42-44)

      My library tells me that the problem is an ancient one.

      Legend has it that Proteus was not only king of Egypt but also a sea god, shepherd of the water flocks, capable of seeing the future and of constantly changing his appearance. Dante imagined this versatility as a punishment: in the eighth circle of his Hell, he dreamt that thieves and robbers, who during their mortal life lay hands on what doesn’t belong to them, are condemned after death to not even being able to possess the shape of their earthly bodies and endlessly turn into something else, “never...


    • Borges in Love
      (pp. 47-61)

      One afternoon in 1966, in Buenos Aires, I was asked to dinner at the flat of the writer Estela Canto. A woman of about fifty, a little deaf, with wonderful, artificially red hair and large, intensely myopic eyes (she coquettishly refused to wear glasses in public), she stumbled through the small, grimy kitchen putting together a meal of tinned peas and sausages, shouting bits of Keats and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. To her, Borges had dedicated one of his finest short stories, “The Aleph,” and she would let no one forget it. Borges, however, did not reciprocate the memory. At least...

    • Borges and the Longed-For Jew
      (pp. 62-65)

      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, where it established itself inside the Presidential Palace, with the accord of the recently elected president, Juan Domingo Perón. Argentina had remained neutral during World War II, but most of its military had supported Hitler and Mussolini. The rich upper classes, noted for their antisemitism, though they opposed Perón in almost everything else, remained silent about his pro-Nazi activities. In the meantime,...

    • Faking It
      (pp. 66-76)

      On 29 October 1932, The Buenos Aires newspaperCríticaprinted the following announcement in the abominable style to which its readers were accustomed:

      “Críticawill publish the most thrilling detective novel. Its plot is based on events that took place in Buenos Aires. From a real-life occurrence that some time ago deeply shook the public of this city, the author has constructed a moving story in which the mystery becomes denser and denser with every page ofEl enigma de la calle Arcos[The Riddle of Arcos Street]. Who killed the wife of Galván, the chess player? Or was it...


    • The Death of Che Guevara
      (pp. 79-85)

      Can we read politics as literature? Perhaps, sometimes, in certain cases. For example: on 8 October 1967, a small battalion of Bolivian army rangers trapped a group of guerrilleros in a scrubby gully in the wilderness east of Sucre, near the village of La Higuera. Two were captured alive: a Bolivian fighter, known simply as Willy, and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, hero of the Cuban Revolution, leader of what Bolivia’s president, General René Barrientos, called “the foreign invasion of agents of Castro-Communism.” Lieutenant Colonel Andrés Selich, hearing the news, scrambled into a helicopter and flew to La Higuera. In the ramshackle...

    • The Blind Bookkeeper
      (pp. 86-94)

      Sometime in the spring of 1943, Northrop Frye wrote a paper which, a holograph note on the typescript tells us, was intended for an Emmanuel College publication “that never came off.” Its title is “The Present Condition of the World” and its thrust the problem of steering “a middle course between platitude and paradox,” between “Olympian detachment and Bacchic outcries” when discussing this condition, which, Frye reminds us, is one of universal warfare. With his habitual clarity, Frye warns us against judging that war reaps any benefits. “A corrupt tree can only bring forth corrupt fruit, and the notion that...

    • The Perseverance of Truth
      (pp. 95-103)

      On 19 January 2007, I read that that the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink had been murdered in Istanbul by a seventeen-year-old Turkish nationalist for having criticized the government’s denial of the Armenian genocide. The murder of journalists who attempt to tell the truth is a time-honored custom, and the justifications advanced for such crimes enjoy an equally long tradition (I use the termshonoredandenjoyadvisedly.) From John the Baptist and Seneca to Rodolfo Walsh and Anna Politkovskaya, truth-tellers and their executioners inhabit a surprisingly vast literary shelf.

      A little over twenty-four centuries ago, in the year 399 b.c.,...

    • AIDS and the Poet
      (pp. 104-112)

      In the late 1990S, The papers announced that the government of South Africa was going to set up a program to import and produce low-cost drugs to treat patients with AIDS. Almost four years after the announcement, the Association of Pharmaceutical Industries, representing several of the largest laboratories in Europe and North America, filed a suit in the High Court of Pretoria, claiming that the South African law which allowed for such a program—a law signed by Nelson Mandela—contravened the international copyright and patent agreement meant to protect the rights of scientists, artists, and writers.

      In South Africa...


    • The Full Stop
      (pp. 115-116)

      Diminutive as a mote of dust, a mere peck of the pen, a crumb on the keyboard, the full stop is the unsung legislator of our writing systems. Without it, there would be no end to the sorrows of young Werther, and the travels of the Hobbit would have never been completed. Its absence allowed James Joyce to weaveFinnegans Wakeinto a perfect circle, and its presence made Henri Michaux compare our essential being to this dot, “a dot that death devours.” It crowns the fulfillment of thought, gives the illusion of conclusiveness, possesses a certain haughtiness that stems,...

    • In Praise of Words
      (pp. 117-119)

      René descartes believed that monkeys could speak but preferred to remain silent in order not to be forced to work. The intellectual process of granting reality to an invention and then applying to that invention the rigid rules of reality is nowhere more splendidly demonstrated than in our relationship to language. Long ago in a faraway desert, a man of whom we know nothing decided that the words he had scratched onto clay were not conventional accounting signs numbering legal decrees or heads of cattle but the terrible manifestations of a willful god, and that therefore the very order of...

    • A Brief History of the Page
      (pp. 120-127)

      The page leads an underhand existence. Lost among its brethren within the covers of a book, or singled out to carry, all on its own, a limited piece of scribbling; turned, torn, numbered, dog-eared; lost or recalled, lit up or deleted, skimmed or scrutinized the page comes into our reader’s consciousness only as a frame or container of what we mean to read. Its brittle being, barely corporeal in its two dimensions, is dimly perceived by our eyes as they follow the track of the words. Like a skeleton supporting the skin of a text, the page disappears in its...

    • The Voice That Says “I”
      (pp. 128-136)

      It was while reading stevenson’sTreasure Islandwhen I was eight or nine that I was suddenly struck by the question of who I really was. My edition had an introduction titled “How This Book Came to Be Written” that explained how Stevenson, one rainy afternoon, had started telling the story to his stepson by drawing for him the island’s map. A picture of the map was faithfully reproduced as the frontispiece.

      Treasure Islandbegins with a confession: “I take up my pen in the year of grace 17—, and go back to the time when my father kept...

    • Final Answers
      (pp. 137-140)

      On 19 April 1616, The day after having been given extreme unction, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra penned a dedication of his last book,The Labors of Persiles and Segismunda, to Don Pedro Fernández de Castro, Count of Lemos, a novel which, in his opinion, “dares to compete with Heliodorus.” Heliodorus was a Greek novelist, once famous and now forgotten, whoseAethiopicaCervantes much admired. Three or four days later (historians remain undecided) Cervantes died, leaving his widow in charge of publishing thePersiles. HisQuixote, if we can credit at least in part the modest disclaimer placed at the beginning...

    • What Song the Sirens Sang
      (pp. 141-148)

      Theodysseyis a poem of false beginnings and false endings. In spite of the initial invocation to the Muse, in which the poet begs her to sing (in Robert Fagles’s translation) of “the man of twists and turns / driven time and again off course, once he had plundered / the hallowed heights of Troy,” the reader feels that these verses are not the start but the conclusion of the story, that the Muse has now ended her task and that everything has already been told.

      The first book of the poem closes the seafaring narrative. It tells us...


    • Notes Towards a Definition of the Ideal Reader
      (pp. 151-154)

      The ideal reader is the writer just before the words come together on the page.

      The ideal reader exists in the moment that precedes the moment of creation.

      Ideal readers do not reconstruct a story: they re-create it.

      Ideal readers do not follow a story: they partake of it.

      A famous children’s book program on the BBC always started with the host asking, “Are you sitting comfortably? Then we shall begin.” The ideal reader is also the ideal sitter.

      Depictions of Saint Jerome show him poised over his translation of the Bible, listening to the word of God. The ideal...

    • How Pinocchio Learned to Read
      (pp. 155-163)

      I read carlo collodi’sAdventures of Pinocchiofor the first time many years ago in Buenos Aires, when I was eight or nine, in a vague Spanish translation with Enrico Mazzanti’s original black-and-white drawings. I saw the Disney film some time later and was annoyed to find a multitude of changes: the asthmatic Shark that swallowed Geppetto had become Monstro the Whale; the Cricket, instead of disappearing and reappearing, had been given the name Jiminy and kept pursuing Pinocchio with good advice; grumpy Geppetto had turned into a nice old man with a goldfish called Cleo and a cat called...

    • Candide in Sanssouci
      (pp. 164-171)

      Our first impulse is to decipher what we sense around us, as if everything in the universe carried meaning. We try to decode not only systems of signs created for that purpose—such as alphabets, hieroglyphs, pictographs, social gestures—but also the objects that surround us, the faces of others and our own reflection, the landscape through which we move, the shapes of clouds and trees, the changes in the weather, the flight of birds, the spoor of insects. Legend has it that cuneiform script, one of the earliest systems of writing we know, was invented by copying the footprints...

    • The Gates of Paradise
      (pp. 172-181)

      One of the oldest versions of Beauty and the Beast, told in Latin by Apuleius sometime in the second century, is the story of a princess ordered by an oracle to become the wife of a dragon. Fearing for her life, dressed in mourning, abandoned by her family, she waited at the top of a mountain for her winged husband. The monster never came. Instead, a breeze lifted her and bore her down into a peaceful valley, in which stood a house of gold and silver. Disembodied voices welcomed her, and offered her food and drink, and sang to her....

    • Time and the Doleful Knight
      (pp. 182-186)

      After the story of don quixote has been brought almost to its end, Sansón Carrasco, the pompous intellectual who believes he can cure all this madness, says that he is the Knight of the White Moon and, swearing that his lady is far more beautiful than Dulcinea, forces the old gentleman to challenge him to a duel. Don Quixote charges against his adversary, falls to the ground badly hurt, and, unable to raise himself, hears Carrasco say that he’ll admit to Dulcinea’s superior charms only if he, Don Quixote, agrees to withdraw to his house for a full year “or...

    • Saint Augustine’s Computer
      (pp. 187-198)

      In the first years of the sixteenth century, the elders of the guild of San Giorgio degli Schiavoni in Venice commissioned the artist Vittore Carpaccio to paint a series of scenes illustrating the life of Saint Jerome, the fourth-century reader and scholar. The last scene, now set up high on the right as you enter the small, darkened guildhall, is not a portrait of Saint Jerome but of Saint Augustine of Hippo, Saint Jerome’s contemporary. In a story popular since the Middle Ages, it was told that Saint Augustine had sat down at his desk to write to Saint Jerome,...


    • Reading White for Black
      (pp. 201-206)

      Throughout part of 1992 and 1993, I worked on the translation of three short stories by Marguerite Yourcenar. The stories, published in French under the titleConte bleu, which I rendered in English asA Blue Tale, are early works by the writer who was to become in later life such an accomplished stylist. Understandably, because they were written with the exuberance and know-all of youth, the stories stray from time to time from sober blue to lurid purple. Since translators, unlike writers and God Himself, have the possibility of amending the faults of the past, it seemed to me...

    • The Secret Sharer
      (pp. 207-213)

      In 1969, Timothy Findley traveled to New York to work with his American editor on the galleys of his second novel,The Butterfly Plague. Canadian publishers were still not impressed by the efforts of this actor-turned-writer, but the illustrious American publishing company Viking had expressed interest in this budding author. The editor assigned to Findley’s book was Corlies M. Smith, known as “Cork,” who was also the editor of the letters of James Joyce. Smith readThe Butterfly Plague, the chronicle of a declining Hollywood family set against the background of Nazi Germany, and although he liked the book very...

    • Honoring Enoch Soames
      (pp. 214-217)

      On 3 June 1997, A group of literary aficionados gathered in the Reading Room of the British Library in London to welcome Enoch Soames, the poet. Perhaps not unexpectedly, he didn’t materialize. What prompted the gathering was this: a century earlier, Soames, having sold only three copies of his book of poems,Fungoids, had made a pact with the Devil. In exchange for his ambitious soul, he had asked to be allowed to visit the Reading Room a hundred years hence to see how posterity had judged him. Unfortunately for Soames, posterity had not judged him at all; posterity had...

    • Jonah and the Whale
      (pp. 218-226)

      Of all the snarling or moaning prophets who haunt the pages of the Old Testament, I believe that none is so curious as the prophet known as Jonah. I like Jonah. I have a fondness for Jonah, in spite of his posthumous reputation as a purveyor of bad luck. I think I’ve discovered what it was about Jonah that made people nervous in his presence. I think Jonah had what in the nineteenth century was called an artistic temperament. I think Jonah was an artist.

      The first time I heard the story of Jonah, it was from a great-uncle of...

    • The Legend of the Dodos
      (pp. 227-228)

      Inle mondeof 23 March 2007, I read that Francis Esmenard, president of the commercial publisher Albin Michel, declared, at the Salon du Livre of Paris, that “there are too many small publishers” and that they “clutter the shelves of our bookstores.” To which Antoine Gallimard, president of the venerable publishing company that bears his name, added that small publishers “are responsible for the surplus production of books.” These interesting comments reminded me of an old Mauritanian legend:

      A long time ago, the dodos, flightless birds with enormous appetites, discovered that on a certain island, which was the nesting...


    • In Memoriam
      (pp. 231-236)

      Where to begin?

      Almost every Sunday, from 1963 to 1967, I had lunch not at my parents’ home but in the house of the novelist Marta Lynch. She was the mother of one of my schoolmates, Enrique, and she lived in a residential suburb of Buenos Aires, in a big villa with a red-tiled roof and a flower garden. Enrique had discovered that I wanted to be a writer, and he offered to show his mother some of my stories. I agreed. A week later Enrique handed me a letter. I remember the blue paper, the wobbly typing, the big,...

    • God’s Spies
      (pp. 237-247)

      As our reading teaches us, our history is the story of a long night of injustice: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, the South Africa of apartheid, Ceauşescu’s Romania, the China of Tiananmen Square, Senator McCarthy’s America, Castro’s Cuba, Pinochet’s Chile, Stroessner’s Paraguay, endless others form the map of our time. We seem to live either within or just on this side of despotic societies. We are never secure, even in our small democracies. When we think of how little it took for upright French citizens to jeer at convoys of Jewish children being herded into trucks, or for educated Canadians to...

    • Once Again, Troy
      (pp. 248-250)

      My geography is mapped by my readings. Experience, memory, desire color and shape it, but my books define it. My Oregon belongs to Ursula K. Le Guin, my Prague to Gustav Meyrink, my Venice to Henry James, my Algeria to Rachid Boudjedra. But when I think of Beirut, three images come to mind. The first is the one my mother described to me after visiting the city in the early fifties. She had been to Paris, to Rome, to Venice: she thought there was no city as lovely as Beirut, as elegant, as welcoming. Whenever things would go wrong in...

    • Art and Blasphemy
      (pp. 251-253)

      Reading images can be a perilous enterprise. No one ignores that in 2005 the publication of several caricatures of Muhammad in a number of periodicals around the world (first in Denmark, as a joke, then in other countries, as an act of defiance) ignited the furious protest of various Islamic groups. History repeats itself: faith, which is supposed to be the unmovable pillar of a true believer, seems to shiver and shake when confronted with a mere artistic creation, with a brushstroke or a few scribbled words, while, in the name of the Supreme Being, His followers announce the imminence...

    • At the Mad Hatter’s Table
      (pp. 254-264)

      As most perceptive readers will agree, the distinctive characteristic of the human world is its insanity. Ants scuttle in ordered lines, back and forth, with impeccable propriety. Seeds grow into trees that shed their leaves and bud again with conventional circularity. Birds migrate, lions kill, turtles mate, viruses mutate, rocks crumble into dust, clouds shape and reshape mercifully unconscious of what they build and destroy. We alone live consciously knowing that we live and, by means of a half-shared code of words, are able to reflect on our actions, however contradictory or inexplicable. We heal and help, we sacrifice ourselves...


    • Notes Towards a Definition of the Ideal Library
      (pp. 267-269)

      The ideal library is meant for one particular reader. Every reader must feel that he or she is the chosen one.

      Above the door of the ideal library is written a variation of Rabelais’s motto: “Lys ce que Voudra,” “Read what you will.”

      The ideal library is both virtual and material. It allows for every technology, every container, every manifestation of the text.

      The ideal library is of easy access. No high stairs, no slippery esplanades, no confusing multiplicity of doors, no intimidating guards must stand between the reader and the books.

      The ideal library has comfortable but supportive seats...

    • The Library of the Wandering Jew
      (pp. 270-277)

      When I was five years old, my family spent a summer in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a postcard Alpine village with geranium-filled balconies, heart-shaped openings in the shutters, and orange cows that waddled through the little streets at dusk, sounding their copper bells. In those days, I had no sense of my social or cultural identity: I didn’t know that my family was Jewish, and therefore I had no notion of how strange it was for a Jewish family to choose, as a holiday destination less than a decade after the war, a village that had been one of Hitler’s favorite haunts. Deep-blue...

    • The Library as Home
      (pp. 278-281)

      For the past seven years, I have lived in an old stone presbytery in France, south of the Loire Valley, in a village of fewer than ten houses. I chose the place because next to the house itself was a barn, partly torn down centuries ago, large enough to accommodate my library of some thirty thousand books, assembled over six itinerant decades. I knew that once the books found their place, I would find mine.

      My library is not a single beast but a composite of many others, a fantastic animal made up of the several libraries built and then...

    • The End of Reading
      (pp. 282-292)

      “Why should we have libraries filled with books?” asked a smiling young futurologist at a recent library convention. (Futurology, for those who don’t read science-fiction, is a branch of electronics that forecasts future technologies and their prospective uses.) “Why waste valuable space to store endless masses of printed text that can be easily enclosed in a minuscule and resilient chip? Why force readers to travel all the way to a library, wait to find out if the book they want is there, and, if it is, lug it back to keep for a limited time only? Why deny readers access...

  12. Sources
    (pp. 293-296)
  13. Index
    (pp. 297-308)