A Reader on Reading
By Alberto Manguel
Yale University Press £18, 320 pages
FT Bookshop price: £14.40
What makes human beings unique? We are political animals, Aristotle said. We are the only animals who laugh, linguists have added. For Alberto Manguel, our defining trait is the capacity to read. “I believe we are, at the core, reading animals,” he writes in the introduction to his latest essay collection, “and that the art of reading, in its broadest sense, defines our species.”
Much of Manguel’s work has been concerned with this “art”. His earlier titles include the illuminating A History of Reading and, more recently, A Reading Diary. It is the reader’s journey that fascinates him, rather than author’s intentions. In this he echoes his hero, Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who, when asked how he wished to be remembered, allegedly replied: “As a good reader.”
Borges is salient among the author’s literary affections. Some of the most memorable essays in A Reader on Reading describe Manguel’s personal encounters with “the Master”. Once, “over the usual colourless pasta at the restaurant of the Hotel Dora”, Borges declares his opaque belief in “the mystery of women and the heroic destiny of men”.
But Borges is only one of many authors Manguel uses to illustrate his ideas. “A Reader in the Looking-Glass Wood”, an essay on how literature shapes our experience, is typically promiscuous. In a few paragraphs Manguel skips effortlessly from Lewis Carroll to the Talmud, André Breton, Stéphane Mallarmé, Karl Marx, Dante, Homer, John Bunyan, Tom Stoppard, Osip Mandelstam and John Keats. His knowledge, lightly worn, is impressively eclectic.
Some of the essays in this volume are deeply personal meditations. “Room for the Shadow” is a candid admission of his failure as a novelist. “On Being Jewish” is a plea to be allowed to shape his identity without outside restraints. “The Further Off from England” suggests that Manguel, an Argentine-born anglophile who adopted Canadian citizenship, might have become a British citizen in the 1970s had he not been turned away at Dover by immigration officials.
“Meanwhile, in Another Part of the Forest”, which begins as a reflection about the folly of categorising books, becomes an essay about the pointlessness of the term “gay literature” and, more generally, the “gay” label itself: “Like our literary tastes, our sexual affinities need only declare allegiance and define themselves under duress.”
His bookishness does not prevent Manguel from being topical. The assassination of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, in 2007, spurs him into reaching for Cervantes and Plato, while the outrage following the publication of a caricature of Mohammed leads to timely reflections on “Art and Blasphemy”.
Manguel reads passionately, and is a passionate communicator of his likes and dislikes. The latter include the novels of Bret Easton Ellis and the “unspeakable” translator of the “abominable” American edition of Borges’ A Universal History of Infamy.
Scrupulous readers may note that little is new in this anthology. Its content, give or take a few essays, is almost identical to Into the Looking-Glass Wood, published in 1999. This version even uses the same illustrations from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Most unforgivable, Manguel has recycled the old preface and acknowledgements.
A more substantial criticism, perhaps, regards Manguel’s open-ended characterisation of reading: “We read our own lives and those of others, we read the societies we live in and those that lie beyond our borders, we read pictures and buildings.” Such a broad definition of the uniquely human “art” is provocative but, ultimately, meaningless.
Yet A Reader on Reading offers enough pleasure to supersede such objections. “There are,” writes Manguel, “certain books that, in themselves, are an ideal library.” This book might be one of them.