A Reading Diary: A Passionate Reader's Reflections on a Year of Books. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004; 208 pages; $20.
FROM THE DUST JACKET: While traveling in Calgary, Alberto Manguel was struck by how the novel he was reading (Goethe's Elective Affinities ) seemed to reflect the social chaos of the world he was living in. An article in the daily paper would be suddenly illuminated by a passage in the novel; a long reflection would be prompted by a single word. He decided to keep a record of these moments, rereading a book a month, and forming A Reading Diary: a volume of notes, reflections, impressions of travel, of friends, of events public and private, all elicited by his reading. From Don Quixote (August) to The Island Of Dr. Moreau (February) to Kim (April), Manguel leads us on an enthralling adventure in literature and life, and demonstrates how, for the passionate reader, one is utterly inextricable from the other.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
From Publishers Weekly: Writer and critic Manguel's elegantly elliptical and wryly contemporary diary of cities revisited and books reread during 2002 and 2003 opens with a journey he undertakes to his birthplace, Buenos Aires, just after Argentina's economic crisis in December 2001. As Manguel's reading overlaps with jotted observations of Buenos Aires, he reflects on the meaning of homeland, and on memory. Nostalgia and the significance of cities -- in personal and literary terms -- are themes that preoccupy Manguel on further trips to London, Paris, Germany, and Canada. Yet Manguel is less melancholic than thoughtful and joyfully postmodern. At home in rural France, his reflections range as widely as on his travels, emerging as he tidies his library, converses with writers Mavis Gallant and Rohinton Mistry, and receives visits from his adult children. His eclectic reading matter includes H.G. Wells, Conan Doyle, Margaret Atwood, Kipling, and Goethe. And he quotes from many more writers: Chateaubriand, Virginia Woolf, and Chesterton, to name but a few. Manguel delights in list making -- whether of favorite detective novels, mad scientists, or literary heroes. Manguel's exquisitely distilled style and gentle humility are pure pleasure. His diary is a gold mine of the unexpected, and his companionable, deeply cultivated persona will entrance all those who love to read and to ponder.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alberto Manguel was born in Buenos Aires in 1948 and has lived in Israel, Italy, England, Tahiti, Canada, France, and Argentina. In 1984 he became a Canadian citizen. For much of the year, he lives outside Paris. He is the prize-winning author of A History of Reading and The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, among other works.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: Mr. Manguel was at his home in France on the day that we talked. His time was mid-evening hour and mine mid-morning. So while I still was in my day's midst, with much left to do, Mr. Manguel had completed his day's work (other than talking with me). He sounded content and relaxed.
I said how much I liked his earlier nonfiction books -- Reading Pictures, A History of Reading. As for this newest, I confessed, "This book kept me company for an entire weekend."
He laughed. "It kept me company for an entire year -- from the summer of 2002 to the summer of 2003."
Mr. Manguel is a translator, as well as a novelist and essayist. He speaks and reads six languages. I asked how this knowledge of languages, some of it quite deep, affected his reading.
"Coming from the English language, I think that we are in such a weak position because so little gets translated into English. If my only language were French or if I spoke only Spanish or French or Italian, I would be able to read every major American writer, Canadian, English, and so on. But as English readers, we have no idea what goes on in most of these other cultures.
"I think it is a very serious loss. And so, you see, for instance, that when the English-speaking reader discovers something different, like One Hundred Years of Solitude, or the stories of Borges, suddenly it's as if you taste a very special wine for the first time. And because you don't have the context in which to place it, there is a very peculiar kind of influence that comes from these surprises.
"In Spain now, where they're very familiar with everything between, say, Rushdie and Coover, they have a better sense of how to guide their own language in reference to these other writers. So I think that we are in not a very good situation in English."
"I would think," I said, "that being able to read in as many languages as you do would enrich the texture of everything you read."
"It does, but it also has many pitfalls. English and German were my first languages. I spoke those languages until I was seven; they were my only languages. I was born in Argentina, but we left when I was a month old. My father was the Argentinean ambassador to Israel. We lived there until I was seven; I was educated there with a German-speaking Czech nanny. My English has a German accent, and my German has a Czech accent.
"When we returned to Argentina, I learned Spanish. But it never became my mother tongue, even if that was the language of my mother, of my parents. So what happens is that while I think I'm fairly fluent in German, French, Spanish, and so on, as a writer it never feels perfectly comfortable. The words come to me first in English, because they are associated to my first sensations. So, in my case, English leads the pack.
"So when I see something, the name that is attached to that thing or to that experience is an English word. Everything else seems like a translation. What happens now as a reader, since I'm interested in a number of different cultures, if I can I will read the book in the original language, but not necessarily. I'm not troubled about reading a French translation of an Italian author or a German translation of a Spanish author or whatever. It doesn't bother me. If the translation is good, I don't really mind."