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."
"If," I said, "like me, you are ignorant of languages other than English, how do you determine that something is a 'good translation'?"
"When we think that we're reading a good translation, in fact we're simply reading something that has been well re-created in English. And that, I think, is the best that a translator can do, because I'm convinced that it is simply not possible to think the same things in one language as in another. I think that language shapes not only our thoughts but even provokes the thoughts that we then put into words."
We talked about the intimacy that develops between writer and reader. "Reading," I said, "sometimes seems every bit as intimate, in its own way, as physical intimacies."
"Absolutely. I have compared the act of reading with the amorous act. I think that it has very much in common in the same way that you're not attracted to just any person, you're not attracted to just any book. You're very careful about whom you take to bed. You don't take any book to bed.
"And the text on the page does create for you an amorous space. And you don't want to be with just anyone in that amorous space. I don't want to be with Bret Easton Ellis in that amorous space. He seems to be somebody who delights in the pain of others."
I said that I often imagine a book as a protective barrier against the exterior world.
Mr. Manguel disagreed, "I see it more as a door or a bridge -- a connection that allows me to then give words to that experience outside."
"That," I said, "is because reading, if what you're reading is good, makes you want to write."
"Yes," Mr. Manguel sighed. "There are some fortunate people who don't have that feeling, and it must be wonderful to be able to simply enjoy reading without having to try and make the effort of writing. Borges used to say that 'Readers are fortunate because they can read what they want, while writers can only write what they can write.'"
"Poems," I said, "more than prose, make me want to write."
Not so, Mr. Manguel. "Well, reading poems more than making me want to write makes me want to speak. That is to say that they very often call for being read out loud. So I will walk in the garden and read to my cat. But I'm very afraid of poetry. I love to read it but... As an adolescent, I never tried my hand at writing poetry -- one or two things, like everyone. What I admire about someone like Nabokov who can write two or three poems, and those poems will be perfect, is that he knows he's not a poet but that he is a prose writer. Yet when he sets himself to write a poem, it is truly magical. He wrote that wonderful poem about discovering a new species of butterfly. It is written by somebody who seems to have the craft and has decided not to exercise it. I certainly don't.
"Poetry suits the distilled expression of something that requires the poet to become an alchemic vessel. I don't think I am capable of that. Prose is somehow more down to earth."
I asked about Mr. Manguel's schooling in Argentina, where he lived until he was 20.
"I was lucky enough to spend in Argentina the few good years that the country was allowed, shortly after the fall of Perón and before the takeover by the military. And during that time there was an explosion of intelligent thinking in Argentina. I was lucky enough to go to a high school where teachers were university professors. This was a new scheme that was being tried out. These teachers communicated their knowledge and their enthusiasm to us in a way that is very, very uncommon today.
"We were told that intelligent thinking was good, that we could probe and ask and explore and that difficulty was not something negative. I find it so curious that today we think of that which is slow and that which is difficult as negative qualities. We were taught that they weren't. The way you learned was by overcoming difficulties and by going slowly. But now the merits that are advertised are exactly the contrary. 'This is easy, and this is quick.' The ad for a PowerBook was 'faster than thought.' I wonder if anybody really stopped to think what they were saying when they came up with that ad."
"How did you make the decision," I asked, "to set this new book in 'real time' rather than set it down in an undated timelessness?"
"I wanted it to be as loose as possible. I keep notebooks. I don't really keep a journal. I keep notebooks, so whenever I feel like it, I'll make notes, and sometimes they will be personal notes, and sometimes they will just be quotations from my reading. So I thought that if I managed to turn that into a book, I wouldn't want to go back and force a date structure on it. I wanted it to appear to be as fragmentary as possible. I suppose the idea behind it was that I thought I would like to share with some readers the way in which I read, as if they could sit in my brain and watch what happens. That is not attached to dates."
"But," I said, "certainly what's happening in real time impinges upon what one is reading."
"Of course. That is why I do mention things like the rain and the cat and the visit of my children and political events that happen on a certain date. But it impinges a little less when you are traveling on a train and from time to time you see the name of the station outside, but not always. You know where you are going; you know where you've come from, but unless you are a fanatic of railway travel, traveling with maps and drawing schedules out, you just let yourself go, and you'll arrive when you arrive."
I asked about a phenomenon that frequently occurs when I reread a book I've read 20 or 30 years earlier. The book seems to have changed; it doesn't seem at all what it was about in my first reading of it. Did Mr. Manguel notice this?
"Yes, absolutely. It sounds strange, but I know that there are books that I remembered in a certain way. I know I've read them and therefore I remember them in a certain way, and often when I go back to them, what I remember is either not there or it is different and of course it is possible that I simply have blurred my memory. But it is equally likely that the words have changed. That there has been a shift of narrative and of meaning in the book, and I'm perfectly willing to believe that. I don't know if I tell the story in A Reading Diary, but there is a passage in an essay by Orwell related to an elephant."
"I like that piece -- 'Shooting an Elephant' -- a lot." (See page 67.)
"I like it very much, too. And there's a passage that I'm sure you'll remember where the elephant finally is killed, and he says that the elephant 'withdraws at that point from him, to a place where he'll never be able to reach it,' that that has made the beast inaccessible and free. I remembered those pages as very beautiful and subtle pages on this notion of escape and death and the idea of the victim becoming unreachable. But," Mr. Manguel laughed, "when I went back to the essay, it was about four words. It's a sentence. I can't explain it."
"Perhaps," I suggested, "this 'change' seemed to occur because when you read you are sometimes so dreamy and are carried away."
"I am. I do get carried away in the books. There certainly are books that are so overwhelming that you live with them for a very long time. And many times they're not the expected book. I think that we have this false idea that because there are certain books that we call 'classics,' that other 'nonclassical' books aren't necessarily the books that stay with us and weigh us. We are loathe to confess that it's not that 'classic,' but it's an Agatha Christie novel that has occupied that space or time. I find it very often is. I remember reading Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower. That's a book that haunted me for months. I was in that space all the time."
"I've felt that certain books and certain poems seem to have raised me as much as my parents did."
"Ah, that is a very wise observation indeed. Indeed. Indeed. Well, especially in my case, since I really did not have a close relationship with my parents until we went back to Argentina. So my company, other than this lady who looked after me, were the books."
"And you learned to read early."
"Very early, yes. I can remember books that I read when I was three and four years old. Of course, if you're not in the company of other children, if you don't go to school, if you're simply brought up by one person in the house, you don't know that is remarkable or unremarkable; it's just what is. That is how you live. And yes, there were a number of books that 'brought me up,' as you say.
"I stopped speaking German when I was seven because this woman left us. I continued to read in German, and I didn't know what had remained of that time. Three years ago I was in Germany and suddenly the poems I had learned as a child came back to me."
"I wonder about the difference in the way consciousness forms between readers and nonreaders."
"I don't know. I imagine that for someone who doesn't read, thinking must be very difficult, because if you don't read, unless you pick it up from the general culture, you don't have that wealth of metaphors and similes and logical comparisons and stories that illustrate events and poems that explain experience, that allow you to think. If you don't have those, I can't imagine how difficult it must be."
"Serious and wide reading also teaches empathy, do you think?"
"Of course it does, yes. Of course it does. And it teaches empathy without condescension."
"Without a 'moral to the story.'"
"Yes, yes. Exactly. Exactly. Yes, you can never exactly say this person is good, and this person is bad. You cannot detach yourself from a real literary character completely, because there will always be areas that you don't quite understand, spaces where you cannot enter, because there is no clearly laid-out path."
"I think that's only in best-sellers, the 'carefully laid-out path where there is no mystery.'"
"I don't like to call it 'best-sellers,' because after all, Dickens was a 'best-seller.'"
"What do we call them?"
" 'Superficial literature,' I would call them. That is one of the definitions of pornography. Pornography is a text that has only one level of surface. That is why it's boring."
"I always imagine men as finding pornography more interesting than we women do."
"That is unfair. No. No, I think that what happens is that in a superficial text, you may be taken by the story in the same way that you can listen to a joke or to an anecdote, but it is never satisfying. It cannot be. It can only last for the duration of the reading but cannot go into it in any depth.
"I think that there are people who are perfectly happy to remain on that surface. There are people who are perfectly happy with never tasting a good wine or eating a good meal. And are content to eat anything to keep them going."
"However," I suggested, "I think that people who don't read a lot of Rilke or a lot of Kafka are probably happier than are you and I."
"That is the thesis of Brave New World. At one point, the main character in this very bland futuristic utopia is asked whether he would prefer to allow access to art and then make men miserable or take art away and allow them to live in this bland contentment. So it's a very difficult question to answer, because we seem to be brought up on the idea that what we want is a kind of bland contentment, a kind of unpreoccupied happiness."
"Work that is like what Freud speaks of as death."
"Well, it is death. Yes, yes, yes, yes. That is a place where you don't worry."