Saturday, April 03, 2010

Book Review: "A Reader on Reading"

Alberto Manguel's new book of collected essays/lectures/&c., A Reader on Reading (Yale University Press, 2010) is every much a delight as his past collections have been, although I should warn the casual reader that not all of the pieces here are immediately connected to the act of reading (some are devoted more to philosophical discussions, political commentaries, or media criticism, for example).

But the majority of the essays here do touch on topics of biblio-interest. Manguel tackles the difficulties of cataloging in "Meanwhile, in Another Part of the Forest," saying "Subject indexes, literary genres, school compendiums, and thematic anthologies suggest to the reader merely one of a multitude of points of view, none comprehensive, none even grazing the breadth and depth of a mysterious piece of writings. Books refuse to sit quietly on shelves: Gulliver's Travels jumps from "Chronicles" to "Social Satire" to "Children's Literature" and will not be faithful to any of these labels (p. 27).

Manguel offers essays on false attributions to Borges and word games, a paean to the "full stop"; a "brief history of the page," in which Borges is credited with predicting the advent of the e-book, and Montaigne's marginalia are discussed (all of his marginalia were in French; he is quoted as saying "no matter what language is spoken by my books, I speak to them in my own"). Short histories of literary editors (a very different profession in North America, Manguel observes, than in the rest of the world) and translators are provided, and Manguel describes the moment when he realized that authors invent their narrators (while reading Treasure Island as a boy), offers up a selection of "Notes Towards the Definition of the Ideal Reader" (probably my favorite essay here). In "Saint Augustine's Computer," Manguel examines how reading processes are likely to change, as "certain genres now available mainly as codices will give way to other formats, better suited for their purpose." He even seems to predict the iPad, or something like it: "a single portable apparatus that will offer all these textual possibilities: displaying text, reciting, allowing for annotations and proposing playful modes of research ..."

As always, Manguel's writing is lovely: in the piece on the "testamentary works" of authors and artists ("a work for which all the rest must be seen as preparations or drafts, a culminating work, a crowning achievement") he concludes "Since we are not immortal, we have to content ourselves with a sampling, and therefore the choice of testamentary works is fully justified. As long as we remember that under the pomp and circumstance there is a rustle and a stirring, a vast, dark, rich forest full of fallen or discarded leaves." The twin essays "Notes Towards a Definition of the Ideal Reader" and "Notes Towards a Definition of the Ideal Library" are bibliophilic gold, and a piece about Manguel's personal library, "The Library at Home" (originally published in the New York Times) remains one of my very favorite Manguel essays.

Another good addition to the Manguel canon.