A Reader on Reading by Alberto Manguel. Yale University Press. 320pp, $27.50.
Alberto Manguel’s new book, A Reader on Reading, is actually a collection of older works—lectures, newspaper pieces, the occasional New York Review of Books essay—gathered here under the twin assumptions that a) most readers won’t have seen all of this stuff in its original appearance, and b) more books by Manguel are better than fewer books by Manguel.
Both these assumptions are a bit grudgingly true. Many of the pieces were conference addresses and shorter items for small-circulation periodicals, and here they will undoubtedly reach a wider, appreciative audience. And taken together they form a pretty and diverting collection although that can’t (and perhaps isn’t meant to) disguise the fact that this is a piecemeal work; when filler has been needed, it’s been supplied by earlier Manguel books, especially 1998′s Into the Looking-Glass Wood, which shares this present volume’s governing obsession with Alice in Wonderland.
I’ll be honest: that obsession, which Manguel is far from the only writer to suffer from, has always struck me as nine-tenths paste-paper. For every reader who’s actually bothered to learn the specific contexts and points of Lewis Carroll’s famous not-for-kids satirical allegories, there are fifty who instead revel in the way virtually any quote from the Alice books can make you look knowing to the cheap seats. The text can be chopped up into bits that fit anywhere:
“Do you know Languages? What’s French for fiddle-de-dee?”
“Fiddle-de-dee is not English,” Alice replied gravely.
“Who ever said it was?” said the Red Queen.
“You must proceed at once,” said the King.
“But I shall get lost,” said Alice. “I don’t know the way.”
“That’s no excuse!” said the King.
“Have you guessed the riddle yet?” the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.
“No, I give up,” Alice replied. “What’s the answer?”
OK, I confess I invented the second “excerpt,” but only to show how facile the whole process is—Alice comes in ready-made partitions of gnomic utterances, cute little nonsense-juxtapositions that seem to wink in all directions. In other words, it’s a lazy text to quote, and as such it signals a problem with A Reader on Reading: it wastes a lot of time being faux-simple. At one point Manguel expounds on metonymy, “the device by which a poet uses a part or attribute of something to stand in its place (crown for king, for example),” but it isn’t only poets who use metonymy, and its use isn’t always instructive. Manguel is substituting mere aspects of reading for the whole of the experience—oversimplifying one of the most complex things we all do every day. My suspicion is that he does this toward two ends: to make that process fit neatly on his library shelves, and to make that process less intimidating to the many thousands of his readers who only dabble in reading, who like the romance of it rather than the work. The first of these ends is only natural, I suppose, but the second is dangerous. It’s how popularizers can become bowdlerizers.
Manguel is a lifelong lover of deep, serious reading—indeed, his little essay “The Library as Home” will speak to anyone who’s ever felt they were basically guests in the book-choked libraries of their own filling—so he can be excused from the accusation of being reading-superficial, but at his most self-indulgent he often acts reading-superficial, and it can get irritating. In his essay “What Song the Sirens Sang,” Manguel tells us that according to Suetonius, “the emperor Tiberius, whenever he met professors of Greek literature, enjoyed asking them three impossible questions of which the third was ‘What song did the Sirens sing?’”—and then Manguel starts to philosophize about that siren-song (its “divinatory nature,” etc.). But Tiberius asked his questions to mock the doctrinal hair-splitting of scholars, and Manguel must know that . . . he just can’t resist kicking around a rhetorical football for a while, especially if it will please his more metonymic readers.
The disturbing part of all this is that some of those readers—perhaps, in these troubled times, the majority—are more comfortable with what Dryden called “the fairy way of writing” than with anything they’d be likely to read from Lionel Trilling, and Manguel has a dismaying tendency to play to those readers, the ones who often say “Ah, Dickens” but seldom if ever actually read Dickens.
It’s in pursuit of this wayward aesthetic that Manguel at one point recounts—with apparent approval—a time when an old and blind Borges gave a talk on Shakespeare in Washington, D.C., where his microphone wasn’t positioned right and nothing of his remarks could be heard except the occasional repetition of the word “Shakespeare.” When Borges finished, the audience gave him a thunderous ovation—and since that might have happened out of courtesy, so far so good. But Manguel adds the fatally portentous line “Perhaps there was nothing more to say.” It’s inconceivable that Manguel actually believes there’s no difference between hearing his literary idol Borges talk about Shakespeare and failing to hear him—the gesture is a sop to those readers who prefer the ease and mysticism of gnomic utterances over the sweat and precision of actual reading shop-talk.
This tendency must also account for Manguel’s referencing of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality—at least, I hope so. Manguel invokes Foucault in his essay “Meanwhile, In Another Part of the Forest”—a mini-study on the history of gay literature—at which point Manguel unblinkingly retails one of the central, unbelievably erroneous tenet of that book:
In European society, hostility against gays did not become widespread until the mid-twentieth century . . . until the nineteenth century the homosexual was not perceived as someone distinct, someone with a personality different from that of the heterosexual, someone who could be persecuted not only for a specific act contra naturam but merely for existing.
But surely this is to add a further note of welcoming warmth to Manguel’s own prose, not to ignore—as Foucault does—the collective screams of the millions of victims who, in virtually every recorded society, had their mouths sewn shut or their privates ripped off in the name of that allegedly nonexistent hostility. There is a type of reader (and especially a type of reader of books about reading) who likes things kept simple and derivation-free, and it’s to please this type of reader that Manguel—himself a happy and very adept close reader—poses questions like “A study of Melville’s life might shed light on homoerotic elements in Moby-Dick, but is such a study essential in order to discover those same elements?” He himself knows the answer—that study always deepens understanding—but he also knows that not everybody wants to study.
This is a very therapeutic book. Manguel’s classic essay “Saint Augustine’s Computer” (his great and blessedly calming meditation on all the ways traditional print media and emerging electronic media need not be, in fact, mortal enemies) is here, as are wonderful ruminations on the art of translation, the state of literary criticism, and the advent of electronic reading devices. Most of the longer essays are endlessly, entertainingly allusive, and the frequent returns Manguel makes to his own most sacred writers—not only Borges but Montaigne and Cervantes—make us want to take up those writers again ourselves. There are “notes” toward the definition of an ideal reader (that reader will be open minded, but, oddly enough, will have no interest in the writings of Bret Easton Ellis) and an ideal library (it will hold “the promise of every possible book” —except, presumably, any by Bret Easton Ellis).
And through it all there is Manguel’s voice itself, always calm, always friendly, always encouraging even those readers who have no idea how much he’s coddling them. In an essay about the role of an editor, he theorizes that those poor wretches must be “a sort of platonic ideal of a reader—a reader with a capital R,” and it becomes clear again in the course of A Reader on Reading why we’ve awarded Manguel himself that R for so long.
There’s also quite a bit about Alice in Wonderland, but I’m trying not to think about that.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston. His writing has appeared in The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Lifted Brow. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.
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