Alberto Manguel and Reading

One of the great commentators on the nature and history of reading is the Argentinian essayist and translator Alberto Manguel. To understand Manguel’s fascination with books and reading, you need to know about his stint in the mid-1960s as a reader for Jorge Luis Borges, an experience he has written about in his With Borges (London: Telegram, 2006). For example, Manguel remembers that “For Borges, the core of reality lay in books; reading books, writing books, talking about books. In a visceral way, he was conscious of continuing a dialogue begun thousands of years before and which he believed would never end. Books restored the past” (p. 31). Later he reflects, “There are writers who attempt to put the world in a book. There are others, rarer, for whom the world is a book, a book that they attempt to read for themselves and for others. Borges was one of those writers. He believed, against all odds, that our moral duty was to be happy, and he believed that happiness could be found in books, even though he was unable to explain why this was so” (p. 72). One can find similar sentiments throughout Manguel’s writings, attesting to the importance of early influences and mentoring in the lives and work of scholars,

The Manguel book to start with is his A History of Reading (New York: Viking, 1996) in which he establishes reading as a basic human function and traces it from its origins and characterizes it as a cumulative process, noting its substantial changes from an auditory to a silent process. Manguel, who identifies himself as a reader, and writing his book to acknowledge that he is part of a community consisting of many others, considers books as talismans to the merging of books and readers into one seamless entity. He reflects upon the power of scribes and of those who could read, the nature of the symbolic power of the book (amply supported by numerous illustrations). Manguel relates reading, like so many do, to writing: “For me, reading today, the notes I take while reading are held in the vicarious memory of my word-processor, like the Renaissance scholar who could wander at will through the chambers of his memory palace to retrieve a quotation or a name, I blindly enter the electronic maze buzzing behind my screen. With the help of its memory I can remember more accurately (if accuracy is important) and more copiously (if quantity seems valuable) than my illustrious ancestors, but I must still be the one to find an order in the notes and to draw conclusions” (pp. 61-62). What writer has ever set down to write without the benefits of some notes? In this volume we also learn how the printed book, as we know it today, came to be constructed and how furniture and other material aspects supporting reading emerged. We possess books: “The world that is a book is devoured by a reader who is a letter in the world’s text, thus a circular metaphor is created for the endlessness of reading. We are what we read” (p. 173). Libraries, catalogues, classifications are also treated as both aids and barriers to readers. Personal libraries are seen a little differently: “I enjoy the sight of my crowded bookshelves, full of more or less familiar names. I delight in knowing that I’m surrounded by a sort of inventory of my life, with intimations of my future” (p. 237).


In another lavishly illustrated book, The Library at Night (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), Manguel explores the various ways we experience or think about the library, much of this book focused on the nature of personal libraries. He observes, “I like to imagine that, on the day after my last, my library and I will crumble together, so that even when I am no more I’ll still be with my books” (p. 37). Manguel, as he does in most of his books, also comments on the difference between reading a physical book and one on a screen: “Reading a book is perfectly equivalent to reading a screen, no matter what the text” (p. 79).

Manguel did not stop with these books, although he certainly could have, having satisfied most with his contributions to the topic of reading. His Into the Looking-Glass Wood: Essays on Books, Reading, and the World (San Diego: Harvest Original, Harcourt Inc., 1998) is an interesting post-script to his history of reading. Many of these essays were written as reviews and he comments explicitly on the value of reviewing: “Nothing can replace our own reading, and yet the preamble or preface to a text that a reviewer provides can, and in some cases does, turn a book on its head in a refreshing and illuminating way” (p. 216). Manguel offers another collection of essays about reading in his A Reader on Reading (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010) in which he considers how books connect us to our past and each other, his experiences of working with and relating to the great writer Borges, the history of books, memory, and education. He offers thoughts on the book’s future: “For many years now we have been prophesying the end of the book and the victory of the electronic media, as if books and electronic media were two gallants competing for the same beautiful reader on the same intellectual battlefield. First film, then, television, later video games and DVDs and virtual libraries have been cast as the book’s destroyers . . . . All readers may be Luddites at heart, but I think this may be pushing our enthusiasm too far. Technology will not retreat, nor, in spite of countless titles predicting the twilight of the printed word, do the numbers of new books printed every year show signs of diminishing” (p. 193). See his essay, “Notes Towards a Definition of the Ideal Library,” in this volume (pp. 267-269) for a sense of the library that many have long since lost.

Manguel also shares with us a time of his reading activities in A Reading Diary: A Passionate Reader’s Reflection on a Year of Books (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), revealing how he reads, takes notes, and uses his reading as a foundation for his scholarly projects. For example, he observes, “I could compose a diary made exclusively of fragments from other diaries. This would reflect my habit of thinking in quotations” (p. 105). He also reveals why the ownership of books is so important to him: “I feel uncomfortable having other people’s books at home. I want either to steal them or to return them immediately. There is something of the visitor who overstays his welcome in borrowed books. Reading them and knowing that they don’t belong to me gives me the feeling of something unfinished, half enjoyed. This is also true of library books” (p. 139).

Manguel has drawn on his work about reading and writing to apply the implications of such activities to a variety of social, political and other issues, such as in his The City of Words (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, Inc., 2007), delivered as the CBC Massey Lectures. In The Traveler, the Tower, and the Worm: The Reader as Metaphor (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), Manguel builds on the idea that “Literate societies, societies based on the written word, have developed a central metaphor to name the perceived relationship between human beings and the universe: the world as a book that we are meant to read” (p. 2). The sense of the book brings many qualities to our understanding of who we are and what we need: “The book is many things. As a repository of memory, a means of overcoming the constraints of time and space, a site for reflection and creativity, an archive of the experience of ourselves and others, a source of illumination, happiness, and sometimes consolation, the book in its many incarnations, from clay tablet to electronic page, has long served as a metaphor for many of our essential concepts and undertakings” (p. 10). The digital age has generated the need for us to learn once again to be readers, where we “read slowly, profoundly, comprehensively. . . . to travel in order to return with what we’ve read. Only then will we, in the deepest sense, be able to call ourselves readers” (p. 50)

Manguel also demonstrates his close attention to reading in two of his books. In Homer’s The Iliad and the Odyssey: A Biography (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007), he reflects on the “palimpsest” of readings of writings about which little is known of the author and for which there are many varying translations, divergent readings in different cultures and by an assortment of authors. In his most recent book, Curiosity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), Manguel traces his own developing sense of curiosity inspired by his reading and shaping his reading, commenting on writers he personally considers important (such as Aquinas, Dante, and Socrates). One can glean many insights into the writing process as well, such as our limitations on expressing what we mean: “To write a book is to resign oneself to failure, however honorable that failure might be” (p. 9). At one point, Manguel considers the human impulse to organize and categorize: “We are tidy creatures. We distrust chaos. Though experience comes to us with no recognizable system, for no intelligent reason, with blind and carefree generosity, we believe despite all evidence to the contrary in law and order, and portray our gods as meticulous archivists and dogmatic librarians. Following what we believe to be the method of the universe, we put everything away into files and compartments; feverishly we arrange, we classify, we label” (p. 259). And in his Reading Pictures: What We Think About When We Look at Art (New York: Random House, 2002), Manguel considers the differences in reading texts and images.

So why spend so much attention on Manguel, especially as some librarians and others have questioned the relevance of his ideas to their day-to-day work or have seen them as nostalgic claptrap? He is worth reading because he is an excellent public scholar, an astute reader, and a believer in the value of words/texts. The later faith seems to have been lost in our era of data, and consequently, our ability to write has been diminished. Personally, I have come to see myself more as a reader than as a researcher, as well as to see reading and reflection as more essentials to being a teacher. But that’s just me.


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