Alberto Manguel – his part in my reading life

I’ve always loved reading about reading. The lives readers lead and the way books have formed them is an endless source of fascination, often envy. From Francis Spufford’s ‘The Child that Books Built’ to Susan Hill’s ‘Howard’s End is on the Landing’, tales of the remarkable journeys that we go on as readers have encouraged me to reflect on my own reading history, forming many of my values as an English Teacher. In particular, Alberto Manguel’s books continue to document the life of the reader like no others. So I was thrilled recently to discover that he has a new book this year, ‘Packing my Library: an Elegy and Ten Digressions’.

My first experience of Manguel came when I discovered his ‘A Reading Diary: A Year of favourite Books’ in a second hand book shop. It is a joyful short read, doing exactly what the title suggests. He takes us through his literary thoughts on classics such as ‘Don Quixote’ and ‘The Wind in the Willows’: he never reviews, never critiques; merely shares his thoughts as he walks alongside Mole and  Sancho Panza, reflecting on his life at that moment. I’d never read anything like it. Beautifully written, infectiously optimistic, it might possibly be the root of much that came after for me. He recognised that ‘Reading is a comfortable, solitary, slow and sensuous task’ while recognising that ‘every book exists in a dreamlike condition until the hand that open it and the eyes that peruse it stir the words into awareness’. And if I’d written that sentence I might never have to write another one.

When I began to write my own book on reading, it was to Manguel that I first turned; his ‘A History of Reading’ being as a good a point as any to start. Impeccably and painstakingly researched, Manguel walked me through the roots of reading. From a pre-Aristotle age to very contemporary, political approaches to reading, the book is a remarkable achievement, carefully arguing the roots and the pros and cons of silent reading, to translation and banned books. How we have changed as readers through the ages, how reading has been valued, and de-valued throughout history and how reading and literacy  have become the political tool of our age is a liberating story.

He sums up the importance of reading in the words of Thomas a Kempis: ‘I have sought for happiness everywhere but I have found it nowhere except in a little corner with a little book.’

While I’ve had it for a few years, I’m unsure I’ve read all of Manguel’s ‘A Reader on Reading’. It’s a magnificent collection of essays which you can dip into; my favourites being, ‘How Pinocchio Learned to Read’ and ‘The Library at Home’. The range and breadth of subjects covered suggests a writer who knows his subject. His journey is a thoughtful and remarkable one and this is a book which I return to often. Those of you who really ‘get’ that books can be a haven from a hectic world will love it:

“In the midst of uncertainty and many kinds of fear, threatened by loss, change, and the welling of pain within and without for which one can offer no comfort, readers know that at least there are, here and there, a few safe places, as real as paper and as bracing as ink, to grant us roof and board in our passage through the dark and nameless wood.”

Finally, as I wait patiently for his new book, another essay collection to recommend is ‘The Library at Night’. Now I grew up in libraries, having never had my own at home, and, in an era where libraries are seen as an excessive luxury rather than societal necessity, Manguel’s essays will make you weep with joy for a world sadly disappearing. He takes us through a series of thoughts and explanations, a series of treatise about libraries as collections of books as much as spaces; how those spaces, wherever they may be, provide us with places to live, places to think, places to grow.

“And for the course of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexations, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death: I pass into their world.”

Thank you, Alberto Manguel.

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