A Reading Diary – Alberto Manguel


I’m inspired by this purchase. Manguel is an Argentinian writer. He re-reads his favourites over a year, and makes comments as he goes along, resulting in a chunky little book. Its insightful and literary and a prod to the lazy reader to try some of his choices, for e.g. The Island of Dr Moreau – H G Wells. I suspect it may be out of print. I was delighted to find Kim – Rudyard Kipling on the list, and shall re-read mine. I have an elegant old blue, cloth-bound copy with the title in gold lettering, given to me by The Prof .

Alberto Manguel chooses a book of 2000 pages for his third chapter: Memoirs from beyond the Grave – Francois-Renee de Chateuabriand. It covers a life from 1768 – 1841 and discourses largely on Napoleon – I shall not be attempting this one! Johnathan Strange & Mr Norrell at 800 pages was quite enough for me. Oddly enough, Napoleon featured largely in this saga as well. Not only is Manguel’s book an introduction to foreign language books I’ve never heard of, but also has quotes from a staggeringly diverse number of writers; for example, it also lists Literary Heroes; On Places that Cannot be Left; On Places that Cannot be Reached; Favourite Cities; and a list of Poetic Subjects by Seishonagon which include …. hail, colts, bamboo grass; the round-leaved violet, club moss, flat river boats. As Alberto Manguel says “the list is a poem in itself”.

His book has fragments of the past, snapshots of the present : his cat features in these as does his French home, his lover and his Library – imagine having a proper Library in one’s home!; there is philosophical and critical comment on the books he’s reading. The book is rich, varied, and marvellous e.g. Bras Cuba’s …memoirs proceed from ideas that hang from the trapeze of his brain and demand his attention with the words : ”Decipher me or I’ll devour you.” What a terrific sentence!

One of Manguel’s comments struck me: he admitted – or rather reported – (quite casually) that he always writes in his books: notes, comments, underlinings, and the like. Library membership trains one not to do this and I was a little shocked, but then realised that I do the same with my Tarot books – make notes, mark particularly important paragraphs that impart new facts. BUT I use a soft pencil and write lightly, so I can rub out the notes later on if I loan, sell or dispose of the book. I recall being lent a book by friends and contained so many passages highlighted in red that I found it very difficult to read the text. My eye kept tripping over the big blocks of red print.

And then I bought another book by Alberto Manguel – A History of Reading. I was so entertained by the first book, I thought I’d try him again, and I wasn’t disappointed. Although I sipped the book in doses of one chapter at a time, over a number of months, Manguel writes in such a lively manner that the dates, the chunks of history, the literary lore, the vast scope of the book, all slips down easily, flowing smoothly under the eye and painlessly into the mind. Reviews labelled it “erudite and entertaining”; utterly beguiling; “a wonderful merger of scholarship and personal essay”  – all true, in my experience. For example, I never realised that for centuries mass personal reading was unknown – the learned read to the un-lettered audience, perhaps like the daily readings today to the workers, in modern Cuban cigar factories. We are so accustomed to buying, owning and reading our own personal books, and yet our book and reading habits only go back a few hundred years.

Surprisingly , according to a 1985 UNESCO statistic, 28% of the world’s population cannot read. So what I take for granted is not as universal as I suppose. You may think that a History of Reading would be a dry affair, but not so, and if you get tired of Manguel he has included a generous number of pictures, plus a large fold-out date chart that starts in the history of reading in 4000 BC (a clay tablet detailing livestock sales) and ends in 1996. This date marks the fact that the Library of Congress numbers more than 100 million items. What a staggering number of books. Franz Kafka remarks “I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place?” Hmmm – I’m not sure I agree with him, but we can ponder this idea. But I do agree with Gustav Flaubert, who said “Read in order to live”. I have used his sentence as the tagline for this blog. Treat yourself: try reading Alberto Manguel.

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1 Comment

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One response to “A Reading Diary – Alberto Manguel

  1. Alison- I write in 99 % of my books. Checks and K for key idea, and I make comments. I’ve always done this. I wonder if others are the same. I know many people feel it is sacrilegious to write in a book. But for me, it is part of reading a book– after all – it is in part an ongoing conversation between me and the writer. 🙂

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