Tag Archives: Argentina

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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Feeling a bit down? Post-Silly Season blues? A bit fed up with your life?

Read one of the following books and realize just how very lucky we all are. I don’t know where some of my readers live, but be glad you don’t live in any of the countries I’m writing about.  Reality check coming up:

What happens after Mugabe?  By Geoff Hill

A thoughtful, well-researched book by one-time South African resident, now Africa correspondent for the Washington Times. Published in 2005. Hill tells a grim tale, with a grim prognosis.

Apart from the grassroots total reconstruction of every aspect of Zimbabwe – health, education, government, infrastructure, agriculture – there is the spectre of 3 million expatriate black Zimbabweans living in South Africa (and I suspect in the intervening 6 years since publication of the book, there are a great deal more; every other waitron in Cape Town is a dark black, skinny, beautifully spoken Zimbo). According to Hill some of these expats are upfront about exacting revenge on the ZANU/PF soldiers/militia/Youth League thugs should the political scene change and assist their return to their country ……   oh boy. ‘Nuff said.

Half way through the book, I stopped reading.  I could not take any more harrowing statistics. At this point, I wished I was a drinker because I really needed a good, stiff drink.


In December 2011 I had the pleasure of a quick flit around the Kloof SPCA Bookshop, while on a family visit to Durban.  I bought  Travels Without my Aunt by Julia Llewellyn Smith . This was travel with a difference. JLS wrote her book based on travel to Mexico, Sierra Leone, Vietnam, Cuba, Haiti, Paraguay and Argentina,  and the criteria for this odd assortment of countries was that British novelist Graham Greene travelled to all of them and used his experiences as material in his novels. For example, Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene, set in Cuba.  Greene often used exact details, literal locations, buildings, and streets as setting in his novels. Years ago I tried to read Our Man, but abandoned it; I don’t think  – after the JLS account – that I’m willing to try again.  She’s very clued up about GG and reveals him as a complex, religion haunted,  sleazy man, (wherever he travels, he always visits the local brothels).  I’m glad he was never my travelling companion.

Most of the countries he/she visited are corrupt, unstable, and in the case of Sierra Leone beyond brutal – unspeakable, horrific – there are not enough words to describe the mayhem generated by the drugged-up, homicidal, child soldiers – Africa at its very terrible worst.  Haiti was just as horrible, not one redeeming feature.  No surprises there.  Dictators, paranoia, voodoo, civil unrest – it all goes on and on, country after country.

Suddenly the woes of South Africa don’t look so bad. Both books thoroughly deserve to be labelled AWFUL BOOKS*, not because of their literary style but because of their dreadful contents.

Julia Llewellyn Smith gets my medal for intrepid travel, and also for good writing.

*I should add that the idea of  AWFUL BOOKS comes from the recurring phrase in Alexandra Fuller’s newest book Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness  but I’ll report on that another time.

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