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Facing the Books - John Ayre speaks with Alberto Manguel
by John Ayre

When Alberto Manguel gives a reading for his new book A History of Reading, he shows about thirty slides of paintings and photos of readers, both mythical and real, which he has included in the book. Some of these images that he has gathered from his research are quite arresting. There's a preposterously delightful painting of a plump Mary Magdalene lolling prone, completely naked, and reading a large tome, the like of which was never seen in her time. But the slide that invariably captures the audience's attention is of a photo taken during the London Blitz in a partially destroyed private home. A German fire-bomb has burned off the roof over a large room. Miraculously the blaze was stopped before it burned a library of leather-bound volumes on each side of the room. In the mess, three gentlemen-they are well-dressed in coats and homburgs-are standing on charred wood and looking at or reading the books. Likely they were passers-by who saw a suddenly exposed library and opportunistically decided to ignore the niceties of trespass laws and the evident hazard of the charred rafters hanging above to find out about those books. Because the men face the books, their backs are turned against the destruction. Inevitably the image raises a very basic question. Are these men avoiding reality or escaping into it?
When he first saw the photo in a picture gallery of the Blitz in the Imperial War Museum in London, Manguel immediately understood he had discovered not just a good picture for his book but an emblematic one. As he worked on the book, it sustained him because it revealed so much. When interviewed before his Harbourfront Festival of Authors appearance in Toronto in November, he had no hesitation in defining the importance of what the men were doing: "What I find extraordinary about that is that it is an everyday scene. If you walk down the street and see books in a bookshop window or on a bookshelf in the street, you would stop and look at them. The action of reading is a constructive, urgent, positive one. No matter what the circumstances are, you read. There's a photo of Che Guevara in the middle of the guerilla war, days before he was killed, sitting and reading Jack London. There are photos of people reading in all sorts of circumstances where the rest of the world seems to be saying: `Stop reading. Things have come to a halt. There's no hope any more.' But the reader carries on. To me, it's paradoxical that the reality that is constantly brought forth in books, is such a clear entry for us as human beings into some kind of understanding, is considered escapist or unreal, whereas sheer madness like war or corporate greed or the insane passions which drive us in everyday life, sickness, and despair, seems real to us instead. I don't know where that comes from except perhaps from a fear of confronting reality which is the reality given to us by art."
In an age of ironic realism, of course, this is blatant heresy but it ties Manguel to the world-view of any number of mythopoeic writers like Oscar Wilde, C. S. Lewis, or Northrop Frye, who saw truth and form in literature and art rather than in the squalor of history. Certainly in the autobiographical sections of A History of Reading, there is an absolute sense that for Manguel reading involves an powerful alchemy that enriches perception. In the first chapter, paradoxically called "The Last Page", he remembers his life as a small child in the early fifties in Israel, where his father was the Argentinian ambassador. Because his parents were so busy, he was isolated without resentment, he says, in his own world, in the company of a German-speaking Czech nanny, who taught him English and German first. (Oddly his native language, Spanish, was third.) It was there on the edge of the edge of the desert, he writes, that his childhood view of reality became coloured by the power of literary allusion:
"The street outside the house was full of malignant men going about their murky business. The desert, which lay not far from our house in Tel Aviv...was prodigious because I knew there was a City of Brass buried under its sands, just beyond the asphalt road. Jelly was a mysterious substance which I had never seen, which I knew about from Enid Blyton's books, and which never matched, when I finally tasted it, the quality of that literary ambrosia."
It was only the power of sexual love experienced many years later that finally indicated to him that literary invention could sometimes fail to outdistance reality.
Manguel's strength as a literary journalist and editor derives precisely from this child-like wonder which is still very much with him. Although he can exhibit snappish impatience in daily routine-the grind of freelance work is never soothing-he can suddenly brighten and relax if someone launches into a personal or literary story that interests him. He laughs and beams with pleasure. Stories are in fact the lode of his life and his attention locks onto them instantly. While this has served him well as a premier anthologist of short fiction, it hasn't-with the exception of his novel News from a Foreign Country Came-led to much extended writing before A History of Reading. He came into writing, in fact, only indirectly. Up to 1982 when he first settled in Canada, his background was almost entirely in editing in Europe and the South Pacific. After a boring first year of university at home in Buenos Aires, he headed off to Europe in the late sixties to seek other worlds. While supporting himself in counter-culture style by painting leather belts, Manguel got to know expatriate Argentines in Paris like Julio Cortazar and Hector Vianciotti, for whom he wrote occasional reader's reports. When Franco Maria Ricci wanted to publish Borges, whom Manguel knew back home, Ricci hired Manguel to translate Borges's long story "The Congress". This led to Manguel's appointment as a foreign editor with Ricci in Milan, where he met his English wife, who was teaching at the Berlitz. When he had a falling-out with Ricci, he had the exceptional luck to meet a bookstore owner from Tahiti who just happened to be starting a publishing company, Les Editions du Pacifique. "Two days later," says Manguel with a burst of laughter, "I had two tickets for Tahiti and we left for Tahiti and that was that."
After eight years of a desk job, though, he was restless. When the Editions closed operations there, he received other job offers in Japan and the United States which he turned down. He wanted to come to Canada because the agent Lucinda Vardey and the editor Louise Dennys had been decisive in publishing here in 1980 his first book, The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, which went on to capture an international audience. "Its success told me that at last I could stop working in an office-which was hell for me. Rather than read, I could write." He did write, of course, quickly becoming one of the top reviewers and essayists in Canada. At a time when few fiction anthologies were being produced, he mined his knowledge of short fiction by compiling a series of internationally successful anthologies starting with Black Water in 1983.
In August 1987 The New York Times Book Review ran an essay by him on its first page, "Sweet are the Uses of Anthology". The editors liked it so much they asked for another piece. "I thought, Why not do one on the history of reading and how readers become who they are? I tried writing it but it was impossible to bring everything together. My thinking around it escaped the essay every time, so an editor in Louise Dennys's office, Catharine Yolles, said that it should really be a book. I started thinking about it but I started thinking about it shyly. I can say quite confidently I am a good reader. But I have no academic training. My knowledge of anything, history, even literature, is erratic. I knew I couldn't become a scholar in any one of those areas. I would have to depend on chance."
The result, built up over seven years of writing, is much more secure. As one critic has noted already, there is the assurance in Manguel of a Kenneth Clark outlining a whole swath of cultural history. There is in fact a BBC-like feel to the book, which offers an encyclopaedic view of the subject with the appropriate abundance of illustrations. Manguel outlines the techniques of learning reading, with particular focus on fifteenth-century schoolboy notebooks found in Salestat near Strasbourg (where he once lived). Because a reader also has his own peculiar needs, often glasses and a chair and a particular setting, Manguel offers some rather intriguing images. By pure chance he found a photo in the Encyclopaedia Britannica of an ergonomically correct mahogany "cockfighting" chair from about 1720, which the reader straddled, facing a lectern attached to the back.
More important, of course, is the philosophy of reading. In a modern democratic society reading is so common it has become nearly invisible, a process hardly thought about in cultural terms. Yet universal literacy has hardly been with us for much more than a hundred years. Before that, when reading was restricted, sometimes severely, to the clergy, bureaucrats, upper bourgeoisie, and the aristocracy, widespread reading was often viewed as a threat to social control. Peasants were not supposed to read the Bible and even upper-class women were often discouraged. Because a key tenet of both Judaism and Protestantism was that adherents should have direct contact with the scriptures, preferably through reading, there was a democratizing effect which eventually turned Europe on its head. Manguel notes how authoritarian fears of reading continue today: "The military junta led by General Pinochet banned Don Quixote in Chile, because the general believed (quite rightly) that it contained a plea for individual freedom and an attack on conventional authority."
Despite the presumed power of those who did read, there has been a consistently disparaging view of readers as pedantic "book fools" who took the guise of bespectacled donkeys in satiric illustrations. There was early resentment of professional readers, clergymen, and administrators, who didn't appear to do real work because their bodies hardly moved and their hands were never sullied. Against this prejudice, which has continued well into this century, there are the feelings of the heroic individual reader himself, who knows he can command whole worlds inside literature. Manguel of course effectively uses his own experience for this, particularly in writing about his early years when he was in thrall of romantic and fantastic literature.
The limit, however, lies in the danger of brahminical ineffectuality. Manguel after all never makes very clear how the reader is reborn into the world having wandered through the forests of literature. There is no sense of the revolutionary nature of reading, of how the Book of Nehemiah and the Revelation to John of the Bible, for instance, helped convince sixteenth-century British Puritan leaders to guide twenty thousand followers across a dangerous ocean to build a "City on the Hill" in a "New" England and thus America. It doesn't account for a Blake who saw poetry as a great transforming force. It doesn't account for the effect of a novel like 1984, Fahrenheit 451, or even On the Road in crystallizing the values of a teenage reader. Manguel admits this deficiency in his book. "One of many chapters I didn't write is about the revolutionary use of books. If I were to write the chapter, it would not be based on what the authors expected the books to do, or on what the books themselves apparently contain because the book contains nothing. Authors can say whatever they want but nothing will happen until the readers make use of it. But it's true there are books that are at the starting-point for change. I love an anecdote told by Ford Madox Ford. It seems that Turgenev found a copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin and three days after he found it he started writing A Sportsman's Sketches. Tsar Alexander read the book and on the basis of that changed the laws of serfdom, to make their lives not as hard as they were. Ford Madox Ford imagines Tsar Alexander lying in bed reading A Sportsman's Sketches and thinking that he is going through his estate with a serf behind him. Slowly as he reads Turgenev's book, he begins to understand the serf, the ground beneath him, the tiredness, the weight of what he is carrying. A few days later, Tsar Alexander decides to free the serfs. That is the kind of revolutionary effect that a book can have, on an immediate personal level. That is something I didn't explore."
After two years in Paris with his partner and co-anthologist Craig Stephenson, Manguel has just settled into another two years in London before returning to Canada. Despite the dizzying expense of living in even a modest flat across the Thames, he has started a new book which is already showing the painstaking progress of A History of Reading. "The image I suppose I can use is that of throwing little pieces of metal around and at some point finding the magnet to bring them together. I'm very, very far from finding the magnet right now. I'm only now cutting the pieces of metal. They have something to do with a subject which came from A History of Reading. I was interested in the reading of images, particularly images that depict emotions. I thought it would be interesting to explore the vocabularies that we have used to depict emotions and how these vocabularies mirror the society they come from. It sounds abstruse and boring but I hope it won't be. The working title is History of Love and Hate."

John Ayre is the author of Northrop Frye: A Biography.


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