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Douglas Fetherling - The Antidote
by Douglas Fetherling

There's a cogent essay on the art of reading in The Merry Heart (McClelland & Stewart, $32.95), the posthumous collection of Robertson Davies's talks and pieces, ably edited by Douglas Gibson. Permit me to quote from it.

"Most people on this continent can read and write in some degree," Davies states, and "an astonishing number of those who can read and write think that they do so rather well. I spent twenty years as a journalist, and I met all kinds of men and women who prided themselves on what they called their `communication skills'; they would tell you, with an unconvincing show of modesty, that they thought they could write `a pretty good letter'. It was my duty as an editor to deal with their pretty good letters, and I never ceased to be astonished at how badly people expressed themselves who did well in the world as lawyers, doctors, engineers, and the like. When they were angry they seemed unable to focus their anger so they roared like lions, and like lions they roared with no identifiable note. When they wished to express grief they fell into cliché and trivialized their sincere feeling by the awful prose in which they expressed it. When they were soliciting money for charity, they pranced and cavorted in coy prose, or else they tried to make the readers' flesh creep with tales of horrors that may have been true but did not sound true. I used to wonder what made them write as they did, and whenever I was able to find out I discovered that it was because of the dreadful prose they read and the way they read it. They admired cheap stuff, and they appeared to have no understanding of how they cheapened their own minds and their powers of expression by doing so."

I couldn't get this rather long paragraph out of my mind as I was consuming another new book, Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading (Random House Canada, $35), which is not really a history of reading at all (one might as well attempt a history of thinking) but a series of linked essays that argue against consuming cheap stuff and in favour of reading seriously, wisely, and deeply. In the process, Manguel, this most carefully sophisticated boulevardier of a literary figure, lets it become a kind of random autobiography as well. Since he first appeared in our consciousness (and publishers' affections) with the worldwide bestseller The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, Manguel has moved freely among and through cultures, all the while based in Toronto, translating, anthologizing, editing-usually rather than actually writing himself. A History of Reading is one of his few sustained pieces of composition, a useful and happy exception.

The reason people have trouble expressing themselves in print, it seems to me, is that they have some command (great or limited) of only one kind of diction, the diction of journalism and advertising, which is constantly rendering itself into simpler and simpler forms. (Newspaper have mainly affected our understanding of what constitute nouns and verbs-to the point where PM SLATED TO KICK OFF FACT-FIND MISSION is regarded as a real sentence; advertising, by contrast, has done most of its damage to adjectives, so that people now believe that "great", "terrific", "wonderful", "fabulous", and "fantastic" all mean "out of the ordinary".)

To expose oneself, throughout one's entire life, to many different tones and mechanisms of writing is the antidote, and to do so means in some measure being an antiquary. Not as the word is used among historians, derisively, to refer to people who divine historical meaning from physical objects rather than from texts, in a way considered amateurish in the negative sense (even in Britain, where the official society of historians is still called the Royal Society of Antiquaries). What Manguel advocates by the act of publishing A History of Reading is a different-literary-kind of antiquarianism, one that is closely related to being a humanist and a linguist. Manguel usually writes well. His prose is never touched by the too-chummy magpie faux-learning that one used to associate with bookish old pipe-smokers like Christopher Morley and Vincent Starrett. It does, however, carry a slight echo of Eco-the same delight in erudition for its own sake that we came to recognize when The Name of the Rose had its vogue. Like Umberto Eco, Alberto Manguel is a tease.

Born in Buenos Aires, the son of a diplomat with a library, Manguel loved books from an early age, was reading at four, but didn't actually learn to write until he was seven. "I could perhaps live without writing." A telling remark. "I don't think I could live without reading." A few more pages pass and we learn that he spent most of his first six years in Tel Aviv.

Back in Argentina, he "wanted to live among books. When I was sixteen, in 1964, I found a job, after school, at Pygmalion, one of the three Anglo-German bookstores of Buenos Aires," where the proprietor encouraged him to borrow books from stock. "I too soon discovered that one doesn't simply read Crime and Punishment or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. One reads a certain edition, a specific copy, recognizable by the roughness or smoothness of its paper, by its size, by a slight tear on page 72 and a coffee ring in the right-hand corner of the back cover." He adds: "The epistemological rule for reading, established in the second century"-namely, that the most recent edition is necessarily to be preferred, because it contains the fewest errors and largest number of corrections and emendations-"has rarely been true in my case." Yet he has no particular interest in publishing history per se. Many other authors couldn't have written a book like this without at least one mention of the extraordinary eighteen-century London bookseller James Lackington and his two unrestrained autobiographies, Memoirs and Confessions. But not Manguel, who is largely unmoved by the relationship between books and technology or even between books and commerce.

Manguel's life and ideas seemed to change forever when he met Jorge Luis Borges, the famous poet and writer of ficciones, who had gone blind and needed someone to read to him. Borges was always "the master of the text. I was the driver, but the landscape, the unfurling space, belonged to the one being driven, for whom there was no other responsibility than that of apprehending the country outside the windows. Borges chose the book, Borges stopped me, or asked me to continue, Borges interrupted to comment, Borges allowed the words to come to him. I was invisible." What an education.

These recollections led Manguel to the question of literature and anti-authoritarianism. The notion of books as frivolous luxuries, he argues, "is actively encouraged by those in power. Demotic regimes demand that we forget," whereas "totalitarian regimes demand that we not think, and therefore they ban and threaten and censor; both, by and large, require that we become stupid and that we accept our degradation meekly, and therefore they encourage the consumption of pap," the stuff Robertson Davies was talking about.

By 1978, the reader finds Manguel "in the offices of the publisher Franco Maria Ricci in Milan, where I was working as foreign-language editor." Later he turns up once or twice in Iraq. He says little about Canada and his eventual settlement here. Perhaps we need say nothing either, except to restate the obvious: that Manguel is a wonderfully well-stocked and friendly addition to the scene, a learned person who does not smell of the lamp but wears his knowledge with a faint cosmopolitan smile. l

Douglas Fetherling's second volume of memoirs, Way Down Deep in the Belly of the Beast, was published by Lester in September.


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