Reading Alberto Manguel's new collection of essays, Into the Looking-Glass Wood, I began to formulate arguments against reading and books in general; still, I couldn't stop reading. As our leading apologist for reading, Manguel has certainly found his métier: possessing more erudition and insight than most university departments, he writes with such warmth, generosity, and obvious delight in his subject matter that one is loathe to part company with him. His new book follows on the heels of his enormously successful A History of Reading, recently awarded France's Prix Medicis for non-fiction. Into the Looking-Glass Wood is both a deft recycling operation (almost all the component essays have appeared previously) and an attempt (that is, essai) at autobiography. Call it a Self-Portrait with Books.
But why read writing about reading? Manguel apostrophizes what he calls "the craft of reading" this way: "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 [sic] and board in our passage through the dark and nameless wood."
Of course, the opposite is also-and perhaps more frequently-true: we read for adventure, to lend excitement to our lives, as the readers of any travel narrative know (and as Francis Spufford brilliantly reminds us at the start of his book on polar exploration, I May Be Some Time). Writers as different as Friedrich Nietzsche and Emily Dickinson may be disappointed to learn that there was no danger in their words.
Of course, if there is one thing that most readers can be expected to agree on, it is that reading is a worthwhile activity. It's as if Manguel were saying: "I like what you're doing. Do more of it." Not many readers are going to disagree. But let me try-for a moment.
Words are not just written; they are also spoken. (In fact, Manguel's avowed master, Jorge Luis Borges, once defined poetry as the attempt to restore to words "the primitive and now hidden powers" they once possessed in pre-literate societies.) Yet for Manguel, who subtitles his book "Essays on Words and the World", words, it seems, are almost always "words on a page". These are the words which, he says, give the world coherence and meaning.
If reading is just a means to an end, what is this end? Is it intercourse with others? Self-knowledge? Mere verbal stimulation? Auden once suggested that reading and writing were the result of social alienation: if society allowed us true fulfillment (conversation, company) in the here and now, we wouldn't need or want books. Perhaps books are not that different from the cell phones young bucks flaunt in public: both are a way of snubbing one's immediate companions, showing that one has more important people to talk to and places to be. Perhaps we do occasionally want to forget all the maps and guidebooks and dictionaries and taxonomies, and walk out and lose ourselves in "a dark and nameless wood"-one that is not Dante's, not Lewis Carroll's.
That said, Manguel's reverence for reading has its own long tradition, particularly in the literature of his mother tongue. He is in a sense just picking up where Cervantes and Borges left off (if Cervantes reminds us that all of us, including the illiterate Sancho, are readers of a kind, Borges argues that all readers, like his Pierre Menard, write their own books).
Into the Looking-Glass Wood takes its title and much of its inspiration from Alice in Wonderland. The essays are grouped thematically in sections that move outward from the self into the world. Each section is prefaced by a quotation that invites us to find deeper meaning in one of Alice's utterances. (Perhaps because I had English cousins who made her Englishness seem real and less appealing, I have to admit to being impervious to Alice's charms). Thus we go from a section entitled "Who Am I?" (on reading, on being Jewish, and on gay literature), to an Argentinian section (Borges, Che Guevara, Julio Cortazar), to sections dealing with pornography, morality, museums, the aftermath of dictatorship, and a grab-bag of authors (Chesterton, Cynthia Ozick, Richard Outram). There are one or two misfires, anthology introductions all too obviously recycled, and a muddled "sermon" on the story of Jonah that seeks to vindicate the place of the artist in society.
Strongest and most compelling are the essays that deal with Latin American concerns, and the quandaries they raise. Here Manguel combines reflection and personal memoir in a way that is never indulgent, always engaging and illuminating. "Borges in Love" fills out the picture of the great writer (and Manguel's friendship with him), while sketching the nature of his relationships with the women to whom he dedicated many of his famous stories. Argentinians are thought of as the most uptight and inhibited of Latin Americans, and Borges, "a fumbling dream-lover" with an overbearing mother, honoured this trait in the extreme. (One relationship ends when the woman exclaims, "But, Georgie, don't forget I'm a disciple of Bernard Shaw. We can't get married unless we go to bed first.") But rather than delivering a prurient exposé, Manguel delicately and very movingly suggests how this series of aborted infatuations affected Borges and his work, limiting certain aspects (his women characters). We hear the sad, human note of love not lived, of forlorn desire, that echoes through Borges' inventions, and learn that, if he didn't have a heart like Lorca's or Neruda's, he at least had a pulse.
The other essays on Latin American themes show us Manguel as a child of his time, the sixties and its politics. It's hard to imagine a figure more opposed to the courtly, patrician Borges than his fellow Argentinian, Che Guevara, and for those of Manguel's generation (born in 1948), the martyred freedom-fighter cast an immense shadow, proffering a permanent rebuke to their lifestyle. The essay on his death recalls with both sympathy and clear-sightedness those times and Che's power as an icon for Latin Americans; the same willingness to distinguish between revolutionary action and revolutionary writing marks his appreciation of Julio Cortazar. Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian novelist and failed presidential candidate, figures largely in two essays: Manguel praises his writing but opposes his politics-both his disparagement of Peruvian Indian culture and his support of Argentinian President Carlos Menem's amnesty for the military. (I'm not sure he's fair to Vargas Llosa, whose politics were not always what they are now, and whose present salvos are often aimed at the romantic notions of outsiders. In any case, Manguel might have reminded his English-speaking readers that the political declarations of his beloved Borges-e.g., "I have never said I believed in democracy"-were at least as suspect.) In other essays, we get a picture of how politics marked Manguel's generation: camping holidays in Patagonia under the tutelage of fervent left-wing instructors, school friends dispersed and assassinated under the military regime, the dilemmas that arise when murderer and victim must share a democracy. Coming to terms with the past (what the Germans call Vergangenheitsbewaltigung) is a theme here, as it was in Manguel's novel, News From A Foreign Country Came; so too is the ferment and excitement of a time when, thanks to dictatorship, reading and revolutionary politics went hand in hand. (And when a gay Spanish friend of mine, sent to a psychiatrist, was given a smuggled copy of Joyce's Ulysses as a remedy-or handbook?-for his unnatural urges.)
Manguel is remarkable for the breadth of his reading and his taste. Like Frye, he is encyclopaedic and ecumenical, ranging through literatures, periods, and genres. There can be few more perfect or apposite quotations regarding museums than the two he uses to frame his essay on the topic: Petronius (rather his hero, Encolpius) exclaiming before a painting, "So even the Gods in heaven are touched by love!"; and Rilke concluding his sonnet on a torso of Apollo with the injunction, "you must change your life". Nor, sadly, are there many other writers to whom such quotations might occur. What is unusual is that we learn so little of his dislikes: the happily forgotten American Psycho (of which he resurrects as "pornographic"), meddling editors, censorship (of which Borges once argued in favour). In a piece entitled "The Age of Revenge", addressing the parlous nature of present-day identity politics, Manguel makes an exemplary suggestion (after mischievously quoting Kipling in support of cultural relativism): "...unless there is a whole new breed of readers to take those texts upon themselves, to read in them new visions of how to live, not much will change. It is on the readers we must concentrate, not on the writers... Unless this education of the reader occurs, no number of new voices will change anything, because they will echo among a deaf crowd." And contrary to what some aggrieved authors (and cultural bodies) may think, readers cannot be reclaimed or reassigned as if they were mere bureaucratic underlings or piles of cash; they must be earned, seduced, rewarded.
Perhaps the most critical comments come in the essay championing the poetry of the long-ignored Toronto poet, Richard Outram: "...the style of what became recognized as Canadian poetry was simple-sounding, chatty, intimate though never overwhelmingly passionate, well-mannered though sometimes effectively ironic, often funny, in obligatory free verse... It is as if, in the long beginning, Canadian literature chose to be easy...". This is, of course, Canadian poetry as exemplified by Al Purdy and defined by Atwood's 1982 Oxford anthology-a book which, as Manguel suggests, was already out-of-date when it appeared, and now lingers on as a sad reproach to those who actually care about poetry in this country. Manguel has an ear for poetry and responds to the music and diction of Outram's work, which I also cherish; but the extravagance of his claims on Outram's behalf makes one wonder, for once, just how many other contemporary poets Manguel has read. Has he read Don Coles, David Solway or Sharon Thesen? Heaney, Hill or Walcott?
But this is a small complaint against someone who has read so much else. The real triumph of the book is the kind of reader Manguel has created-learned but worldly, non-academic, pleasure-seeking. Philip Larkin used to complain about books that only people who were paid to do so would read. I used to think this was a bit of uncharacteristic hyperbole on his part. I now realize the poet Larkin was referring literally to many of the books he must have catalogued in his day job as a university librarian. Against this, Manguel tells us to have "trust in pleasure and faith in haphazardness". It's hard think of someone I would rather have for a reader, or of a writer who rewards his readers so well.
Richard Sanger is the author of a book of poetry, Shadow Cabinet, and a number of plays, most recently, Two Words for Snow.