The Pleasure of Reading Alberto Manguel To call reading a pleasure is no doubt an understatement. For me, reading is the source of all pleasure, colouring all experience, making it somehow more endurable, more reasonable. In English, the verb “to read” happily shares its etymology with the verb “to reason”. When something happens to me, in order to understand it, my mind compares it to something I’ve read. I’m not always successful in finding a model for an event, but the fault, I believe, lies not in my reading, but in myself, for not having yet reached the appropriate page, or for having read it once and then forgotten it. Perhaps, to a wiser reader, any page in any book holds a particular answer or explanation; perhaps there is no text, however poor, that does not reflect the universe. My own reading is much more limited, and the books in which I most frequently look for helpful hints are Alice in Wonderland, the stories of Borges, Don Quixote and the poems of Mahmoud Darwich. I can’t imagine life without them. “In earlier centuries, a scholar might have endeavoured to read, or at least would have been aware of the existence of every book written in his day. Now, when such heroic deeds are so utterly beyond consideration, we nevertheless insist, as mere consumers, that every published book be made available to us.” I find such reading lists useful things because they can tell us who are our friends and who are not. For instance, I know I’ll be friends with the reader who confesses to be mad about Montaigne and who will carry Montaigne’s Essays to a desert island or to his deathbed. I also know that I wouldn’t even consider going the same café as a reader who finds Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde disappointing. We can tell who someone is by exploring the list of his favourite books, and whether we want to know that person. Every library is an autobiography. Of course, not everyone can, or wishes to read everything. Though our megalomaniac times urge us to embrace totalities, our individual choices are distinct, particular, whimsical. In the universal library there is at least one book for every reader, but not any book will do, and certainly not all books are meant for all readers. I myself prefer Flaubert to Stendhal, the Brothers Grimm to Andersen, Plato to Aristotle. In earlier centuries, a scholar might have endeavoured to read, or at least would have been aware of the existence of every book written in his day. Now, when such heroic deeds are so utterly beyond consideration, we nevertheless insist, as mere consumers, that every published book be made available to us. Online bookstores, offering several million titles, or the more modest megastores that cover acres of suburban shopping-malls, are no doubt useful to find one specific title for a specific purpose. But for the reader who allows chance to have a say and is less certain of knowing, before the last page is reached, what good a book might hold in trust, these all-embracing and over-orderly storage-rooms are too undiscriminating, too directive, too unadventurous. True readers require less ambitious, more personal realms in which to wander, smaller fields in which to gather provisions, to find words by which to effect change in their hesitant knowledge of the world. When, in the mid-fifties, Jorge Luis Borges became blind from an illness passed on by his father, the Argentinian government offered Borges the directorship of the National Library. Reality allows itself coincidences and symbols that even a mediocre fiction writer would refuse to consider: Borges became the third blind director of the Argentinian National Library and its millions of volumes. To mark the event, Borges wrote an elegy, the “Poem of Gifts”, asking that no one demean to tears or reproach this demonstration of “the magnificent irony of God” who had given him, at the same time, “the books and the night.” “Given to me,” Borges added, “who imagined Paradise under the species of a library.” If Paradise is a library, as I very much hope it is, then it will surely be fashioned according to the enthusiasms of each individual reader. In the Universal Library doubtlessly everything matters, as proof of the generosity of the universe or, as Borges would say, of the library, since, for Borges, library is merely another name we give the universe. But since no two readers ever wander through precisely the same library, every library must contain an infinitude of libraries, each allowing every one of its readers to gather from its stacks the books that personally matter, and to ignore those that don’t. Mark Twain said that a good way to start a library was to leave out the works of Jane Austen. A library, before a reader makes a choice, is like the primordial soup of atoms from which all life came into being. Everything is there for the asking: every idea, every metaphor, every story, as well the identity of each individual reader. The choices I make in a library, the selection of books I care for most, constellate not only my vision of Paradise but also my identity. The truth is that I’ve always felt that my everyday experience, as well as a certain measure of understanding of that experience, comes to me through my reading. As a child, I learned about love by reading stories from the Arabian Nights, about death from detective stories, about the sea from Stevenson, about the jungle from Kipling, about the possibility of extraordinary adventures from Jules Verne. The tangible experience came, in most cases, much later, but when it came I had the words to name it. Reading has always been for me a sort of practical cartography. I have an absolute trust in this ability that reading has to map my world. I know that on a page, somewhere on my shelves, staring down at me now, is the question I’m struggling with today, put into words, long ago perhaps, by someone who could not have known of my existence. The relationship between a reader and a book is one that eliminates the barriers of time and space, and allows for what Francisco de Quevedo, in the sixteenth century, called “conversations with the dead”. In those conversations I’m revealed. Those conversations shape me. More than half a century ago, in one of the many second-hand bookstores that line Calle Corrientes in Buenos Aires, I found a Spanish translation of the Sufi classic, The Conference of the Birds. Almost every afternoon, when school was over, I would stop at these vast, unwieldy bookstores and hunt through the dusty stacks, and almost every time I would come away with a treasure. That day I was especially lucky, because the twelfth-century poem by the Persian mystic Farid-ud-Din Attar I discovered then, stayed with me for the rest of my life. We know almost nothing about the author, except that he was an apothecary, that he travelled to many places and that he died in 1230 when he was over ninety years old. The Conference of the Birds tells the story of a fantastical road trip. Tired of the anarchy that reigns among them, the birds set off to seek a king, the legendary and powerful Simurgh, who has let a warning feather fall in the midst of the Chinese Empire. To reach the Simurgh’s mountain, the birds cross seven valleys several of which bear dreadful names such as Perplexity and Exhaustion. All manner of obstacles lie in their way, many abandon the quest, several perish. In the end, only thirty reach the summit where the Simurgh lives. And here they realize that there is no Simurgh, or rather, that they themselves are the Simurgh and that the Simurgh is them. One way of reading Attar’s poem is to conclude that everything matters, since we are, every one of us, the achievement of our quest; another is that, since we are, every one of us, the achievement of our quest, nothing matters except the taking part in something greater than ourselves. The notion of a being made up of a multiplicity of beings is an idea that haunts me ever since that first afternoon, but it was not until much later that I understood that perhaps this reading of Attar’s poem was also a useful definition of what I myself was -- that is to say, a reader. As a reader, I’m made up of the many Alberto Manguels that people the books I’ve read and loved, characters that under different names incarnate endless versions of myself. I am Pinocchio, who is too cowardly to face up to his misdemeanours but brave enough to attempt to rescue Gepetto trapped inside the whale. I am Sinbad who wants to see the world beyond the horizon and finds it to be full of prodigious and exciting dangers, but in the end requires an audience to which to tell his adventures. I am Lear who thinks he deserves to be cared for, and Goneril who knows that a hundred drunken louts are too much for any one household to bear, and Cordelia who mistakenly believes that it’s enough to love and be silent. I am Job who insists on questioning authority, even though I certainly lack Job’s proverbial patience. I am Scheherazade who knows that stories can save your life. I am the Simurgh who is all the birds who in turn are the Simurgh. One of the brightest stars in the constellation of characters that define me, is Alice. At home, I have a couple or so shelves with Alice books and books about Alice: different versions in various languages, essays and interpretations of all sorts, several biographies of Lewis Carroll. My favourite edition is Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice that guides the reader through Carroll’s tangle of puns, logical puzzles, profound philosophical reflections and deadly humour. All my life Alice has been with me, and everywhere I’ve lived I’ve met the people of Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, over and over again. I first read Alice in my adolescence, realizing that here was a sister soul, lost in a world of crazy adults with their unobeyable rules and fallacious advice which they want poor Alice to follow, telling her to “curtsey while you’re thinking what to say; it saves time” and asking questions such as “What’s French for feedle-de-dee?”. After that, in my early twenties, came the philologically-minded Alice who laid bare the strictures and weaknesses of language, so that when I started writing, Humpty Dumpty’s dictum regarding words, “which is to be the master, that’s all”, echoed loudly and arrogantly in my mind. Later still, I realized that Alice’s story depicted the mercantile society in which I lived today. The financiers and bankers responsible for the economic crisis greedily repeat the Mad Hatter’s cry of “No room!” when there is plenty of room at the tea-table, and offer “jam yesterday and jam tomorrow -- but never jam today.” Politicians everywhere quote the Duchess saying that we have as much right to think “as pigs have to fly” (the now head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, told the French people, in the midst of rampant unemployment, to “think less and work more”.) Commercial ad-men, keen on creating more witless consumers, insist with the Mock Turtle that we all “join the dance.” And finally, because often we are all of us too lazy to reflect upon what affects us, we tend to agree with the Queen of Heart’s demand of “Sentence first – verdict afterwards!” The characters Alice encounters are creatures of her dream, but they feel too close to home for comfort. It is said that the Egyptian priests were among the world’s first booksellers, offering in the temples copies of the Book of the Dead to the families of the deceased, which were then placed with the body in the tomb to guide the soul through the Kingdom of Darkness. Such sacred function is fulfilled, still today, by any reader who shares his books. The books we recommend to friends, the books we share, can be, for those who know how to use them, magical travelling companions, guides for our voyage through the kingdom of this world and, if we wish, through the one which is to come. Readers know that the right book in the right hands is a talisman that helps overcome adversity. We are told that readers are a vanishing species. I don’t believe it. I am convinced that human beings can be defined, as a species, as reading animals, and as long as we are capable of surviving on this planet, we will read. We are born with the impulse to decipher the world, and we look upon everything around us as if it were a story being told for our instruction. From such an impulse stems the ancient metaphor of the world as book, a book that we read and in which we are also written. And from such a metaphor derives perhaps the sense that reading is a magical activity: that it allows us to overcome the seemingly unbreakable barriers of time and space. Almost four thousand years ago, in the Zagros Mountains of Mesopotamia, a reader wrote to his friend who had sent him a letter from far away, saying this: “Bulattal brought me your news, and I am much delighted. I had the impression that you and I had met and that we had embraced.” Letters, poems, stories speak to us by conjuring characters and places in our presence, out of the shadows, here and now, through the prodigious act of reading. The act of reading, of holding a book in your hands, free to curl up in an armchair, or sit quietly in a bus or in a plane, on the toilet or in the bath, or lie belly-down on the grass in a park or belly-up in your bed, flipping backwards or forwards through the book, looking up a favourite passage as many times as you like, as slow or as fast as you see fit, allows others to live on in our reading and us to live on in the words of others. This joyful immortality is achieved in the act of reading as in nothing else on this Earth. However, to reach such moments of bliss, I believe readers must fulfill certain essential tasks. I think I can distinguish six; there are probably more. 1. I find it remarkable that the histories of our literatures, so scrupulous in chronicling the birth and evolution and decline of individual writers and their schools, of trends, fads, movements, ages, have by and large neglected to give due to the one character necessary for the whole edifice to exist. Readers determine which books will remain and which will be forgotten; readers decide which books will be read for pleasure and which for mere instruction; readers label books according to their inclination and wisdom; and readers rescue from books their essence and choice passages, combining them into a sort of universal commonplace book. Readers decree, in spite of what the author wished, that Gulliver’s Travels is a book for children, not a fierce political satire. Readers have forced Shakespeare from the stage onto the page, even though he never thought it worth while to preserve in mere print Hamlet or Macbeth. And readers have remorselessly forgotten hundreds or thousands of self-proclaimed classics, now left to the perusal of moths. Because without readers, literature is silent. Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 was published for the first time in 1954. Its time is the future, when the job of firemen is not to put out fires but to set fire to books. But a few people still believe that books are necessary, that books are essential. And to rescue these books, they memorize them. Montag, the hero, pursued by the state police, finds a group of these walking books in hiding, and joins them. “Would you like, some day, Montag, to read Plato’s Republic?” asks the leader of the group. “Of course!”, Montag answers. “I am Plato’s Republic. Like to read Marcus Aurelius? Mr. Simmons is Marcus.” “How do you do?” said Mr. Simmons. “Hello,” said Montag. And so Montag meets Swift, and Darwin, and Shopenhauer, and Confucius, and Mahatma Ghandi. So that “some day, some year, the books can be written again, the people will be called in, one by one, to recite what they know and we’ll set it up in type until another Dark Age, when we’ll have to do the whole damn thing over again. But that’s the wonderful thing about man; he never gets so discouraged or disgusted that he gives up doing it all over again, because he knows very well it is important and worth the doing.” Important and worth doing: the reader’s first task is rescuing the memory of literature. 2. The second task is that of making sense of that memory. The writers that our bookshelves throw together, whose association seems the work of chance and time, may seem, at first glance, curiously diverse in the memories they bring to the page -memories experienced or imagined. What they have to say colours, of course, their various styles, but the language in which they say it influences in turn what they say. Certain things are imagined in one language that are not imagined in another. And language itself is never neutral: political traditions and power games have a hand in the construction of language, just as much as music and logic. It is therefore useless to try and limit the imagination, the areas that a writer may or may not explore, because nothing in the world belongs to only one person or one group. The truth of a text lies in the reading of the text, not in the writer’s intentions, so that a fascist such as the brilliant novelist LouisFerdinand Cèline can produce texts that can be read against the spirit of fascism, and a humanist such as Pablo Neruda can produce poems that are mere pamphleteering, and therefore anti-human. In 1960, Eugene Ionesco wrote a play which explored (according to Ionesco) his experience of Nazism: Rhinoceros, in which a whole society slowly turns into rhinos. Only one man, Berenger, refuses to change, and his last words, shouted at the advancing hordes of rhinos, are: “I will not capitulate!” Just before the Independence of Algeria, in 1962, in the midst of the war between the Algerian and the French, a theatre in Algiers performed Rhinoceros. When the actor reached the end and pronounced those words, “I will not capitulate!”, the theatre burst into cheers -- on both sides. The Algerians read into his words a plea to keep on fighting; the French, an urging not to give up. Both sides were making sense of Ionesco’s memory, and I believe that for both the reading was legitimate. 3. This open-endedness of a text can, of course, be carried to the absurd, and it is the reader’s third task to see that this does not happen. All writers, without exception, have one thing in common: they create out of words features of landscapes which the reader must identify. These landscapes are all different, shaped as I have said by specific subjects and by specific languages, but they are all landscapes which readers must re-invent and then explore at their own risk and peril. Re-invention and exploration are the reader’s third task. For centuries, readers in positions of power have decided that only certain texts constitute valid reading, are worthy of exploration. Lists of classics, canons, are established through by certain readers for certain purposes; to this, other readers with other purposes react with new lists and new canons. Nothing useful, in my mind, comes of this. Chinua Achebe has made an eloquent plea against Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which he reads as a racist text. Achebe’s essay is carefully argued, but curiously fails to allow for another, vaster reading. The horror Kurtz sees is not only the “painted savages” (and in this description speaks the European imperialist) but a horror that touches us all: the horror of the whole world and of the humankind that has made it, Europe and Africa both. In that sense, Heart of Darkness seems to me a remarkable denunciation of racism, in which there is no hope for the political system as it stands. And whether Conrad believed this or not, is irrelevant. A great work of art is always superior to its creator. “There is hope -- but not for us,” wrote Kafka. This could be the epigraph of Heart of Darkness, and it is with this in mind, and in spite of this, that readers must demand the unconditional freedom to explore. Unless we, as readers, have every choice, we have no choice. 4. The reader’s fourth task depends on the reader’s willingness to give in. Some readers may find themselves best suited to the lush landscape of Garcia Marquez or Marguerite Yourcenar; others may feel more akin to the sober kitchens and bedrooms of Alice Munro or Naguib Mafouz. Some will prefer the zoological realms of Rudyard Kipling or Aesop’s fables; others will drift towards the bleak provinces of Sadegh Hedayat or Charles Dickens. Some readers, the luckiest ones, will be citizens of the world. And what every reader will find is that the common trait of these writers is that they are all, to a greater or lesser extent, magicians. There is a story by Jorge Luis Borges called The Rose of Paracelsus. Paracelsus, the sixteenth century magus and scientist, asks God to send him a disciple. The disciple arrives, eager to learn from the celebrated master, and willing to pay him everything he possesses --a handful of gold coins. What the disciple wishes most is to learn Paracelsus’s trick of destroying and resurrecting a rose. Paracelsus demurs. He tells the disciple that nothing can really be destroyed, that only a thing’s appearance can change, that a person needs but a word to bring the rose back to life. Then he reminds the disciple that other doctors have called Paracelsus a hoaxer. The disciple, eager to know, throws the rose into the fire. It turns to ashes. The disciple feels ashamed. He picks up his gold coins because to leave them “would have been like leaving alms.” “It is difficult to explain why a certain book gives us pleasure, much as it is difficult to explain why you love a certain person. You can come up with reasons, you can give examples, but something that truly matters to you is something that has entwined itself in your guts and heart like one of those vines that ends up carving its way through stone.” This is how Borges ends the story: «Paracelsus accompanied him to the foot of the stairs and told him he would always be welcome. Both knew that they would never see each other again. Paracelsus stood there, alone. Before extinguishing the lamp and sitting in the worn-out chair, he collected in the palm of his hand the small fistful of ashes and in a low voice uttered a single word. The rose appeared.» The reader’s fourth task is to be the magician’s audience. 5. A fifth task is comprehension, taking in the text with whatever experience we may have and whatever skills we may bring to the act of reading. Words, the squiggles which writers have produced to dance before our eyes on the page and to create sounds in the darkness of the mind, are essentially a form of magic. From literally thin air, the words the writer puts down allow us, the readers, to discover, capture, explore, identify, transform, analyse, and ultimately inhabit the world around and within us. And sometimes almost understand it. The American poet Richard Wilbur wrote a poem about the Etruscan poets. Etruscan, as you know, is a language we have not yet completely deciphered. So we have, in our possession, examples of a literature which we can’t read. This is what happens to literature when its readers cannot fulfill its task: «To the Etruscan Poets Dream fluently, still brothers, who when young Took with your mother’s milk the mother tongue, In which pure matrix, joining world and mind, You strove to leave some line of verse behind Like a fresh track across a field of snow, Not reckoning that all could melt and go.» 6. One more task, the last and most important: to find pleasure. Without pleasure, without the bliss of losing oneself on the page, reading is senseless. Like almost any other activity we can think of, unless we do it with joy it is not worth doing. The reader’s task is to trust that pleasure, and follow it wherever it might lead. The ways of pleasure are mysterious, and not infrequently we start at one point and find ourselves suddenly at another quite different. Snobs may compile good bibliographies but they don’t make good readers. It is difficult to explain why a certain book gives us pleasure, much as it is difficult to explain why you love a certain person. You can come up with reasons, you can give examples, but something that truly matters to you is something that has entwined itself in your guts and heart like one of those vines that ends up carving its way through stone. Michel de Montaigne, whom I mentioned at the beginning of this talk, writing about his friendship with Étienne de la Boétie, said that if someone asked him why he loved him, he would not know what to answer, except to say, “Because he was he, and because I was I.” Perhaps those are reasons enough. The library of books that give me pleasure, because they are they and because I am I, is not as vast as all that. Hand on heart, I think there are thirty, maybe fifty books without which I’d feel spiritually, even physically bereft. We all know that there are certain smells, certain sounds, certain landscapes and faces that define us, phantoms that rise in our memory like ghostly landmarks and are impossible to ignore, dear intimate things that will vanish into nothingness when we are no longer there. The books I loved will doubtlessly continue to exist on some other reader’s shelf, but they’ll not be the same books I read on a particular summer afternoon, in a distant room, under circumstances that only I remember because a certain page brings them to mind. I find it astonishingly moving that books are such faithful creatures. In times of turmoil, despair, physical suffering, mental distress, hounded by the greed and idiocy of the world, by bureaucrats and other fools, under heavy skies such as every person on this earth gets to endure at some time to a greater or lesser degree, it is a miracle that these companions made of words are able to guide us, strengthen us, and console us. We are led to believe that things other than reading matter more: fortifying the economy, winning vainglorious wars, discovering new planets, exploiting to the death natural resources, sustaining laborious political enterprises. But the arguments put forward in favour of all these causes, while momentarily compelling, are ultimately not convincing, because deep down inside us we know there’s something else. After making his arduous way into the pit of Hell and being shown the horrors of divine punishment and having spoken to the souls of the eternally condemned, Dante, guided by Virgil, emerges from the terrible place in which Lucifer is trapped forever, and sees the light of dawn on the beach around Mount Purgatory. Here a ship steered by an Angel brings the souls of those who are saved to be cleansed of their sins in the ascent along painful cornices, up to the peak where sits the Lost Garden of Eden. The promise of salvation is assured, and all that the souls must now do is climb and be purged. Watching the ship unload its blissful cargo, Dante recognizes among the newcomers an old friend, the musician Casella, for whom he once wrote the words of songs. Three times Dante tries to embrace him and three times he fails, because Casella is a shade and Dante’s earthly arms cannot hold him. Fondly, for the sake of the memory of their long-past Florentine days, Dante asks Casella to sing for him. Casella agrees, and raises his voice in a beautiful melody, singing a poem that Dante had composed for him in the days when they were both young and happy. Such is the power of Casella’s song that the other souls stop seeking their way up the mountain and stand instead around the singer, listening: Virgil himself is part of the enraptured audience. At that point, Cato, the stern guardian of Purgatory, comes forward and angrily asks them what they think they’re doing. Here they are, in what is surely the most important moment of any Christian life, the preamble to eternal salvation, and instead of rushing up the purgatorial mountain they stand and listen to a mortal song. Chastised, the souls disperse like a frightened flock of birds, and Virgil hangs his head in shame for having neglected his duties as guide. What has happened? Nothing but a brief interruption, an example of the earthly distractions that assault a soul even in the final leg of its journey -- distractions of which we must beware if we are to reach the desired summit. But that lyrical pause is also a demonstration of the power of human art, of the irresistible pull of music and of poetry. According to the strict Catholic dogma within which Dante inscribes his book, we must ignore such temptations and carry on along the ordered path. And yet, according to Dante himself, according to Dante the man, even in the most formidable moments of our life, even when everything we have struggled for comes at last into view, even when the salvation of our soul awaits us, even then, art matters more. Ahead lies the healing, the redemption, the Supreme Good with its attendant supreme bliss promised for all time to come. But here and now, on the sandy beach, a poem is being sung, a poem much like the poems we’ve all read, far away and long ago, in childhood or in adolescence, or later when life becomes gradually more and more insidious and sorrow harder to bear, and we remember the joy the words gave us, and the comfort, and the inkling of an understanding. And so we stand and listen, because these things matter.
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