here - King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture

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
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
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
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
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
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.