Thursday, December 09, 2004

A Passionate Reader

I love to read books about books and reading. The writers of such books are always readers themselves and don't apologize for their voracious book appetites. When I read these books I am spending time with a kindred soul, someone who understands why I have to continue accumulating more books than I can possibly read, someone who, if they walked in my door, wouldn't say "gosh you've got a lot of books," someone I could talk companionably with for hours about the books we've read and haven't read. So when my Bookman gave me a copy of Alberto Manguel's A Reading Diary: A Passionate Reader's Reflections on a Year of Books, I happily gave it precedence over all the other books I am in the middle of. We had a little getting to know you tussle at the beginning of the book because my expectations got in the way. I was expecting some kind of coherent narrative, but Manguel, when he says diary, means diary. The book does have coherence but only after each chapter is done because each chapter is written as bits and snips of varying lengths, sometimes a page or two, sometimes a sentence. Once I got into the diary frame of mind, Manguel and I got along quite nicely. As the book's title suggests, it was written over the course of a year, from June 2002 through May 2003. Manguel decided ahead of time that he was going to write this diary. He decided that he would keep the diary about books that he had chosen to re-read and that he would read one each month. Of course pieces of other books he was reading or had read crept in as they had relevance to each month's book. Manguel is a well read and thoughtful man. He frequently makes interesting observations about reading and readers. Take this one for example:

Since I became a Canadian citizen in 1985, I've enjoyed finding references to Canada in unexpected places and I've become attentive to capital Cs on the page...It is curious how readers form their own text by remarking on certain words, certain names that have a private meaning, that echo for them alone and are unnoticed by any other. This reminds me of the anonymous reviewer of Lady Chatterley's Lover who, in the English magazine Horse & Hound, remarked that Lawrence's book contained fine descriptions of the British countryside, unfortunately marred by certain sentimental or erotic digressions.
Or this one:
This morning, I looked at the books on my shelves and thought that they have no knowledge of my existence. They come to life because I open them and turn their pages, and yet they don't know that I am their reader.
At the time of writing this book Manguel was living in France. He had just moved into an old house that had a stone barn that had fallen down. He had the barn rebuilt and it became his library. Whenever he mentioned his library it made me want to cry from imagining how beautiful it must be and from envy. Manguel's writing is personal and relaxed. He focuses on the books and reading but will occasionally throw in an anecdote or two while he is on one of his frequent trips. This one gave me a chuckle:
On a day-trip to Turin for a get-together of Canadian writers, a charming Italian woman greets me by saying, "Welcome to Turin Mr. Martel." I decide I'm too tired to contradict her and spend the day under Yann Martel's name, all sorts of people saying to me how much they like Life of Pi. That evening, when Yann arrives, I tell him not to be surprised if people remark on how much younger he looks now than he did in the morning.
I very much enjoyed A Reading Diary. I have only read one of he books he writes about, Surfacing by Margret Atwood. Manguel writes so eloquently about the books he read that I plan on reading several of them. And in case you are wondering, here are the twelve books Manguel read:
  • The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
  • The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells
  • Kim by Rudyard Kipling
  • Memoirs from Beyond the Grave by Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand
  • The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Elective Affinities by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  • The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
  • Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
  • The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati
  • The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon
  • Surfacing by Margaret Atwood
  • The Posthumous Memoirs or Bras Cubas by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis