A Reading Diary
A Passionate Reader’s Reflections on a Year of Books
By Alberto Manguel
New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004
Hard back: ISBN: 0374247420 Price: $22.00
In the international army of belles lettres, Buenos Aires native Alberto Manguel is general of the bibliographical division. He is a Renaissance bibliophile: essayist, storyteller, collector of tales, champion of good books in any language, and author of two masterpieces on the modern book, A History of Reading (1996) and The Dictionary of Imaginary Places (1980).
His Reading Diary is assembled from a year’s worth of journal entries. Its genesis came from rereading his favorite books. “I was struck by how their many-layered and complex worlds of the past seemed to reflect the dismal chaos of the world I was living in,” he explains. “A passage in a novel would suddenly illuminate an article in the daily paper…A single word would prompt a long reflection.”
He chose classics, familiar and exotic, reflecting the breadth of his library: Kipling’s Kim; Cervantes’s Don Quixote; The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon; The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame; and books by Margaret Atwood, H. G. Wells, and the Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, whose work Manguel considers woefully underappreciated by English-speaking readers.
He read Bioy Casares in Buenos Aires after the Argentinean economic crisis. “The Invention of Morel ends with a nostalgic recapitulation of what the narrator’s homeland means to him. It is an enumeration of places, people, objects, moments, actions, snatches of an anthem…I could do the same to remember Buenos Aires.” Manguel reads The Sign of Four and embraces Arthur Conan Doyle’s contradictory, nearly unlikable Holmes—a drug-addicted hero who reflects English Victorian prejudices. In the midst of his observations on the book, Manguel receives news of a neighbor’s death. “It suddenly seems obscene to be entertained by brutal deaths in fiction,” he writes.
Current events distract, enthrall, and disturb him. Manguel finds their echoes in the pages before him. As Manguel read Chateaubriand’s memoirs in September 2002, the world observed the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Chateaubriand, who witnessed the French Revolution and Napoleon’s rise and fall, notes: “Murder will never be in my eyes an object of admiration and an argument for freedom; I know nothing more servile, more despicable, more cowardly, more narrow-minded than a terrorist.”
The rage Manguel expresses at the calamitous follies on the global stage is balanced by poignant and intensely personal observations of people, places, and books he has known. “Reading is a conversation,” Manguel says. “Readers engage in a dialogue provoked silently by words on a page. This comment…extends and transports the text into another time and another experience; it lends reality to the illusion that the book speaks to us.” A Reading Diary is a lovely, engaging conversation with one of the world’s great bibliophiles.