Conversation: Alberto Manguel

The Next Chapter of Reading

One of the most delightful books I read this past year was “The Library at Night,” a series of essays on the “idea” of the library through time and place, from ancient Alexandria to the Web, with stops along the way at the personal library of some 30,000 books that author Alberto Manguel has built for himself.

Manguel, we learn from the book jacket, is a “Canadian citizen who was born in Buenos Aires and has now settled in France.” Whatever that adds up to, his real home seems to be in the world of books. “For me,” he writes, “words on a page give the world coherence.” His new volume is titled, “A Reader on Reading.”

A full transcript is after the jump.

Editor’s note: You can listen to more conversations in our series, “The Next Chapter of Reading,” including authors Ursula Le Guin, Katherine Paterson and Rick Moody. We’ve also talked about the latest in consumer e-reader technology, and on the NewsHour we had a report about the Google Books plan to digitize and offer millions of books online.


JEFFREY BROWN: Alberto Manguel, welcome.


JEFFREY BROWN: The latest collection, “A Reader on Reading,” just broadly speaking, what is it that makes you want to read and write about reading?

ALBERTO MANGUEL: I think to begin with, if you extend the meaning of reading to recognizing the world that’s around you, human beings are reading animals. We come into the world with a sense that everything around us is narrative, and so we believe that the world is speaking to us and there is something to be read in the landscape and the faces of others and so on. And I think that led us to invent a written language that we can in turn read that helps transmit the knowledge of previous generations and allows us in a sense to eliminate time and space since we can read from centuries ago, people and places that we have never visited. I think it is the essence of human activity.

JEFFREY BROWN: I think it’s one of the early, maybe the first essay where you write, Words on a page give the world coherence.”

ALBERTO MANGUEL: Yes, that’s what I believe. I can understand that there are those who can think and imagine the world without words, but I think that once you find the words that name your experience, then suddenly that experience becomes grounded and you can use it and you can try to understand it.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’ve been flipping through various essays. There is one called “Notes Toward a Definition of the Ideal Reader.”

ALBERTO MANGUEL: Yes, that was a sort of joke. I was asked to write an essay on the ideal reader, and I thought well of course the ideal reader doesn’t exist, but that we think around that idea, what is an ideal reader, and so I came up with these pages of notes.

JEFFREY BROWN: What struck you in the end as the key defining characteristics?

ALBERTO MANGUEL: I think the recognition that as a reader you have an immense power, that as a reader you are the one who decides what a book is, in fact whether a book would survive or not. A writer stops writing the moment he or she puts the last full stop to their text, and at that point the book is in limbo and doesn’t come to life until the reader picks it up and the reader flips the pages. And that is an incredible power that we have as readers, and I think ideal reader is conscious of that power.

JEFFREY BROWN: The fun or interesting last note in this essay is “Literature depends not on ideal readers but merely on good enough readers.”

ALBERTO MANGUEL: Exactly, exactly. That is the ideal of perfect, the ultimate reader doesn’t exist nor does the perfect ultimate text, but good enough should be good enough for us.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have made a living as a reader in a sense.


JEFFREY BROWN: How did you do that?

ALBERTO MANGUEL: I always knew that I wanted to live with books, even as a child because we traveled a lot. Home was the book to which I came back every evening. I remember as a small child feeling secure in the fact that I opened my story book and there on the same page was the same text with the same illustration. That gave me a sense of reassurance that the world did not give me. And that developed into a love of collecting books. Eventually as an adolescent, I met Jorge Luis Borges, the blind Argentinean writer. I was working in a book store and he would come and buy books there and asked me one day to come and read to him. And that was an extraordinary experience, because reading to Borges as an adolescent, what happened was that I became the silent witness of his own reading because he would comment on what we would read. That was an extraordinary learning experience, and also the experience of how generous reading can be, that if you don’t follow official guidelines, if you don’t believe in the histories of literature that are taught and the official chronologies, your mind as a reader is free to associate — well, as Borges did, Agatha Christie with Plato and draw your own conclusions.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you know at a certain point, you became a writer on reading in a sense, so where is that compulsion to sort of organize or define the experience?

ALBERTO MANGUEL: I think that was by chance. I think that if I were to define myself, I would define myself as a reader. Writing came from reading. That is to say, I wanted others to share my reading in languages that they didn’t read, so I became a translator. I wanted them to read stories not easily available, I became an anthologist. I wanted to understand what it is that I did as a reader, and so I wrote “A History of Reading,” and so on, and everything seems to stem from this essential activity of reading.

JEFFREY BROWN: In your book, “Library at Night,” you start with your own library as kind of starting point for the idea and the history of the library. The question now, I guess, is how to see the library in the age of digital information?

ALBERTO MANGUEL: I don’t think that the definition of library has changed. Libraries have never been repositories solely of books. In Alexandria for instance, the model of the ideal library perhaps, there was a will to collect every book in the world, but at the same time they had maps and objects and there was a sense that this was a world of study and communication. The technology changes, and so electronic media should enter the library as long as we don’t forget that there are also books. I don’t believe in technologies that want to exclude one another. A new technology comes into the world and believes that it can bill itself on the corpse of the previous technology, but that never happens. Photography did not eliminate painting. Film did not eliminate theater and so on. One technology feeds on the vocabulary of the other, and I believe that the electronic technology has taught us to value the reading on the page, and the reading on the page has taught us what we can do on the screen. They are alternatives, but they’re certainly not synonymous.

JEFFREY BROWN: I guess what people wonder about, and some fear, is that the technology changes how people take in information, how we take in narrative, you know, our attention spans even to narrative, which can impact reading and therefore can impact writing.

ALBERTO MANGUEL: Of course. Two things happen. On the one hand, the new technology, especially in the case of electronic technology, which is pushed so hard for industrial financial reasons, may lead to us believing that the only possible communication is superficial and brief and easy and everything else should be eliminated. But at the same time, it makes us reflect, at least a few of us reflect, on the value of those apparently superseded qualities, and so we become more conscious of what it means to read on the page, more conscious of what it means to acquire the pleasure of reading through difficulty, more conscious of the importance of a book that allows depth instead of simply surface as in those objects we call books and that pile up on the bestseller tables. I think that we will eventually realize that there are certain reading activities that are better performed electronically, such as searching an item in an encyclopedia or a dictionary. If you want to go to one specific point, the electronic technology is not well suited to reading “War and Peace,” for instance, in that it requires that almost perfect object, which we invented centuries ago — a book, on paper that can be transported anywhere in which we can write and that has a physical presence in our world.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Alberto Manguel’s latest book is “A Reader on Reading.” Thank you for talking to us.

ALBERTO MANGUEL: Thank you very much.

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