A Reading Diary by Alberto Manguel

Re-reading is usually a great pleasure, especially when it’s an old favourite that you know and love and aren’t at risk of being disappointed with. Imagine, therefore, spending a year simply revisiting some of your most-loved volumes as you go about your life, travelling round the world and making notes as you go. That’s the premise of this book by Alberto Manguel from 2004, and it certainly is a thought-provoking work.

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Manguel is an author and essayist; originally hailing from Buenos Aires, he’s lived in Italy, England, Tahiti and Canada, finally winding up in France. The book spans the time from June 2002 to May 2003, and the dates are relevant, because the book is firmly rooted in the context of world events. The author visits a variety of places, from his family Buenos Aires (where he reads Adolfo Bioy Casares), London (The Island of Dr. Moreau) and Canada (Elective Affinities), as well as spending much time in his home in France. But filtered in with his thoughts on the books he’s re-reading are memories of the past and reflections on the state of the modern world.

The fact that Manguel is writing in an immediately post-9/11 landscape is particularly relevent; war is being declared on Iraq and the author watches in horror as history begins to repeat itself. Pertinently, much of the chaos he perceives around him is reflected in the novels, and Manguel ends up meditating on reading and its connections to reality. Perhaps the greatest books are timeless and can always be applied to the human condition?

… what I no longer recall is there, somewhere, on one of the carefully numbered pages of one of my books. And I, of course, will disappear; the new wall too will fall away, the books will be scattered. But that of which we all form part, a part however small, will stay on, fixed under the stars. And, as in the eye of a sculptor chiseling away at a stone, the whole will be all the more beautiful for our absence.

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Despite the somewhat serious subject matter, the book has a light touch, and Manguel certainly has a wide knowledge of literature. As well as the books he’s discussing, ARD is scattered with gems from other authors. I was particularly taken with his quote from Nabokov’s “Pnin” which I must have overlooked on my reading of it:

He never attempted to sleep on his left side, even in those dismal hours of the night when the insomniac longs for a third side after trying the two he has.

“A Reader’s Diary” is described on its cover as “a love letter written to reading” and in a sense it is. However, it’s so much more than that; ranging over time back to Manguel’s childhood, and covering parts of his life and his experiences, it has a wider outlook on how things have changed during his lifetime. But it also makes the reader really stop and think about what great literature is; how it speaks to us over the centuries; and how books and writing are one of mankind’s greatest creations. Manguel’s written a good many more books about reading, I believe, and so this certainly won’t be the last of his I pick up.

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For those wondering about the books covered, they are:

The Invention of Morel (Adolfo Bioy Casares)
The Island of Dr. Moreau (Wells)
Kim (Kipling)
Memoirs From Beyond the Grave (Chateaubriand)
The Sign of Four (Doyle)
Elective Affinities (Goethe)
The Wind in the Willows(Graham)
Don Quixote (Cervantes)
The Tartar Steppe (Dino Buzzati)
The Pillow Book (Sei Shonagon)
Surfacing (Margaret Atwood)
The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (Machado De Assis)

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