My rating: After a certain amount of consideration, 7.5/10.
Now this is a book about books which I would be happy to have on the keeper shelf. It caught my eye during a library browse, and, after standing in the aisle and reading most of the entry regarding Kipling’s Kim, I decided it was worth an even deeper investigation. I was not disappointed.
Alberto Manguel is an Argentine-born writer, anthologist, editor, and translator. He spent his early years in Israel, where his father served as the Argentine ambassador, then back to Argentina, and, once his schooling was completed, working and living in England, France and Tahiti. He moved to Canada in 1982, eventually acquiring Canadian citizenship, though he continues to travel widely, and also maintains a home in rural France.
A Reading Diary is a vanity project of sorts, but a worthwhile one. It consists of the jottings kept over the course of a year as Manguel rereads some of his most treasured books.
It occurred to me that, rereading a book a month, I might complete, in a year, something between a personal diary and a commonplace book: a volume of notes, reflections, impressions of travel, sketches of friends, of events public and private, all elicited by my reading. I made a list of what the chosen books would be. It seemed important, for the sake of balance, that there should be a little of everything. (Since I’m nothing if not an eclectic reader, this wasn’t too difficult to accomplish.)
What has resulted is a book rich with references both everyday and arcane, from the note that the cat is nestled in a towel-lined box looking out at the rain, to the mention of the death of a friend and a reflection on the transience of all things dear to us, to the sombre discussion of the tragedy of the World Trade Centre destruction only a few years earlier, and the subsequent war in Iraq, to warm memories of golden childhood hours spent reading some of the same books that feature in this Diary.
The books chosen are:
- June ~ The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
- July ~ The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells
- August ~ Kim by Rudyard Kipling
- September ~ Memoirs from Beyond the Grave by François-René de Chateaubriand
- October ~ The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
- November ~ Elective Affinities by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
- December ~ The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
- January ~ Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
- February ~ The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati
- March ~ The Pillow-Book by Sei Shonagon
- April ~ Surfacing by Margaret Atwood
- May ~ The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis
Having only read a few of the books on the list – The Island of Dr. Moreau, Kim, The Sign of Four, The Wind in the Willows, and Don Quixote – I wondered if I would be completely lost trying to read the chapters concerning the ones new to me, several of which I had never heard of before. As it turned out, this was not at all the case. A Reading Diary is not about the books as much as it is about the thoughts and connections they trigger. Manguel has such a broad experience and so much to say that everything he comes up with is fascinating even though one strains to fit it into the context of a book one hasn’t read.
Open this book up anywhere at random and perfectly crafted snippets of prose rise from the page. Here are some completely random samples.
Perhaps, in order for a book to attract us, it must establish between our experience and that of the fiction – between the two imaginations, ours and that on the page – a link of coincidences.
A brilliant touch: the woman who stains Kim’s skin to darken his colour “for protection” in the great Game (thereby changing his outer identity) is blind.
Contentment requires a certain lack of curiousity.
I feel uncomfortable having other people’s books at home. I want either to steal them or to return them immediately. There is something of the visitor who outstays his welcome in borrowed books. Reading them and knowing that they don’t belong to me gives me the feeling of something unfinished, half-enjoyed. This is also true of library books.
Brilliant sunshine, crisp cold. My neighbour comes over with a gift of fresh eggs and stays for twenty minutes discussing the conflict in Iraq. How strange for an Iraqi farmer half a world away, if he were to know that his fate is the subject of conversation here, in a small, almost invisible French village.
A few days after the tragedy, I heard of someone who had been trapped that morning inside a bookstore close to the World Trade Center. Since there was nothing to do but wait for the dust to settle, he kept on browsing through the books, in the midst of the sirens and the screams. Chateaubriand notes that, during the chaos of the French Revolution, a Breton poet just arrived in Paris asked to be taken on a tour of Versailles. “There are people,” Chateaubriand comments, “who, while empires collapse, visit fountains and gardens.”
My only disappointment, and the reason the book lost a few points with me, is the degree to which Alberto Manguel magnificently name-drops and occasionally pontificates on how dismally uneducated the hoi polloi is compared to him and his intellectually elite cronies. As he makes little effort to pander to those of a less broad experience, I think he might also have left out the occasional thinly veiled sneering. The book will ultimately find its own audience, though its readers may not all be quite what Manguel expects. I must admit my own feelings were bruised by a comment (which I did not bookmark and now, quickly browsing, cannot find) regarding the ignorance of those who only read in English. That would certainly be me, and how many others?
This one complaint aside, A Reading Diary is a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a deeply intellectual book lover, and a prolific and eclectic writer and reader.