Books: Happiness in a little corner

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Into The Looking-Glass Wood: Essays on Words and The World

by Alberto Manguel

Bloomsbury pounds 15.99

In The History of Reading, published three years ago, Alberto Manguel followed the development of the art of reading through the centuries in an engrossing and highly personal book which encompassed narratives of autobiography, mythology, history, and theology. Starting from two small, vaguely rectangular clay tablets, discovered in Tell Brak, Syria, which date from the fourth millennium BC, and are among the oldest known examples of writing, Manguel traced the history of what he calls a small daily miracle. He considered the ways in which the experience of reading has changed, from silent reading and the ancient use of books as aids to memory; and he described how each one of us, as creative readers in a private space, makes an intimate kinship out of our relationship with that magical object, the printed book. "I have sought for happiness everywhere," wrote Thomas a Kempis in the 15th century, "but have found it nowhere except in a little corner with a little book."

In his latest exploration of the world of books, Manguel, who was brought up and educated in Buenos Aires and now lives in Canada, has woven a collection of 23 of his past essays around the same major themes, while at the same time making a more outright confession of his belief in an aesthetic and philosophy of reading: "I believe there is an ethic of reading, a responsibility in how we read, a commitment that is both political and private in the act of turning the pages. And I believe that sometimes, beyond the author's intentions and beyond the reader's hopes, a book can make us better and wiser."

The ways in which books have contributed to making Manguel himself, and the societies in which he has lived and worked, better and wiser, are part of the subject matter of Into the Looking-Glass Wood (the title is a reference to his childhood discovery of the Alice books). A few of the essays here have the flavour of reheated and leftover food; but most of them take the reader on an ingenious voyage, in the course of which the various means by which a string of words on a page can convey an experience of imagination or reality, are evoked through memoir, autobiography, reflections on present and latter-day Argentina, and through Manguel's own favourite writers.

Among these, Jorge Luis Borges, who once imagined a library as vast as the universe itself, had the greatest personal influence on the young Manguel. In the early Sixties, while working in a Buenos Aires bookshop, Manguel met Borges. The great writer was already almost completely blind, and for the next two years, Manguel visited Borges' apartment to read aloud to him, a ritual which became like an Argentinian variation on the Thousand and One Nights. In "Borges in Love", Manguel describes Borges' love affair with fellow writer, Estela Canto, the inspiration for one of his most famous stories, "The Aleph". In "Imagination to Power", he remembers the Latin American writer, Julio Cortazar, of whom Pablo Neruda once wrote, "Not to read him is a serious invisible disease which, in time, can have terrible consequences." Cortazar's 1963 novel Hopscotch was revolutionary in the way in which it acknowledged the power of the reader: the novel gives us permission to go through the story following whatever sequence of chapters we choose.

The power of the reader, and the encroachments made on that power by outside forces like editors (in "The Secret Sharer", Manguel makes it clear that he shares Hazlitt's view that "it is utterly impossible to persuade an Editor that he is nobody") or modern computer technology, is one of the central threads running through these essays. In "St Augustine's Computer", Manguel considers Carpaccio's painting of Augustine of Hippo, in which the saint is portrayed in his study with its rotating lectern, cluttered with open books, and asks how our experience of reading has changed in the intervening centuries. One thing that would certainly have surprised St Augustine is that we no longer read out loud, a practice that in his time was considered essential for full comprehension of a text. And although the siren voices which, a decade ago, were prophesying that the computer would drive the book to extinction, have in broad terms been proved wrong, to what extent will innovations like CD-ROM replace creative readers with passive viewers?

Manguel's conclusion is that in a world in which the number of printed books published each year shows no sign of diminishing, it seems unlikely that the book will alter so very drastically. Less heartening, though, is the idea of the changes that will undoubtedly occur to the notion of the book as an object of value or property. Essays on the Internet, poems transmitted through modem, books copied onto disk - these are developments that may one day fatally undermine the publishing industry. Meanwhile, interactive novels, and the like, will begin to threaten the survival of the individual around whom the entire literary industry was originally constructed - the beleaguered Author.

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