A Week in Books: The forces prolonging the life of books
Friday 22 July 2005
Now we can re-frame the question. How long will Harry last in the affection of his fans? Will he attract not just legions of quick-on-the-draw readers but battalions of slow-burn re-readers, happy to pick up the beloved old volumes at any stage of their life? Since no potion yet exists to disclose the verdict of posterity, we'll have to scrutinise the past. Books for children, and books of fantasy, often enjoy a degree of longevity that most realistic, grown-up works can never reach. Their staying power seems to depend wholly on the inner resources of the tale. No one now cares if Alice faithfully embodies the Oxford of 1865 or Pooh the Ashdown Forest of 1926. Children's classics have a knack of creating not just their own maps but their own calendars - and then making the most unlikely readers slaves to them.
Who, for instance, would expect to find a cosmopolitan Argentinian-turned-Canadian author - an intellectual of global stature, who seems to have read just about everything - waxing lyrical about Mole, Ratty and Badger (but not that snobbish braggart, Mr Toad) from The Wind in the Willows? Yet the charmingly erudite Alberto Manguel does exactly that in A Reading Diary (Canongate, £12.99): a month-by-month journey through a single year in his life, and the dozen favourite books whose rapt re-reading partnered its events. Over the course of a year in which local happiness (at a newly-restored house in France) coincides with global calamity (the aftermath of 11 September, and plans for war against Iraq), Manguel renews his old friendship with some impeccably grown-up books; among them, Margaret Atwood's Surfacing and Goethe's Elective Affinities. He also gently introduces English-speaking readers to alluring classics that more of them (and that includes me) should knows, from Dino Buzzati's The Tartar Steppe to Adolfo Bioy Casares's The Invention of Morel.
It's noticeable, however, that the quartet of British tales that inspire these warm and wise fragments of memoir, observation and meditation all belong in the class of books that readers - and re-readers - adore rather than gate-keeping critics admire. As well as Kenneth Grahame's elegiac riverside adventures, Manguel dives back with infectious delight into Kipling's Kim, Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four and H G Wells's The Island of Dr Moreau. Plenty of heavyweight analysis now hangs around these stories. But, in each case, the scholarly arbiters lagged way behind the fervent fans. Re-readers keep such works alive beyond the meddling of publishers or professors. Will any, or all, of the Potter titles drive the Manguel of 2105 into similar raptures? Will the same sense of literary history survive?
Interestingly, Manguel's British choices all fall within a two-decade span, 1889 to 1908: a time of endings, beginnings and (above all) forebodings. Wells and Kipling, doomsayers both, would have found this relaxed enjoyment of their youthful works in 2005 howlingly improbable. The 20th-century deluge came, which they foresaw; their books outlived it, which they didn't. The power of enduring love to overcome mortal peril has emerged as a major-key theme of the Potter series. Perhaps the same force may prolong the life of books as well as people (and wizards).
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