Saturday, May 15, 2010

Manguel on Reading

Just finished reading Alberto Manguel's A Reader on Reading, which turns out to be both a fascinating and dissatisfying read.

In many ways, Manguel is the epitome of the intelligent reader: his knowledge of books is extensive, his tastes broad, if not quite eclectic, his engagement profound, his appreciation heartfelt. He's the kind of reader who makes writing seem worthwhile.

Which is why it's disappointing that A Reader on Reading is not a more compelling book. Oh, it's interesting enough: the individual essays are cogently argued and exquisitely written, combining personal anecdotes [1] with insightful commentary. But underlying these essays is a larger argument, a defense (in the traditional sense) of reading, which runs something like this:

Reading - by which Manguel means serious reading, the kind that challenges the reader - matters because it is critical to human development. Critical, thoughtful reading expands our imagination, deepens our sympathy, and enhances our ability to think clearly and analytically; abilities that are essential to the flowering of the self, and, by extension, to the creation and preservation of a just and equitable social order. If all moral failure is first a failure of the imagination, then reading is the essential antidote; the elixir by which we may be transformed into better citizens and better human beings.

For this elixir to take effect, however, two things are required. First, the art of reading must be kept alive. We need readers who understand that reading is no casual undertaking, but a talent that must be honed through rigorous application and experience; readers who understand that great books are often slow and difficult, that it is this that makes them rewarding; readers who are willing to make the effort that reading requires. Second, we need writing that justifies such effort. Not the easy pap of advertising and journalism and mass-produced pulp fiction, all carefully designed to appeal to its audience tastes and confirm them in their prejudices, but books that challenge and frustrate their readers, taking them out of their comfort zones and allowing them to discover the new and unexpected [2].

It's not that I disagree with Manguel's perspective. On the contrary, I'm largely supportive of what he's saying, even if I find some of his opinions a tad reactionary. My problem with this argument is that it strikes me as being too sterile, too somber, too self-important. As Eliot would have it: "Are we then so serious?". Saying that reading matters because it helps us grow as human beings is like saying sex matters because it enables us to reproduce. What's missing from the argument is the profound joy of the act itself, its abiding and overwhelming wonder. As every book-lover knows, to read a great book is to experience an emotional, intellectual and aesthetic transcendence, to be taken out of yourself and then returned to a world that seems both more nuanced and more vivid. The fact that reading has a redeeming social purpose is just gravy, if it served no such purpose it would still be worth championing, if only for the thrill it affords. Because that kind of intensity may be the most the human animal is capable of or can aspire to, and for the great mass of people to be deprived of its magical power is a shame indeed. Beauty needs no justification; it is, and always will be, its own reward.

One could argue that making pleasure the basis of literature's claims plays straight into the hands of the hacks who judge the quality of their books by their popularity. After all, if the purpose of reading is to deliver pleasure, then surely bestsellers are the ones who serve this purpose best. What this ignores, of course, is the quality of the experience. It is important not to confuse entertainment with joy. There may be people for whom reading Dan Brown or Chetan Bhagat is a revelatory and transformative experience, who step away from these authors with their minds alight and their senses on fire. Good for them. But for most people, I suspect, reading these authors is no less or more enjoyable than watching a sitcom on TV or gossiping with their colleagues over lunch. And the point is that reading is capable of delivering so much more. If you've never finished a book and come away with the sense (however fleeting) that the world is different, then you've never truly read a book. And believe me, you're missing out.

In any case, pragmatic considerations are hardly the strong suit of A Reader on Reading. If you're going to try and convert people who don't read seriously or see reading as trivial, writing a book that celebrates Dante, Homer, Borges and Cervantes is hardly the right way to go about it. Nor is extolling the civic importance of reading, which only serves to convert what is a privilege into a duty, what is an indulgence into a chore. I consider myself quite seriously committed to reading, but by the end of Manguel's umpteenth sermon about why reading matters even I was starting to chafe at the bit. There is much to delight in in Manguel's book, but it is a book meant for preaching to the choir, a set of essays by a quintessential book lover that only other book lovers will truly appreciate. Which is why it's frustrating that Manguel, who is clearly passionate about books himself (the man finds solace in a hospital bed re-reading Don Quixote!), confines himself to these dry abstractions in defense of reading, never explicitly acknowledging its more visceral delights.


[1] The man spent his early years hanging out with Borges! Color me bright green with envy.

[2] Manguel doesn't explicitly spell this out, of course, it's my reading of what he's saying, though I think it's a fairly accurate one. In any case, as Manguel himself would argue, a book is what the reader interprets it to be.

No comments: