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A FEAST OF PLEASURES, ALL ABOUT READING
on June 20, 2011
"When I was eight or nine, my disbelief was not so much suspended as yet unborn, and fiction felt at times more real
than everyday fact."
I've been a fan of Manguel since his novel, News from a Foreign Country Came (1991). I've read with pleasure his Dictionary of Imaginary Places (revised, 2000) and with more than pleasure --with unstinting admiration! --his lovely A History of Reading (pb, 1997). Last year I read his With Borges, about the enriching experience of reading books to the blind Argentinian literary master and what Manguel learned from him. In all of these books, Manguel's largeness of spirit and his generous approach to reading books is apparent. So hurrah for him!
Now Yale has issued in paperback a splendid collection of short pieces by Manguel, on libraries, on reading, writing, editing.... None of the pieces is long, which, given the richness of citations and allusions in the best of them, is a good thing because they all can be read in one sitting, with time at the end for reflection on what one has just ingested. Manguel's style is in some aspects like Borges -complex reflections on, transmutations of, literary and life themes, infused with of a lifetime filled with reading. Reading Manguel is like talking with an old friend, a terribly bookish friend who loves books but hasn't retreated from the world.
"... hasn't retreated from the world..." A good way to describe his writing.
The best essay in the book is entitled "Meanwhile, In Another Part of the Forest," and it addresses the question of -the nature of, purpose of-- gay literature today. He quotes Edmund White, from his memoir, A Boy's Own Story ("Since no one is brought up to be gay, the moment [a boy] recognizes the difference he must account for it.") and Camille Paglia ("...their only continuity is through culture, which they have been instrumental in building."). Then Manguel writes:
Perhaps the literature of all segregated groups goes through similar stages: apologetic, self-descriptive, and instructive;
political and testimonial; iconoclastic and outrageous. If that is the case, then the next stage . . . introduces characters who
happen to be gay but whose circumstances are defined well beyond their sexuality which is once again seen as part of a
complex and omnivorous world....
...our desire need not be limited. Heterosexuality and homosexuality were no doubt two of those protean forms, but they are
neither exclusive nor impermeable. Like our literary tastes, our sexual affinities need only declare allegiance and define
themselves under duress. In the moment of pleasure, we are as indefinable as the moment itself. Perhaps that generous sense
of pleasure will ultimately prevail.
Another theme in these essays is the subversive nature of good teaching, which teaches pupils to question the very authority about which they are learning. Again, Manguel's own words say it well:
There is no such thing as a school for anarchists, and yet, in some sense, every teacher must teach anarchism, must teach the
students to question rules and regulations, to seek explanations in dogma, to confront impositions without bending to
prejudice, to demand authority from those in power, to find a place from which to speak their own ideas, even if this means
opposing, and ultimately doing away with, the teacher herself.
THIS is an exceptional collection of essays. As might be expected, given the diverse origins of these essays -some commissioned, others lectures, a few little more than notes-- the pieces range in quality. Almost all of them are good and the best are exceptional.