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A History of Reading | An interview with Alberto Manguel

Interviewed by: Bader Al-Homoud - Balqees Al-Ansari | Translated by: Marwan AlRasheed (questions)

1. The great reader and distinguished writer Alberto Manguel, we are pleased and honored to have you for this interview. First of all, tell us about the art of reading? Who is the reader? How did you get lost in other people’s minds to the extent that books became your way of thinking?

The reader is, in a very concrete sense, the author of the text. The writer writes the words. When he (or she) is finished, the text remains in a sort of limbo, waiting for the reader to open it and give it wings. At that point, whatever the writer has written is transformed by the eye of the reader into whatever the reader sees in it. A fiction can become a factual essay, an essay a poem. Of course, there are limits to the interpretation that the reader can make of any text (Umberto Eco says that the limits of interpretation coincide with the limits of common sense) but what for one reader is an amusing fable, for another it can be a sacrilegious text,or an accusation of injustice, etc. Certain texts have been transformed through generations of readers, such as Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels that begins life as a ferocious satire and ends being read as a children’s story, or Salomon’s Song of Songs that begins as a love poem and ends up as a canonical book of the Bible, a dialogue between the soul and God.

2. “Learning to read was the actual beginning of my life.” Which came first, reading or isolation? Are books still the primary source of knowledge in light of technological advances? What is the future of reading and cultural prosperity in the age of book digitization?

My case is particular (I suppose this is true for every reader). I was a very solitary child, brought up by my nanny, with hardly any contact with my brothers or my parents. I had no friends of my age until I was  7 or 8. So books became my windows to the world, and every experience I had came first in the form of words: friendship, adventure, love, death. So in my case, the importance of reading came from my isolation. In this day and age, we are, for the most part, more isolated than ever before: the difference is that now we are not aware of it, we believe we are “connected” because we carry cellphones with us. The electronic media has led us to believe that we have an infinity of friends collected through Facebook, and the likes or dislikes on our screens. We are told that the Internet connects us to the world at large. In a sense, this is true, because we can access every digitized book in every library, and we can Skype or Zoom with people on the other side of the globe. But these communications are not necessarily true encounters, true conversations. Brevity and rapidity are the qualities of the Internet; conversation, the exchange of ideas and emotions between human beings, requires time and effort.

3. “Shall we read Kipling tonight?” Since that night, have you ever chosen a book to read for Borges, or did you rely on his enormous memory? Have you ever made a verdict on a book based on Borges’ verdict? What was the role of this grand master in your intellectual advancement?

I never chose a book for Borges: it was always his choice, a choice he made for very practical reasons. At the time, the mid-sixties, he had decided (without telling anyone) that he would go back to writing fiction, something stopped doing when he became blind. So ten years later, he wanted to examine the short stories he thought best (by Kipling, Henry James, Chesterton, Stevenson) in order to see how they were constructed, like a mechanic examining the cogs and wheels of exquisitely built clockworks. He was interested not in the plot (which he knew by heart) but the mechanical structure, in which words were chosen and in what order. From me, he only wanted the straightforward reading of the text: no interpretation, no selection. And of course, his choices influenced me, so that after reading for Borges, those same authors are now among my favourites. Borges taught me the generosity of literature, that it can offer you anything you like, and allows you to pick and choose, and not feel oblige to read anything, even best-sellers or the so-called classics.

4. “Do not shed tears, and do not blame the will of God who at the same time gave me this great irony: darkness and books.” What kind of strange twist of fate made Borges be appointed the director of the National Public Library of Argentina after becoming completely blind?

Your question is impossible to answer. Who can tell why and how Fate moves her wheel? As al-Fārābī taught (echoing Plato) we must all return to the cave and learn to talk to its inhabitants, the men and women like ourselves whose fate is to believe that the shadows of things are the reality of the world. We must talk to them not only through the words that we read in books, but also engaging in actions that may improve the fate of our society. In this way, we can guide our fate. But Fate itself cannot be determined.

5. “THOU reader throbbest life and pride and love the same as I, therefore for thee the following chants.” Based upon this poetic simile, what drove the great poet Whitman to see himself in his readers? Is the world still approve of his words or all it could see now is itself?

We choose what we read and how we interpret it. Of course, in our world of consumer values, Whitman has almost no place. But if we can step out of the influence of the commercial world, even for a moment, we realize that Whitman is a universal library, and we can find there what we seek and maybe don’t know we want. “What I assume you shall assume,” he wrote, “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Indeed.

6. Is the clairvoyance of poets (Virgil, for example) related to other natural talents such as symbolism and poetry? Is this synergy what gives poetry its intimacy and power, which attracts readers over the ages?

Clairvoyance is the name we give to the discovery in a text that what the poet is saying corresponds to our own experience, that for the poet lies inthe future. The poet himself may know nothing of this; it is we, the readers, who give this clairvoyance significance gleaned from the words.

7. When are the writer, reader, and the world reflected in the act of reading itself? How does this be in service of human efficacy? When do we look at books as human beings and human beings as books? How do metaphors help us understand the relationship between things?

Metaphor means the same as translation: both words have the same etymology, one from the Latin, the other from the Greek, and both mean “to carry something from one place to the other.” Seeing the world as a book and the book as the world is a very ancient of act of such transportation. In the twelfth century, Ibn Tufail famously developed this idea in the Ḥayy bin Yaqẓān where the solitary Crusoe-like child learns from nature as he would from a book.

8. Is the difference between the reader’s location and the literary location in books interconnected to the lack of complete immersion in the poetic and contemplative works of the literary giants? How much does the location affect the reader’s imagination? When the text doesn’t exceed the reader’s physical surroundings?

Text and context interrelate, not only on the page but in the physical setting of the reader and the book. How much the setting influences the reader depends largely on the will of the reader: you choose to read a book in bed and lend it an intimacy that it otherwise might not have; or you read a book on a train and lend the book the qualities of the moving landscape. The words and the world are always interrelated.

9. “Our real home is where we first took an intelligent look at ourselves; my books are my first home.” Do we recognize the intellectual and existential alienation readers often feel? What are the material and comparative impacts of this alienation on the readers’ consciousness? Are there any examples you can tell us about?

As I said before, the electronic technology helps us ignore our alienation. Skimming through the Internet, we can tone down our feeling of empathy and allow reality (or what filters through from reality) to acquire the quality of something fictional. We can justify our egotism bytelling us that we are in a virtual world, playing a virtual game. The bombing of the Twin Towers seemed to many people scripted by Hollywood; the plight of refugees seems like something out of the Book of Exodus. What used to be considered false, a lie, is now part of the political discourse, not as mere rhetoric but as fact.

10. Talking about anthologies, if writing was not discovered, would the reading of texts be created, or would we keep hallucinating about language by looking at the illustrations that symbolize texts as it was at the time of the Sumerians?

Illustrations, images, symbols, are also writing. The development of writing as a system of vocal signs does not alter the essential nature of a written communication. The main difference lies not between words and images but between the oral and the written word, each with very different notions of time and space.

11. Apart from the Epic of Gilgamesh, is there a literary text that we can say is truly authentic and unique in and by itself and does not spring from previous texts and imaginations which became hackneyed by widespread use?

No text springs from nowhere: every text has antecedents. Every writer (as Borges said) creates his own precursors. There is no “original” text. Even the Epic of Gilgamesh was developed from long lost first drafts from the beginning of time. To ask about the origin of a text is not like asking about the beginning of the universe: there is no Big Bang in literature, there is always a “before.”

12. As someone who has read virtually everything, why are you constantly returning to Alice in Wonderland? Why do you come back in your books to things that you have talked about in previous books? Is this a message to the readers of the importance of repeated reading? How can readers understand your recreation of meaning?

No one can read everything. That is the wonderful gift of literature: you can choose what to read, you needn’t read what you don’t want to read. The Alice books are important to me because I find so much autobiographical material in them. I recognize myself in Alice, faced with the absurdity of this world. She is my alter ego.

13. Considering that you have reflected on human culture, what is the logic of consumption in literature that determines the importance of one writer and the marginalization of another? On what criteria are books evaluated today when books by Dan Brown and Paulo Coelho are sold and read more than Homer?

There has always been a byproduct of art that is consumed by many, for many reasons: because it is cheap, because it does not demand an intellectual effort, because it is popular in the worst sense of the word. And if it’s popular it is read more, and if it’s read more, it ppopular: we are within a vicious circle. Books that are judged important for us throughout the generations might remain unread paradoxically because we know they are classics, and therefore think it’s not necessary to read them. We simply take for granted their existence in our lives, and don’t feel that we need to explore them in person: society has done that for us. Only when we extract ourselves from the conventions and values that society imposes on us we might choose to enter these worlds. But not everyone does.

14. Regardless of what was said about orientalism, are there other reasons why the western and South American writers, in particular, were so infatuated with the Arabian Nights and affected by it? Is it due to the power of myth and magical realism that South American writers fell under its charm? And did Borges really read it in Arabic?

No, Borges read the Arabian Nights in French, German, English and Spanish, but he had no Arabic. I  the last weeks of his life he tried to learn Arabic but he lacked the time. Borges was always fascinated by Arabic culture, but as he himself says, his knowledge came second or third-hand. Michel Foucault declared that the reading that Borges makes of the Orient destabilizes “all the familiar things of our system of thought, of the one of our time and our geography, shaking all the ordered surfaces and all the charts that make up for us the abundance of the beings, making them vacillate, and upsetting our millennial practice of the Same and of the Other.”

15. “If Tolstoy had been on a jury for Shakespeare’s work, he would not have awarded him the award; because Tolstoy abhorred King Lear. “Do you think the major cultural prizes, such as Nobel, are based only on the jury’s whims? Which living writers do you think are worthy of a Nobel in literature?

The Nobel is only important if we judge the Nobel important. The Nobel jury has debased the worthiness of the prize many times, never rewarding Borges or Muhamed Darwich, giving it to minor writers such a Dario Fo or Le Clezio, or to frankly worthless writers such as Annie Ernaux and Abdulrazak Gurnah, or even to practitioners in other fields such Bob Dylan. The judgment is made worse because there are a number of living writers that are creating extraordinary work who would certainly deserve the prize, such as Cees Nooteboom, Ann Carson, Tom Stoppard, Antonio Lobo Antunes.

16. “He who waits for glory from books must draw lessons from them; he must put them in his head and not in his library.” From Gayler’s point of view, what do you say to people who resemble Ptolemy II in terms of fondness for books without actually reading them? Does gathering information lead to wisdom? What is the best way to comprehend the ideas that arise from reading?

Wisdom can begin in gathering the books from which we can gather wisdom. This was understood by Caliph al-Ma’mun when he founded  the School of Translation in Baghdad (under orders, he said, of the ghost of Aristotle who visited him in a dream.) We need to have the texts before we can read them. And there is nothing wrong with collecting books out of fondness for them: books are extraordinarily patient, and they’ll wait for us until we are ready.

17. Although you poured your intellectual memory into your books and despite your focus on yourself, you remained an unknown and mysterious figure. When will readers know Manguel the person rather than the library man?

Maybe when Manguel the reader himself gets to know Manguel the person. And even then, perhaps not. The poet James Reeves wrote:

“The shadow of a fat man in the moonlight

Precedes me on the road down which I go;

And should I turn and run, he would pursue me:

This is the man whom I must get to know.”

18. Tell us about your visit in 2013 to Saudi Arabia and Ithra, where you participated in iRead competition. What did you think of the cultural role played by the center then?

The event in 2013 was one of the most extraordinary events I have ever attended, a living statement against prejudice and censorship, and the demonstration that even under the most stringent conditions the mind can remain free. I cannot stress strongly enough the importance that I believe the iRead competition has – and I hope will continue to have for many years to come. Seeing young people of both sexes tell of their love for reading and books, and demonstrate the power of their imagination, was for me a lesson I’ll never forget.

19. In 2015, you received in your old library in the French countryside Dr. Khaled al-Yahya, Saudi director Badr al-Hamoud, and Fahad Al-Afandi who made a contemplative documentary about you, with a title quoted from your book: “The Library at Night.” How was this cinematic experience? What happened to your library, and what has happened in your life since that experience?

I very much treasure the memory of that visit to my house in France. They have remained dear friends in spirit if not in the flesh, since time and circumstances have not allowed us to come together again physically. After I left France in 2015, my library was packed up and sent to a storage room in Canada. But a miracle happened. In February of 2020, the Mayor of Lisbon contacted me and asked me to bring my library to Lisbon, where it was to be lodged in a magnificent palace of the early nineteenth century which is presently being renovated. Now the library is the core of “Espaço Atlântida” in Lisbon, the Centre for Research into the History of Reading. We are organizing events now, since 2020, and the Centre itself will be inaugurated on 25 April 2024, the fiftieth anniversary of democracy in Portugal after the fall of the Salazar dictatorship.

20. “I remember the strange pride I felt when the history professor told us that the establishment of Buenos Aires started with a library.” Is this the reason for your constant return to Buenos Aires? Or is it the nostalgia that tempts the idea of returning, like Orpheus’s search for Eurydice?

My return to Buenos Aires is anything but constant. After I left in 1969, I went back a few times to visit my family, and later, from 2016 to 12018, to direct the National Library of Argentina. But now I’ll never go back. There is nothing for me there. My new home is Portugal.

21. Alberto Manguel, what is he reading these days? And what literary aspirations and projects will we see soon?

I’m reading as much Portuguese literature as I can. Also, I read three extraordinay novels: Trust by the American Hernán Díaz, The Shadow King by the Ethipian Maaza Mengiste and Volver la vista atrás by the Colombian Juan Gabriel Vásquez. And my latest book, which will appear in English in March 2023, is a biography of Maimonides, an example of the possible and fruitful dialogue between Islamic and Jewish cultures.

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