Original appearance in The New York Sun.
A Reading Diary, A Passionate Reader’s Reflections on a Year of Books, by Alberto Manguel, New York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004, $22
The recent popularity of “books about books” is not in itself unusual, but it remains nevertheless a peculiar genre. It is distinct from literary criticism, and it usually comes under the heading of an “easy read,” not far afield from books about favorite songs, vacation spots, or movies. What exactly qualifies someone to write such a book is unclear, though an enthusiasm for reading, coupled with an unhealthy quantity of time spent doing so, must be a prerequisite. This scarcely narrows the field of potential authors, however. One scans the store shelves and finds a few books about the history of reading that stand out as authoritative and necessary, such as the mammoth A Gentle Madness by Nicholas A. Basbanes. Then there are the more common “lighter” examples, such as the husband and wife trilogy Used and Rare, Slightly Chipped, and Warmly Inscribed by Nancy and Lawrence Goldstone, which, while occasionally amusing, are amateurish and too recreational to rise above garden-variety suburban snobbishness. Add to these the dozens of new books added to this genre every year, and one might be tempted to believe that reading has become some sort of unusual sport or obscure hobby like butterfly collecting, or, more ominously, a pursuit in danger of becoming so exotic that it will be left to specialists and aficionados. In a well-written book of this genre, one will happily encounter myriad titles in need of recovery from the dustbin of literary history. In a poorly written example, one is likely to reach for the remote control.
Alberto Manguel is probably best known for his book Dictionary of Imaginary Places, which has the merits of inclusiveness (it covers everything from Homer to Tolkien and beyond) and lightness. He is also known for A History of Reading, which fits snugly into the category of books about books. His latest, A Reading Diary, A Passionate Reader’s Reflections on a Year of Books, might turn away more serious readers with its title alone, which could as easily be “A Passionate Gourmand’s Reflections on a Year of Delicacies.” To be fair, this banality probably owes more to an editor or marketing director than its author, but the book is, in fact, shot through with self-satisfaction, some of it maybe earned, most of it appalling.
A Reading Diary is not particularly unusual or, for that matter, original in form or content. It consists of diary entries for the months from June 2002 to May 2003. Books serve as centerpieces for each of the months, and Manguel’s thoughts on these books are served up alongside an assortment of opinions and jottings about Manguel’s daily life, a life that will not be remembered for its adventurousness. This is very well, because the most appealing element of the book is his persistent desire amid various professional obligations to curl up at home with a book. This is a sentiment that will be familiar to many today, who have less and less time to read the books they see on Oprah much less the great “books of the world” trumpeted by so many.
Manguel admits from the start that A Reading Diary is not meant to be coherent and even describes it as “fragmented, haphazard.” This recklessness supposedly provides him with a brief respite from the rigor he applies to his other books, and it also allows him “to think without an established destination,” rarely a good thing in literature. Much as David Denby ambled back to Columbia University to retake the great books class there for his 1996 best-seller Great Books, Manguel “decided to reread a few of my favorite old books.” He does this to discover how “their many-layered and complex worlds of the past seemed to reflect the dismal chaos of the world I was living in.” This sounds fine, but we must remember that his personal world is hardly one of dismal chaos. If he means the globe on which he is perched, in his cozy village home in France, we would all agree. But then, when was the world not a wretched place, when taken as a whole? Manguel views his reading diary as something of a writer’s commonplace book as well, and this explains its rather random contents, but then commonplace books are meant no more to be read publicly than diaries, even in an age preoccupied to a nauseating degree with the private lives of even its least remarkable inhabitants.
Nonetheless, the twelve books Manguel selects are all excellent. The core of the books will be familiar to all American readers. This includes classics by Rudyard Kipling, H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Kenneth Grahame, Margaret Atwood, and Miguel de Cervantes. These are mingled with those that American readers will have certainly heard of but may not have actually read, such as François-René de Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Grave and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Elective Affinities, neither of which has ever gained a large English-speaking audience. Finally, his selection of lesser-known authors is both surprising and admirable. It includes the likes of Dino Buzzati, Sei Shonagon, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, and his fellow Argentinean Aldolfo Bioy Casares. One wishes he had written a book simply on these last four authors and cut the fat of his private routines and haphazard observations on global politics.
He also makes crass and clichéd assertions, such as this one: “The ignorance of the English-speaking reader never ceases to amaze me.” Perhaps the fact that the book is published in part for a large English speaking audience, expected to pay $22 for such insights, is a paradox that eluded him. The Argentine-born Manguel may be commendably cosmopolitan, but “observations” like this can irk. Likewise, his use of long quotations—“my habit of thinking in quotations”—is ultimately pedantic and uninteresting. This is also true of his impromptu lists of “detective novels” and “objects given to me by friends.” His use of anecdotes, however, can be quite engaging at times, such as one on the copyrighting of landscapes (a real practice) or the ancient Anglo-Saxon custom of composing elegies to Roman ruins rather than restore them. One wishes these moments were more frequent.
Manguel is an intelligent, especially well-read man, and a very capable writer; but he is a bit too apologetic about the shortcomings of this book, as when he rhetorically exclaims: “It has the merit of being enthusiastic and short, the latter thankfully atoning for the former.” Perhaps the very format of the book—a loosely organized diary—prevented any real success. It is a doomed assignment. One imagines that a sparkling wit like Truman Capote could have managed it, but, when all is read and done, Manguel is not very charming or even particularly likable in any way. Still, this may not be entirely his fault. Maybe diaries of all sorts, even of the ersatz variety intended for publication, are best kept in the nightstand drawer.