The author of Ecclesiastes and Pete Seeger have taught us that for everything there is a season; likewise, I might add, for every season there is a book. But readers have learned that not just any book is suited to any occasion. Pity the soul who finds itself with the wrong book in the wrong place, like poor Roald Amundsen, discoverer of the South Pole, whose book bag sank under the ice, so that he was constrained to read, night after freezing night, the only surviving volume: Dr. John Gauden’s indigestible Portraiture of His Sacred Majesty in His Solitude and Sufferings. Readers know that there are books for reading after lovemaking and books for waiting in the airport lounge, books for the breakfast table and books for the bathroom, books for sleepless nights at home and books for sleepless days in the hospital. No one, not even the best of readers, can fully explain why certain books are right for certain occasions and why others are not. In some ineffable way, like human beings, occasions and books mysteriously agree or clash with one another.
So true! I began reading Alberto Manguel’s A Reader on Reading on my, what seems like so long ago, vacation at the end of December. At that time I just wanted sink into a book and not come up for air except to eat or sleep. Manguel’s book should have been perfect but it turned out that we got off to a grumpy start. Even after the essay on the ideal reader I wasn’t certain I liked the book.But then school and work hit me both on the same day in January and Manguel became my bedside before sleep book which turned out to be exactly right. Suddenly I liked the majority of essays. There was one about the library as garden and one about technology and books. Then there was one near the end of the book on the ideal library.
Those are just the essays I mentioned. In between there were plenty of others that had tantalizing food for thought. Needless to say I am pleased that the book and the occasion finally meshed otherwise I would have been greatly disappointed as I love Manguel so.
This is not to say that there aren’t some essays that are just meh. There are. The ones I liked least were mostly about Borges (not that I don’t like Borges but Manguel tends to run on about him) or attempted to make a political statement or do literary criticism. There is one essay of lit crit that does succeed because it is about how the book Pinocchio is about becoming a reader.
When I read Manguel I read him because he is so good at writing about what it is like to be a reader, what reading is and does and means. I don’t read him looking for lit crit or politics (unless it is the politics of reading). Some may enjoy the essays that I did not. But if you read Manguel for the same reasons I do and with the same expectations, just know that if you read this book it might start off a little unevenly but stick with it because it does get better.