Essays

Books: an inventory of life

By posted at 4:38 am on October 12, 2005 0

coverMy life boxed and crated. Transient. Completely uprooting my existence and collapsing it into the family Honda. University in one town. Internships in another. Back and forth, ping-ponging along Ontario’s highways every four months for about five years. Years ago, this was my life.

I learned to adjust to my new surroundings very quickly. Whatever record albums I happened to own at the time would be the first things unpacked, sorted and shelved along with whatever stereo I could afford. Next would be books and the milk crates that passed for furniture.

Once these were set up I would generally think of my apartment as being complete. Four walls became a home. Anything else is basically an afterthought, an extravagance that I might or might not indulge in, like, I suppose, a chair.

Every four months the following could be witnessed on Highway 401: a suitcase full of clothes with me in the backseat, a trunk full of crated books and records, my father at the wheel of the Honda still shaking his head from the contents of the trunk, completely mystified as to how the quantity of books and records had somehow increased exponentially since four months previous, and my mother riding shotgun, snacks at the ready. And, oh yeah, a giant bed tethered precariously to the roof of the car, overhanging front and back, providing shade under the Southern Ontario sun.

More than anything else could, my books and records anchored me to my new surroundings – re-connecting me with me. They defined my home. They still do. The milk crates disappeared when I discovered Ikea and I’ve made the necessary overtures to furniture dealers. But the core of my world is as it always has been.

There’s a passage in A History of Reading that leads me to believe that Alberto Manguel would understand, that we’re cut from the same cloth. The son of a diplomat, Manguel moved around a great deal as a boy. “Books gave me a permanent home,” he writes, “and one I could inhabit exactly as I felt like, at any time, no matter how strange the room.”

It is sentiments like that, moments of memoir, that give what could have been a dry cultural history run-through its spirit. In the end, A History of Reading is anything but dry, as Manguel, a wonderful storyteller, chronicles “reading” from ancient civilizations on up to the modern age.

As a young man in Argentina, Manguel was honored to be a reader to the great Jorge Luis Borges, by then blind. Manguel looks back on these reading sessions as “happy captivity”, reading aloud whatever Borges asked him to from his own library. In this way did Borges re-connect and rediscover a part of himself. Reading a book (or having it read to you) has a cumulative effect. Manguel writes that “every book has been engendered by long successions of other books.” Borges was intimately familiar with each of the books that Manguel would read to him. Yet with each new reading, Borges’ brain would have a new take on it. His mind would not only connect it with other books he’s read, but with previous readings of the same book. Each would leave its imprint.

And different people, imprinted by different attitudes can perceive the same text in different, often contradictory ways. And no single reading can be isolated as the one correct reading. Manguel writes of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis which has, by different readers, been called: humor, parable, a Bolshevik tract, a Bourgeois tract, an allegory. Some readings might be better informed, more lucid, more challenging. But “no reading can ever be final,” Manguel writes. “This is not a failure of the process, but proof of our freedom as readers.”

Manguel, in addition to assessing theories of reading, also teaches us a bit of history. He charts the development of paper and its antecedents – tablets, codex, scrolls. He writes about how the type of surface determined both the type of storage and one’s own reading space. (In my case, reclining on a futon in my den, away from the distractions of the TVs and stereos that are the centerpieces of both bedroom and living room. If no remote control is within arm’s reach, my reading stands a chance.)

One of my favorite chapters in the book deals with public readings in mid-1800s Cuba. A largely illiterate workforce was nevertheless one thirsty for stories. So, while people worked, while their bodies performed routine functions, their minds would be engaged by stories – they would be read to. Eventually, fearing intellectual subversion, a prohibition went into effect resulting, as prohibitions will, in “underground” clandestine work-time readings. These kinds of readings continued among the Cuban immigrant population of the US into the early 20th century.

Manguel also tells us about how the increase in world travel cried out for a new kind of portable book. And a ‘good book’, beyond just the already-available populist or pulp fiction. The result – the founding of the iconic Penguin.

The history of libraries, the history of cataloguing, censorship through the ages, and a great little aside about a noted life-long book-thief – they’re all given due consideration in Manguel’s book. He even explores the history of reading-glasses (perched on the nose of the “bespectacled book fool”)

Well, this bespectacled book-fool is a hoarder. That trunk full of books and records would now barely cover the A’s. Manguel, my kindred spirit, he knows what it’s like. He reckons that his books were brought into his home for a reason. Sure, he could attribute it to thoroughness, or scarcity, or scholarship. But Manguel knows the truth. He knows its just “voluptuous greed”. “I enjoy the sight of my crowded bookshelves,” he writes. “I delight in knowing that I’m surrounded by a sort of inventory of my life.”

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