A History of Reading

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Notes from the Festival

It was about half way through Deborah Eisenberg’s reading that I saw that familiar shape. The back of a head, maybe six rows in front of me and off toward the aisle. It was unmistakable – balding, grayish and round, round like a human head really ought to be, perched on the shoulders of a diminutive gentleman. It was unmistakable, yet highly improbable, given my complete ignorance of Deborah Eisenberg’s private life.Question: what do The Moderns (IMDb), My Dinner With Andre (IMDb), The Princess Bride (IMDb), and a number of Woody Allen films all have in common? They all benefit from the presence of the great Wallace Shawn, actor and writer. And there, on a cold late-October afternoon, in an auditorium down by the lake, was someone who looked exactly like Wallace Shawn. At this point I was not even entertaining the possibility that it really might be him. After all, why would Mr. Shawn leave the familiarity of his Manhattan apartment for the chill of Lake Ontario? In October? That, to pilfer shamelessly from the man himself, would be inconceivable. No, it must be his double. A northern doppelganger for the ultimate New Yorker.Then intermission came. I espied Ms. Eisenberg up in the balcony, and there, beside her, was that unmistakable head, now absent from the seat in front of me. Suddenly my doppelganger theory was becoming increasingly less likely, and what was once inconceivable was now irrefutable – Wallace Shawn was in the audience. A quick Web search later that day would fill in the blanks, and inform me about the decades-long relationship between the two.After the readings, there he was again – standing alone in the foyer, looking bemused. (When does he ever not look bemused?). So I approached and said to him, cleverly, “Hey, you’re Wallace Shawn!” “Yes !…. I am!” he exclaimed sounding like every comic character he’s ever played. I then welcomed him to Toronto and told him how much I enjoyed his work. He replied with a cheery “Great!” It was at this point in our Algonquin Round Table discussion that an elderly gentleman brazenly muscled in on our conversation, and so I retreated. All those questions left unasked – not just about his own work but that of his father, legendary New Yorker magazine editor William Shawn. Ah well, another time.As for Deborah Eisenberg, she delighted the audience with a short story from her latest collection, Twilight of the Superheroes. The story – “Some Other, Better Otto” – introduced us to a 60-ish grouch named Otto, and his much younger lover, the thoughtful William. Otto was bringing William to a Thanksgiving celebration where we would meet his siblings. As Eisenberg says, you meet people in your family that you would never happen to run into otherwise.Eisenberg’s reading was one of the highlights of the International Festival of Authors, ten days of readings, talks, and panel discussions. Another high point was the chance to hear, and later to briefly meet, Edward P. Jones, who read from his story “Blindsided”, from his latest collection All Aunt Hagar’s Children. Blindsided begins with a black woman’s bus ride to see Sam Cooke in Washington D.C. Prior to her outing, her white boss warns her that all black peoples’ entertainment will lead to blindness. And during the course of the story, on the bus ride, she quickly and unexpectedly goes blind. And that’s just the beginning. With its eccentric characters and the heart-breaking plot, the story delicately balances humor and moments of extreme poignancy.The iconic Ralph Steadman, in town to promote his book The Joke’s Over, was also at the festival presenting a slideshow of his illustrations, many of which have given surreal shape to Hunter Thompson’s hallucinatory and incendiary prose. Indeed, throughout Steadman’s slideshow, with its verbal asides, his late friend and partner-in-crime was ever-present.A couple of years ago I read and wrote about Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading in which he touches on the library in all its variations, throughout history, throughout the world. Now Manguel delves even deeper with a new work The Library at Night. During a reading and a panel discussion at the festival, Manguel spoke of his own private library in France, of losing himself in its stacks, and of the distinctions between day and night. During the day, one seeks to find – one moves purposefully. At night, the activity becomes more ghostlike. Books speak to each other and conspire, the searcher going wherever the books lead him.Manguel contrasts the processes of reading and writing (two different kinds of solitude). After writing, the writer likes to be with other writers who understand, but not necessarily to talk about the specific work. More of a silent understanding. Whereas after reading and being moved by a written work, a reader becomes evangelical about it and would like nothing more than to spread the word.He also contrasts such classical libraries as Alexandria (the library that contained everything) with the web (the library that contains anything.) He’s far from anti-internet, but believes it must never take the place of the real thing. And he prefers his own massive private library to public libraries or archives if only because he would always want to keep the book, and mark it up. Manguel loves the tangibility of books. One’s own books. They remind us who we are, he says. They provide optimism in the face of encroaching stupidity and horror.

Books: an inventory of life

My 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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