A room without books is like a body without a soul.
The premise of Alberto Manguel’s latest offering, A Reading Diary, is simple enough: For each month of one year, Manguel uses his re-reading of a favourite title as stimulus for exploring the interconnectedness between the world of literature and the “real world.” Daily entries record, in an easy and companionable voice, coincidences and similarities between the text and those events occurring around him — events both in the personal and public spheres, in the immediate present and recent past. Using titles as seemingly disparate as June’s The Invention of Morel by Bioy Casares, January’s Don Quixote — Cervantes’s great masterpiece — and Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows in December, Manguel identifies patterns in human behaviour and sentiment that bridge the superficial differences of nationality and century.
It’s a wide scope for such a slim volume to cover, yet Manguel moves seamlessly between the personal anecdote and the larger condition. In the smaller picture, for instance, his own youthful flirtations with LSD are recalled in the chapter exploring Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, through Holmes’s explanation to Watson that cocaine is, for him, “so transcedingly stimulating and clarifying to the mind.” When looking two months later at Grahame’s story of Mole, who loses his home and consequently all that’s familiar to him, Manguel tells of the recent death of a dear acquaintance, and laments the gradual disintegration of his own comfortable world: “I want my friends to be there always,” he says; “I want the places I like to stay the same I don’t want to keep missing voices, faces, names.” And onto reflections of greater relevance: the solider of Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe, for instance, who for years is poised to defend a fort against an invasion that never comes, brings Manguel to muse on the contemporary invasion of Iraq by Anglo-American forces, and the shared quality of the “futility of the heroic enterprise”; similarly, Chateaubriand’s meditations on terrorism in September’s Memoirs From Beyond the Grave — “Murder will never be in my eyes an object of admiration and an argument for freedom” — are relayed by the diarist on the anniversary of the Twin Towers’ fall.
Do not anticipate, picking up this book, being guided through the chapters by an obvious, linear argument. The format is, after all, a diary, and as such it ambles between memories of Manguel’s childhood, tales of his current travels, short tangential yarns and quotations, all either loosely or directly tied to the titles being examined. (Indeed, so many excerpts populate the pages that the diary might alternatively be known as Manguel’s Unfamiliar Quotations.) But Manguel, it seems, expected criticism of his detached style of narration, as his final chapter concludes with these comments on The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, another collection of “random memoirs and observations”: it is for readers, he says, to “approve or disapprove of what [the author] has done, to leave off any chapter, to connect or not the scattered snapshots. [He] expects from his readers the constancy of friendship.”
And while the issues discussed are at times weighty, it is this amiability that sets the tone of A Reading Diary. Progressing through the chapters and the titles alongside Manguel, one develops a solid sense of the world in which he works, sleeps, loves, travels, just as The Pillow Book, celebrated in March, breathes life into the tiny details of Sei Shonagon’s medieval Japan. There is Manguel with his predilection for ordering thoughts and feelings into lists; Manguel the child in Argentina, then the frustrated wanderer, then finally setting up house in France with his partner; Manguel with his affection for his new village’s humble happenings, for the health of a magnolia tree and the condition of the local church’s bells. In the year covered, his vocation compels him to travel the book circuit, and he shares his keen impressions of the places in which he’s stationed: on London, as he rests in his hotel room listening to the sounds on the street below — “If I didn’t know I was in a city, I might put snouts or beaks to the different screechings, honkings, rumblings, growlings, cacklings and snarlings I hear”; and, contrastingly, on St. John’s – “[It is] a place so anchored in its own routine that nothing from the outside can touch it.”
A Reading Diary invites a slow appreciation and a careful read, for its essays include such potent philosophies — Manguel’s and others — that one must pause to digest their relevance for one’s own life. Far beyond being a pretty guide in the must-haves of world literature, it prompts one to consider the living qualities of any tome one picks up. It is a book with the façade of being directed by chance, yet the titles explored are carefully chosen, and ordered deliberately. And while the topics discussed are various, there is one idea that unites the chapters, just as it unites humankind: the search for home. Manguel’s current home, long laboured for, is lovingly portrayed, with his garden blooming over the ancient bones of a ruined cemetery, with his good neighbours — and above all, his library, filled with the spirits of familiar characters, writers and readers. “My reading attaches itself to everything I do, to every place I visit”; it is the home, he realizes, that can be transported anywhere.