A Writer on Reading & Material Books

Books are the flesh of words. Not long ago I wrote that a material book will love you back, something an electronic book cannot do. Several literal-minded readers chided me, ever so gently, for making a romance out of ink on paper. The chiding was a challenge to hunt up testimony in support of my side. Let me enter into evidence Alberto Manguel’s A Reader on Reading (2010), an eloquent and enthralling excursion into books.

Quest for Certaunty jpg

He writes of preparing for a lengthy hospital stay. What books should he take with him? He surveys the titles piled by his bed at home, discarding one after another:

I discarded recent fiction (too risky because yet unproven), biographies (too crowded under my circumstances: hooked to a tangle of drips, I found other people’s presence in my room annoying), scientific essays and detective novels (too cerebral: much as I’d recently been enjoying the Darwinian renaissance and rereading crime stories, I felt that a detailed account of selfish genes and the criminal mind would not be the right medicine).

I toyed with the idea of startling the nurses with Kierkegaard’s Pain and Suffering: The Sickness Unto Death. But no: what I wanted was the equivalent of comfort food, something I had enjoyed and could repeatedly and effortlessly revisit, something that could be read for pleasure alone but that would, at the same time, keep my brain alight and humming.

He asked for his two volumes of Don Quixote de la Mancha.

I am deeply grateful for my Don Quixote. Over the two hospital weeks, the twin volumes kept vigil with me: they talked to me when I wanted entertainment, or waited quietly, attentively, by my bed. They never became impatient with me, neither sententious nor condescending. They continued a conversation begun years ago, when I was someone else, as if they were indifferent to time, as if taking for granted that this moment too would pass, and their reader’s discomfort and anxiety, and that only their remembered pages would remain on my shelves, describing something of my own, intimate and dark, for which as yet I had no words.

Readings jpg

In the last chapter, “The End of Reading,” Manguel discusses the reasons he is not a user of e-books, “those modern incarnations of the Assyrian tablets, nor of the Lilliputian iPods .  .  .” He agrees with Ray Bradbury that “the Internet is a big distraction” and explains why:

Librarians today are increasingly faced with a bewildering problem: users of the library, especially the younger ones, no longer know how to read competently. They can find and follow an electronic text, they can cut paragraphs from different Internet sources and recombine them into a single piece, but they seem unable to comment on and criticize and gloss and memorize the sense of a printed page.

The electronic text, in its very accessibility, lends users the illusion appropriation without the attendant difficulty of learning. The essential purpose of reading becomes lost to them, and all that remains is the collecting of information, to be used when required.

But reading is not achieved merely by having a text made available: it demands that its readers enter the maze of words, cut open their own tracks, and draw their own charts beyond the margins of the page. Of course an electronic text allows this, but its very vaunted inclusiveness makes it difficult to fathom a specific meaning and thoroughly explore specific pages.

The text on the screen does not render the reader’s task as obvious as the text in a material book, limited by its borders and binding. “Get anything,” reads the ad for a mobile phone able to photograph, record voices, search the Web, transmit words and images, receive and send messages, and, of course, phone. But “anything” in this case stands dangerously near “nothing.”

This paragraph is key. Manguel distinguishes here between the ability to read—literacy—and the art of reading. The former is the sine qua non, the basic machinery, of the latter. But the second is a creative act that excites reflection, and sets us on paths to understanding. Its ultimate destination is that seasoning without which wisdom cannot breathe:

The acquisition of something (rather than anything) always requires selection and cannot rely on a limitless offer. To observe, to judge, to chooserequires training, as well as a sense of responsibility, even an ethical stance. And young readers, like travelers who have only learned to drive automatic cars, no longer seem able to shift gears at will, relying instead on a vehicle that promises to take them anywhere.


Agnolo Bronzino. Laura Battaferri (c.1550).

•    •    •    •

Manguel’s closing analogy chastens me some. Have I grown lazy?

My faithful, good-tempered 2007 standard shift Subaru is going up for sale at a neighborhood service station. I’ve driven only manual transmission most of my life. In the beginning, I sputtered around in my husband’s battered second-hand Hillman. It even had a manual choke. I always dreaded rental cars: one foot kept trying to work the clutch pedal that wasn’t there. But now I am ready for an automatic that will take me anywhere—especially uphill or through cross-town stop-and-go—without having to shift gears.

When it comes to reading, however, nothing has changed. Like Alberto Manguel, when I need company I call a solid book every time.


Note: The initial image on this post is Quest for Certainty. The second, Readings.