A Reading Diary by Alberto Manguel

The following is the foreword to A Reading Diary by Alberto Manguel, forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in October 2004.


“...that we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valour and generosity we have.”

—Thoreau, Walden

“Like every person of good taste, Menard abominated such worthless pantomimes, only apt—he would say—to provoke the plebeian pleasure of anachronism or (what is worse) to enthrall us with the rudimentary notion that all ages are the same or that they are different.”

—Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones

There are books that we skim over happily, forgetting one page as we turn to the next; others that we read reverently, without daring to agree or disagree; others that offer mere information and preclude our commentary; others still that, because we have loved them so long and so dearly, we can repeat them word by word, since we know them, in the truest sense, by heart.

Reading is a conversation. Lunatics engage in imaginary dialogues that they hear echoing somewhere in their minds; readers engage in a similar dialogue provoked silently by the words on a page. Usually the reader's response is not recorded, but often a reader will feel the need to take up a pencil and answer in the margins of a text. This comment, this gloss, this shadow that sometimes accompanies our favorite books, extends and transforms the text into another time and another experience; it lends reality to the illusion that a book speaks to us and wills us (its readers) into being.

A couple of years ago, after my fifty-third birthday, I decided to reread a few of my favorite old books, and I was struck, once again, by how their many-layered and complex worlds of the past seemed to reflect the dismal chaos of the world I was living in. A passage in a novel would suddenly illuminate an article in the daily paper; a half-forgotten episode would be recalled by a certain scene; a single word would prompt a long reflection. I decided to keep a record of these moments.

It occurred to me then that, rereading a book a month, I might complete, in a year, something between a personal diary and a commonplace book: a volume of notes, reflections, impressions of travel, sketches of friends, of events public and private, all elicited by my reading. I made a list of what the chosen books would be. It seemed important, for balance, that there be a little of everything. (Since I'm nothing if not an eclectic reader, this wasn't too difficult to accomplish.)

Reading is a comfortable, solitary, slow and sensuous task; writing used to share some of these qualities. However, in recent times, the profession of writer has acquired something of the ancient professions of travelling salesman and repertory actor. Writers are called upon to perform one-night stands in far-away places, extolling the virtues of their own books instead of toilet brushes or encyclopedia sets. Mainly because of these duties throughout my reading year I found myself travelling to many different cities and yet wishing to be back home, in my house in a small village in France, where I keep my books and do my work.

Scientists have imagined that, before the universe came into being, it existed in a state of potentiality, time and space held in abeyance—“in a fog of possibility”—as one commentator put it, until the Big Bang. This latent existence should surprise no reader, for whom every book exists in a dreamlike condition until the hands that open it and the eyes that peruse it stir the words into awareness. The following pages are my attempt to record a few such awakenings.


Excerpted from A Reading Diary by Alberto Manguel, to be published in October by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright (c) 2004 by Alberto Manguel. All rights reserved.