Graceful essays on books, reading, and the subversive possibilities of ideas.
Late in this gathering of occasional pieces, Manguel (A History of Reading, 1996, etc.) takes issue with Auden’s famous pronouncement that poetry makes nothing happen. “I don’t believe that to be true,” Manguel writes. “Not every book is an epiphany, but many times we have sailed guided by a luminous page or beacon of verse.” Generous in his praise of life-changing books, Manguel notes his own epiphanies, from discovering the horrible power of anti-Semitism as a child in Argentina (where, he tells us, he used to read aloud to the blind writer Jorge Luis Borges) to exploring the almost-occult history of gay literature. Some of Manguel’s essays will send thoughtful readers to the shelves to seek out underappreciated writers, such as G.K. Chesterton (whom Manguel praises for his humor and vigorous prose) and Mario Vargas Llosa (the Peruvian novelist and sometime politician whom Manguel does not hesitate to label one of the 20th century’s greats). Some of these pieces, crafted as introductions, magazine articles, and talks, are slight, some even peevish—such as Manguel’s diatribe against Anglo-American book editors (“Before going out into the world, every writer of fiction in North America and most of the Commonwealth acquires, as it were, a literary back-seat driver”). But most are well-considered celebrations of the pleasures of culture, from museum-going to walking the streets of a major capital, from turning the pages of Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles to finding an unanticipated ally in a writer one has newly discovered.
A fine book about books that will appeal to readers of Manguel’s previous work.