Reader in Wonderland

After my own brief excursion recently down the celebrated rabbit hole, I ask: Why Not Wonderland?

For those who cherish the fanciful Alberto Manguel, affectionately dubbed “the Casanova of reading”, author of such magical works as A Dictionary of Imaginary Places, A History of Reading, Into the Looking-Glass Wood and The Library at Night, his fascination with language is well known. Each essay in this volume opens with a quote from one of Lewis Carroll’s playful novels, which acts as a springboard to discuss the art and craft of reading. He writes in the preface:


“The subject of this book, as almost all my other books, is reading, that most human of creative activities. I believe we are at the core reading animals and that the art of reading, in its broadest sense, defines our species. We come into the world intent on finding narrative in everything: in landscape, in the skies, in the faces of others, and, of course, in the images and words that our species creates. We read our own lives and those of others, we read the societies we live in and those that lie beyond our borders, we read pictures and buildings, we read that which lies between the covers of a book.”


How benevolent of this man of letters to explore the crafts of reading and writing granting an identity to us by the literature itself. Even in his short essays that span only two or three pages, like “Notes Toward a Definition of the Ideal Reader” and “Notes Toward a Definition of the Ideal Library”, he writes, “Ideal readers never count their books.” And of the latter, “The ideal library suggests one continuous text with no discernible beginning and no foreseeable end.”

What could be more delightful than a piece entitled “How Pinocchio Learned to Read” and discover that the author’s thoughts on the topic do not adhere to the scholastic sense of “learning to read,” but instead recommends “Humpty Dumpty’s method,” whereby a reader engages with the text on his or her own terms. Manguel suggests that modern readers are trained exclusively for the workforce with its insistence on faster technology and quicker results. He laments,


It is relatively easy to be superficially literate, to follow a sitcom, to understand an advertising joke, to read a political slogan, to use a computer. But to go further and deeper … we need to learn to read in other ways, differently. Otherwise, we comprehend about as well as wooden puppets.”


In much the same way, “Saint Augustine’s Computer” examines the difference between reading a book and reading a screen full of words. Although he admits many readers may be Luddites at heart, he neither fears the change nor accepts the idea that book culture will disappear.

What better enchantment to end a review on this wondrous work than that once penned by Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska, who observed:


“One more comment from the heart:
I am old-fashioned
and think that reading books
is the most glorious pastime
that humankind
has yet devised.”





~ by eaesthete on 04/15/10.

3 Responses to “Reader in Wonderland”

  1. Thank you once again for introducing me to someone I did not know of before. Reading has for me been one of the greatest pleasures of being a human being. I can think of no other human activity that has the potential to so broadly impact a person’s life, world-view, and pschye. And the books themselves! There’s a romance about the actual physical object. I’m sure I’m not the only one here who loves the smell of old books!

  2. I adore Alberto Manguel! Glad to see he has fans out there…The Library at Night is a favorite.

  3. John,

    I honestly believe that one of the greatest pleasures in reading is to introduce a book or author to another like-minded soul. Reading is a pursuit of such unequaled measure, it mystifies me that more don’t grasp the concept. If only they might know that an hour spent with a book is far superior to mind-numbing chit chat of no consequence, we might all be better for it.


    I am thrilled you adore Manguel as I do. Whenever you veer off the beaten track, you’re never sure you’ll pass another on the road. Thank you.

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