One of the pleasures associated with reading literature is reading about the literature one has read, and even better, about the great literature that one has not yet read and -- melancholy fate -- probably never will. But in this age when such reading is considered dorky as well as obsolete, a shining rationale is also welcome.
Like Alberto Manguel's insightful The Library at Night (published by Yale in 2008), this book is a collection of thematically linked pieces: a bit autobiographical, but mostly about specific books and authors (Pinocchio, Borges, Conrad, Dante) as well as cultural and political topics illustrated by authors from The Bible and Homer to Che Guevara.
Another pleasure of this kind of book is the apt quote, as this from Jorge Luis Borges (who Manguel knew in Argentina): "To imagine the plot of a novel is delectable. To actually write it out is an exaggeration." And this (Borges again): "I've always said that the lasting aim of literature is to display our destinies."
There is variety to choose from, and some chapters are especially tantalizing (Manguel may have a fascinating book on Cervantes either aborning or aborted). There is also enough sheer brilliance to make this a book to keep and savor.
Each chapter is headed by a mischievous quote from Lewis Carroll's Alice books, which pay off particularly in a late chapter: "At the Mad Hatter's Table," it begins, "as most perceptive readers will agree, the distinctive characteristic of the human world is its insanity." Though he could not have foreseen it, Manguel's reading of cultural politics implied in Carroll illuminates the current movement supposedly based on a different Tea Party.
The book ends with eloquent meditations on the meaning of reading itself. After confessing, "As a child, I made no clear distinction between my own identity and that which books created for me," he goes on to summarize: "It may be that, of all the instruments we have invented to help us along the path of self-discovery, books are the most useful, the most practical, the most concrete."
Manguel then states something else that he's so far implied: that reading can be a political act. It is not only pertinent as lived in time (he notes that he was reading of Don Quixote's idealism during the political tumult of 1968), but as a perennial place to stand: "Reading at its best may lead to reflection and questioning, and reflection and questioning may lead to objection and change. That, in any society, is a dangerous enterprise."