Alberto Manguel is an author that I hadn’t read, or even – perhaps shamefully? – heard of prior to picking up this book.
I was in Wellington, in New Zealand, in a large second-hand bookshop in the city. The biggest bookshop I’d seen or been in, since visiting New Zealand, it was filled with every type of volume you can imagine. And being but a tourist and flying out the following day with a limit to the weight I could carry, my disappointment at not being able to buy everything I wanted was overwhelming. I was absolutely stymied as to where to look, what I wanted to read.
So instead, I quietly asked myself, where is the book that I need to read. And there came a response: On the opposite side of the store, on a shelf of criticism, near the floor.
Purposefully I strode to the place where I was apparently meant to look. I crouched down. And my eyes fell on the spine of A Reading Diary: A year of favourite books. It was in almost-new condition, its spine unbroken, no pages dog-eared, as though it had never been read.
The comment on the cover, by George Steiner, runs: ‘A love letter written to reading.’ Without looking at the rear cover blurbs, or the price of the title, I knew that this was the book that called to me (as it were), so I grasped it and knew that if I found nothing else that afternoon, I’d gotten what I was meant to find.
After such an introduction to this book, it is particularly cheesy of me to state that the prose of Manguel struck me in a place that few writers manage to find. It’s not often I read an author and fall irrevocably into the depths of its pages, far beyond the type, and deep into the experience of the author. It’s very rare that I will read the experiences of another author and feel as though we are of the same soul.
And yet, that’s what happened when I read A Reading Diary. Perhaps more interestingly, the shape of this work has become an undeniable and intense influence on the book that I am currently writing.
So, what is so remarkable about this work? Nothing, particularly. A Reading Diary is a year of Alberto Manguel’s favourite books. It is a year of re-reading. We exist with the author through a year of his life, accompanied by those works. In the telling, we understand why they are so important for him, how important his library is to his life, and the elements and things going on around him that shape his experience of the year. We read, and recall with similar horror, the coming of the second war in the Middle East perpetrated by the Anglo-American alliance. We understand, being distant ourselves, the distance and confusion of warmongering nations that the author experiences. And we see, as though through a telescope, the effects of age, intimate and reflective.
A Reading Diary: A year of favourite books is a simple text, and yet it is also complex. Through this work, I’ve added a huge number of books to my own to read lists and wish-lists. They have been connected to other works in ways that we rarely find in this day and age: Through the considered reflection of a well-read, musing, and contemplative reader/writer for whom books are life.
Not only are books a reflection of life, they are a way to understand life. They illustrate our weaknesses, our strengths. They highlight our own pains and wounds, and celebrate our strengths and honours. Readers know this, and it is why they read as much as they do.
And so far in my reading life, I’ve only read one author who celebrates this fact with such austerity, love, and gratitude. It’s this one.
Alberto Manguel is an essayist who deserves your attention. And if you start with his book, as I have, you will perhaps see why this is so. And now, excuse me while I go and hunt down the remaining bibliography of this writer whose voice has spoken directly to my soul: I fear that without it I will be incomplete.
Author’s note: The edition to which this review is attached on Goodreads (hence the cover art and etc noted at the top of this page – and the alternative title) are incorrect. However, it’s of little account. If you would like the correct edition that this review refers to, it is A Reading Diary: A Year of Favourite Books, this edition 2006 (first published 2004), Canongate Books, Canada. ISBN: 1 84195 821 2.