The Eros of Reading

Another of the books from my 15 in 15 list is Alberto Manguel’s Library at Night.



I think often of the oak-panelled library Manguel built to house his 30,000 books. It is close to my vision of an ideal library. Manguel waited six decades to complete his project.

His erudite and heart-warming book Library at Night is about libraries, book collections, and Manguel’s deep love and engagement with stories. As George Steiner wrote, “The area which Alberto Manguel has mapped for himself is that of the eros of reading. He celebrates the diversities of desire—tempestuous, hidden, intermittent, lapsed—which relate us to a literary text.”

Deep and Narrow

In defending Beckett from a bitchy put-down, Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence states:

Had Beckett read only Dante, Milton, Swift and Johnson (odd that Donoghue does not include Shakespeare and Joyce), and read them deeply and across a lifetime, he would qualify as “immensely learned.” Of course, Beckett didn’t stop there. Few writers have woven their learning so inextricably into the texture of their work.

I am struck by the romance of being “immensely learned” from reading narrowly but deeply. How many authors, I wonder, would fit into this ultra-narrow literary canon if one was restricted to four or five choices?

Are there a handful of living authors, four or five, that one could read deeply over a lifetime and be considered learned?

Multilingual, Polyglot Steiner

I stand in awe of George Steiner. From After Babel:

My father was born to the north of Prague and educated in Vienna. My mother’s maiden name Franzos, points to a possible Alsatian origin, but the nearer background was probably Galician. Karl Emil Franzos, the novelist and first editor of Buchner’s Wozzeck, was a grand-uncle. I was born in Paris and New York.I have no recollection whatever of a first language. So far as I am aware, I possess equal currency in English, French and German. What I can speak, write, or read of other languages has come later and retains a ‘feel’ of conscious acquisition. But I experience my first three tongues as perfectly equivalent centres of myself. I dream with equal verbal density and linguistic-symbolic provocation in all three.My natural condition was polyglot….It was habitual, unnoticed practice for my mother to start a sentence in one language and finish it in another. At home, conversations were interlinguistic not only inside the same sentence or speech segment, but as between speakers.

Dare to be Wise

With pleasure today I unearthed an essay Kant wrote in answer to the question: “What is Enlightenment?” Kant’s response: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity.” This simple reply is expanded in the essay. This theme has been a personal refrain for over twenty years. It is satisfying to read Kant’s lucid examination of the same concept

Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! “Have courage to use your own understanding!” — that is the motto of enlightenment.

Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a proportion of men, long after nature has released them from alien guidance (naturaliter maiorennes), nonetheless gladly remain in lifelong immaturity, and why it is so easy for others to establish themselves as their guardians. It is so easy to be immature.

The journalist Michael Bywater wrote Big Babies, an amusing but banal book examining broadly similar themes. (His other book Lost Worlds is entertaining.)

Time’s Flow Stemmed

This blog’s name is an allusion to the time that elapses when you look up from a book and realise it is much later than you thought. Contained within that allusion is what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi called Flow, what sporting participants refer to as being in the zone.

The inspiration is from Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Reader.

I’d long been reading. Since with rush of rain
this afternoon first dimmed the window-pane.
The wind outside had passed from my regard:
my book was hard.
And, as I turned its pages, I would con them
like features darkened by reflectiveness;
time’s flow was stemmed around my studiousness.
Then of a sudden something overshone them,
and, ousting anxious verbal maziness,
stood: Evening, Evening … everywhere upon them.
I do not yet look out, but the long lines
have split in two, and words from their combining
threads roll away wherever they’re inclining …
And then I know: above there’s a serpentining,
glittering gardens there’s a spaciousness;
yes, once again the sun must have been shining.
Now summer-night is all encompassing:
small groups are formed by what lay scatteredly,
people on long walks wander darksomely,
and strangely far, as though more meaningly,
is heard the little that’s still happening.

And when I gaze up now from what I’ve read,
everything’s great and nothing’s akin.
Out there exists what I live within,
and here and there it’s all unlimited;
save that I weave myself still more therein
when on to outward things my glances fly
and gravely simple masses formed thereby,-
there far beyond itself the earth’s outswelling.
It seems to be embracing all the sky,
and the first star is like the farthest dwelling.

My Reading Years

My insatiable appetite for reading was borne from scarcity. Growing up in the Far East, the local bookshop thrived off the sale of potboilers: Arthur Hailey, Wilbur Smith, Ed McBain. Thirty years ago, the latter two writers formed a significant part of my early reading consumption.

During my years of formal education, my taste evolved into science fiction, particularly Robert Heinlein and Kurt Vonnegut. William Gibson and Neal Stephenson followed. Discovering Dostoyvsky and Kafka in my late teens changed my literary landscape. Crime and Punishment and The Metamorphosis were jump leads that accelerated my reading. Throughout my twenties I read omnivorously, with an insistence to finish every book I started: Proust, Nietzsche, Sartre, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Chekhov, Balzac, Maupassant.

Entering my thirties, bruised after a disastrous first marriage, I motored at a more sedate pace. Enthusiasms during this period are a source of blushes today: Nick Hornby, Iain Banks and John Updike. Eventually I drifted away from reading fiction, partly as a consequence of a heavy Masters reading list. Instead I read economics, history, travel, biographies and architecture.

Today, having crossed decisively into my forties, my taste for reading fiction is revived. My inclination though is resolved to read better, to spend time only on what is, or might be, worthwhile. I drift easily from essays, diaries, biographies back to fiction. I reread little, putting this off for another time. My hunger for the unread is intense. As I read I create myself.