A Reader on Reading

A series of essays from the author of A History of Reading that explores the reader’s perspective. The section called “Memoranda” approaches the politics of reading and is worth the cover price alone. Manguel’s skill at connecting true events with their fictional counterpart—and so making them both appear more clearly—is both keen and profound.

Reading notes

A collaborative effort

A text lives only as long as a reader attends to it:

Literature is a collaborative effort, not as editors and writing schools will have it, but as readers and writers have known from the very first line of verse set down in clay. A poet fashions out of words something that ends with the last full stop and comes to life again with its first reader’s eye. But that eye must be a particular eye, an eye not distracted by baubles or mirrors, concentrated instead on the bodily assimilation of words, reading both to digest a book and to be digested by it. “Books,” Frye once noted, “are to be lived in.”

Manguel, A Reader on Reading, page 93

The reader is both consumer and consumed, at once all-powerful and vulnerable. A reader brings a text into existence only to find herself defined by what she reads.


On reading with a pen in hand:

Montaigne, whose scribbling habits amounted to a conversation, would continue the dialog at the back of the book he was reading, including the date on which he had finished it in order to better recall the circumstances of the event.…For Montaigne, this reading method was necessary for what he called his “quest for truth”: not the story as given by the words within the confines of the page but the reflection of that story, mused upon and retold by the reader Montaigne in spaces reclaimed, there where the page left itself vulnerable to encroachment.

Manguel, A Reader on Reading, page 124

Reading may be a collaborative act, but it is one in which the reader is tyrant, the author a mere subject. The whitespace in the margins is there for the taking.

An honest fiction

In which truth emerges from fiction, and fiction from truth:

This is Don Quixote’s underlying concern: not to ignore society’s atrocities, not to allow those in power to bear false witness, and, above all, to chronicle the things that happen. And if, to get to the truth, Don Quixote must retell reality in his own literary vocabulary, so be it. Better to see windmills as giants than to deny the existence of windmills absolutely. Fiction, in Cervantes’s case, is the way of telling the truth when Spain had decided to rebuild its own history on a lie, the lie of a pure, uncontaminated Christian kingdom, barely a century after the expulsion of the Jews and the Arabs, and at a time of the banishment of all Arab and Jewish converts. For that reason, in order to denounce the fictional reality, Cervantes invents an honest fiction and tells the reader that he is not the father but merely the stepfather of Don Quixote, that the real author is a certain Cide Hamete Benegali, an Arab scholar, one of the supposedly disappeared people, so that credulous readers will believe the book they hold in their hands is merely a translation from a tongue long banned in the realm. Fiction, Cervantes implies, must reveal the deceit of an identity in which Spanish history attempts to clothe itself, an identity cleansed of any Jewish or Arab influence, an identity that need not question or take itself to task because it is supposed to be cloaked in Christian purity. Innocent as the boy in [Hans Christian] Andersen’s tale, Don Quixote points his sword at that identity and shouts: “But it is naked!”

Manguel, A Reader on Reading, page 98

This, of course, is why we have fiction; not as an escape from what is real, but as a means to that reality. Fiction can often reveal more of the truth than the facts themselves.

School for anarchists

On teaching anarchy:

There is no such thing as a school for anarchists, and yet, in some sense, every teacher must teach anarchism, must teach the students to question rules and regulations, to seek explanations in dogma, to confront impositions without bending to prejudice, to demand authority from those in power, to find a place from which to speak their own ideas, even if this means opposing, and ultimately doing away with, the teacher herself.

Manguel, A Reader on Reading, page 161

You could frame this more expansively by saying that a teacher must teach her own obsolescence. You learn what you can from a teacher, then you learn to argue with her, then you become a teacher yourself.

On editors

In which a good writer meets a poor editor:

Even the most inexperienced writers of fiction know that if they are to be published at all, their manuscript must pass through the hands of professionals known as “editors,” employed by publishing companies to read the books under consideration and recommend changes they think appropriate. (This paragraph you are now reading will not be the paragraph I originally wrote, since it will have to undergo the inquisition of an editor; in fact, when an earlier version of this essay was published in Saturday Night magazine, this sentence was cutout completely.)

Manguel, A Reader on Reading, page 208

Inquisition, indeed.

Some might say that the patron saint of editors should be the Greek robber Procrustes, who placed his visitors on an iron bed and stretched them or cut off the overhanging parts until they fitted exactly to his liking.

Manguel, A Reader on Reading, page 209


The editor must be a sort of platonic idea of a reader; he must embody “readerness”; he must be a Reader with a capital R.

Manguel, A Reader on Reading, page 210

Begging the question, of course, as to whether such a Reader could ever exist.

Without editors we are likely to have rambling, incoherent, repetitive, even offensive texts, full of characters whose eyes are green one day and black the next (like Madame Bovary); full of historical errors, like stout Cortez discovering the Pacific (as in Keat’s sonnet); full of badly strung-together episodes (as in Don Quixote); with a badly cobbled-together ending (as in Hamlet) or beginning (as in The Old Curiosity Shop). But with editors—with the constant and now unavoidable presence of editors without whose nihil obstat hardly a book can get published—we may perhaps be missing something fabulously new, something as incandescent as a phoenix and unique, something impossible to describe because it has not been born but which, if it were, would admit no secret sharers in its creation.

Manguel, A Reader on Reading, page 213

To this point, and in defense of editors everywhere, I will add only this: that perhaps the most important skill for an editor to master is recognizing when you’re not needed. In addition to being an editor, I am also a cook; but I know damn well that a perfect summer strawberry need no further preparation than to be cut from the vine.