Friday, October 21, 2005

An evening with the delightful Mr. Manguel

Yesterday evening MUN's English department hosted a reading by Canadian/ Argentinian novelist, poet, athologist, raconteur and generally freakishly-well-read guy Alberto Manguel. He read from his latest book, A Reader's Diary, which has a pretty cool concept: he took a year to re-read twelve of his favourite books, one for each month, and keep a diary of his reading experience.

I had been asked beforehand to be one of the faculty members to accompany him out for drinks afterward, which of course I agreed to readily (the chair said he wanted "young and energetic" faculty to entertain our distinguished guest; to which I responded, "Well, I'm young ..."). And I have to say: Mr. Manguel (Alberto to his friends) is charming, gracious, and utterly unpretentious -- something rather unusual in the CanLit world, in my experience. This is doubly impressive when one considers his credentials: a speaker of something in the area of five languages, vastly well-read, author of numerous essays, novels, scholarly books, and a noted anthologist. Also, he spent two years as the personal secretary of Jorge Luis Borges! I have now achieved one degree of separation from the master. Conversation with him was akin to what I imagine meeting Umberto Eco would be like, only without the terror and crippling sense of intellectual inferiority. To speak to Alberto Manguel was to be in awe of his erudition, but he is so gracious, and so interested in what everyone else has to say, that one feels very comfortable and at home with him.

(An aside, to my Alternative Realities students: I mentioned that class to him apropos of the Borges we studied, and he ended up grilling me for about fifteen minutes about the material on that course. As it turns out, he's quite the fan of Dark City).

I told him, as we sat down to our drinks at the Fairmont hotel bar (Mom, Dad -- our server was Georgina!), that throughout his reading I kept making lists in my mindof what my twelve books would be ... he responded that he wished I'd mentioned them in the question period -- that he'd been hoping the audience would share their own life-changing reads. It was at this point that I realized I was in the presence of a pretty singular guy: never in my encounters with various Canadian literatti have I met someone so interested to hear what other people thought on a subject. So we went around the table for a while as everyone shared their own selections.

And so once again in this blog we come back to reading lists. This morning as I had my coffee, I tried to make my definitive list, insofar as that's possible. My criteria weren't quite the same as Mr. Manguel's -- his reader's diary looks back over a life of reading; I don't feel I have nearly the experience to do the same. I settled on twelve books that have changed my life in one capacity or the other. And as before, I look forward to reading other people's lists in the comments, in whole or in part ...

And unlike previous lists, these are in order -- chronological, that is.

  1. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
  2. Homer, The Illiad
  3. James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  4. Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
  5. Thomas Mann, Death in Venice and Other Stories
  6. Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism
  7. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
  8. Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
  9. W.B. Yeats, Michael Robartes and the Dancer
  10. Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths
  11. Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions
  12. Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers
Understand, these are books that, at the time, made a huge impact ... not all of them still have the same effect today (for example, Joyce's Portrait was, appropriately, an epiphany when I read it ... now Stephen Dedalus just pisses me off). But for the most part, they are books that still resonate for me.

And in closing: gratuitous Wilde quotation for Eano! "But what is the difference between literature and journalism? ... Journalism is unreadable and literature is not read. That is all."


Lesley said...

Your account of spending time with such a literary great makes me laugh, because when I read your blog, I feel like I'm inferior to your intellect. And really, there's no way I can really explain that. But I say it to preface my book choices. They're not anywhere close to intellectual, just that when I read them, they served a purpose and thinking of reading them again, reminds me of that time that I first discovered them. But it was cool you got to spend time with such a writing force. It sounds like it would have been fun!

My choices are more about the books I read in high school, since most of what I've read since then have been little books that I've seen featured on best seller lists or Oprah (shoot me, I'm not an intellect, but most of these books were fun to read).

1. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
2. On the Beach
3. Heart of Darkness
4. Twelfth Night
5. Crow Lake
6. The Lovely Bones
7. White Oleander
8. The Shipping News
9. The House of Sand and Fog
10. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
11. Charlotte's Web
12. Death of a Salesman

Chris in NF said...

I love that you've got Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlotte's Web there! I taught a Children's Lit course this past summer, and reread Charlotte's Web as part of it ... and just as I did when I was a kid, cried at the end.

One of Alberto Manguel's choices in his Reader's Diary, interestingly, was The Wind In the Willows ... another lovely book.

queen B said...

Actually, his friends call him Albie.

I spend a lot of time in the world of CanLit, and there are a ton of writers/editors/publishers who are good-natured, unpretentious, generous speakers and listeners. But--as is the case in ANY community--there are a few jerks. I've met many an academic who was smug and superior. (Hello, Learneds!) Or they treated every conversation like a test, needing to be reassured that they had all the right answers or correcting everyone else in the room. And then I meet freaks like you.

This week's the IFOA, which has meant I've had the chance to meet some amazing authors from all over the place. I met Zadie Smith this weekend, and once I started talking, the grasshoppers in my stomach totally disappeared. But I'll tell you more about my brushes with litterati in a separate email....

Now, as for the list...gawd, this is hard. I could have several lists--Top 12 short stories, Top 12 essays, Top 12 love poems, etc. There are books like "Are You There God? It's Me Margaret", and Strunk & White's "Elements of Style" on my longlist. And I agree with a lot of Lesley's picks, too. "Twelfth Night"--yes! And I still read "Charlotte's Web" once a year. But, anyway, in no particular order, here goes:

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland -- Lewis Carroll
Giovanni's Room -- James Balwin
Beloved -- Toni Morrison
Life After God -- Douglas Coupland
Le Petit Prince -- Antoine de St-Exupéry
A Lover's Discourse -- Roland Barthes
The House of Mirth -- Edith Wharton
Betrayal -- Harold Pinter
The Great Gatsby -- F. Scott Fitzgerald
Diary of a Young Girl -- Anne Frank
A Mencken Chrestomathy -- H.L. Mencken

So, do I pass?

Lesley said...

Interestingly enough, I went on a hunt for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for my 7 year old niece this summer. As she's progressing in her reading, I try to supply her with new and interesting books. Especially ones I loved as a child. It saddened me to learn that with the new movie, there were only limited copies of the non-Hollywood book. That is, the one with the original drawings from Roald Dahl.

Whenever I go looking for new books for her, or rather, copies of books I loved as a child, I am reminded of how I felt when I read each one. And what sort of imagery I had in mind when I read it (ie. books are never as good as the movie because it's one persons interpretation of the book rather than the one you have for yourself).

That said, I love to share these new books with her and see her reaction to the ones I enjoyed as a child. We haven't reached Charlotte's web yet, considering my sister likes to shelter her child from stuff like that. But I will be first in line to read Ramona the Pest to her since it was one of my absolute favourites.

Just think of how fun it will be for you with your niece!

b said...

i loved the savagechicken link, and the fact that alt. realities came up in your meeting of Manguel!

Paige said...

I don't know if I can give 12 life-chaning books right now, but I'm going to try:

- Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
- Glamorama, Bret Easton Ellis
- The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
- Sex and The City, Candace Bushnell
- Weetzie Bat, Francesca Lia Block
- Forever, Judy Blume
- The Romantic, Barbara Gowdy
- The Rules of Attraction, Bret Easton Ellis
- Valley Of The Dolls, Jacqueline Susann (everyone is allowed one trashy book!)
- Paul's Case, Willa Cather

.... okay I'm leaving space for two, because I know there are some I cannot remember. And as much as I want to fill those holes with Harry Potter and Lemony Snickett, I cannot ;)

andrew said...

life-changing is a pretty heavy term, i think my short life has only had 3 life-changing books thus far, the unbearable lightness of being (biggest influence for me being "postmodern"), no logo (biggest influence for me being "anti-corp"), and forever peace (biggest influence for me being "pacifist"). those terms all kind of suck, hence the quotation marks, but you know what im saying... anywho, i love lists, i'll put some of your books on my always-increasing-not-decreasing-quick-enough book list