4 April 2015

'I've always distrusted the first person singular'

Posted by Alberto Manguel

You are giving talks in London, Bath and Bristol about your new book Curiosity at the end of April, and have given many other notable lectures in the past, including the Finzi-Contini lecture at Yale University in 2010. Is there a lecture or talk that you have given, or listened to, that particularly stands out?

I remember a spectacular lecture George Steiner gave a number of years ago on the art of translation, of a clarity and precision that made me (who can’t think in a straight line to save my life) cringe with envy. And one given by Hanan Al-Shaykh at the Hague literary festival on the meaning of shame among Arab women, a subject that I had never thought about in spite of coming across it many times in my readings, from the stories of the Arabian Nights to the poems of Tahirih and other poets. Doris Lessing’s 1985 Massy Lectures, ‘Prisons We Choose to Live Inside’, on the eternal questions of why we accept injustice, helped me ask better questions. And Marina Warner’s Reith Lectures, ‘Managing Monsters’, became an endless source of quotations for me, and starting points for new essays. I could list dozens more…

In recent years your work has become increasingly more personal, with your own private library being focused upon in The Library at Night, and Curiosity drawing on many personal thoughts and experiences, arguably being your most intimate book to date. Has this shift in your work been a conscious decision, and if so why?

I’ve always distrusted the first person singular, ever since as a ten-year-old I discovered that the author of Treasure Island was not Jim Hawkins but someone called Robert Louis Stevenson who didn’t appear in the story at all. Later, when I wrote A History of Reading, I finished a first draft from which I myself was modestly absent. When I gave the draft to my friend Stan Persky to read, he told me that it was interesting, but that he missed the anecdotes from my own reading experience – my wandering library, my meeting with Borges, my learning to read silently – and he thought that the book would be enlivened by such examples. So I introduced myself into the text from chapter to chapter. Lately, I think I’ve come to understand his advice: if you take your readers along the path of your thinking (which usually stems from a personal experience) they are more likely to see your point (if you have one). As long as you don’t become maudlin… An editor friend of mine once told me, ‘When you write, imagine a little reader perched on your shoulder, peering at your page, and asking: “And why are you telling me this, me who’s not your dear old mother?”’

You frequently revisit some authors and books in your work – Lewis Carroll, Jorge Luis Borges and Robert Louis Stevenson, for example – with Curiosity being no exception. Why do these authors particularly appeal to you, and do you still find new ways of looking at their work?

I think there are few things as mysterious as the relationship of a book with its reader. Why Tolstoy hated King Lear and why Sherlock Holmes found Winwood Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man ‘one of the most remarkable ever penned’ are, for me, mysteries much greater than any the Master ever tackled. I suppose the easy answer is that I find myself reflected in these books, my most difficult thoughts put into words and my most secret passions exposed. But then, I know that these books change my thoughts and spark new passions, over and over again. Maybe it’s as difficult to explain as friendship. Montaigne said if he were asked to say why he loved his friend Étienne de La Boétie, he’d have to say, ‘because he was he, and I was I’.

In the past you have spoken fairly negatively of e-books and some areas of technology. For instance, you state in Curiosity that the answers to questions on the Internet are ‘either too literal or too banal’, preferring physical books as your sources of information. Do you believe that modern technology hinders creativity for writers and readers?

Technology, any technology, does nothing by itself: technologies are not animate beings. We, of course, are responsible for what we do with a technological tool, and a knife is not to blame if we cut our finger instead of a loaf of bread. Thousands of readers find the Internet useful: I don’t, and it’s perhaps my own shortcoming. In my physical library I know how to find my way around, how to rely on memory (my memory, not that of a machine) and intuition (which the Internet doesn’t have). But if someone delights in reading an e-book, good for her (or him). I imagine that when papyrus rolls became the fashion, readers of clay tablets lamented the loss of the earthy scent, the comforting weight of the book in the hand, the possibility of knowing at once the size of the text by counting the number of tablets in a tray… Novelty tends to make us nostalgic.

Broad philosophical questions make up the chapter titles for Curiosity: Who Am I? Where Is Our Place? What Comes Next? What is True? Should readers expect to find answers in your book, or should each chapter be seen as an exploration into the questions themselves?

I think that answers belong to dogma and put an end to conversation; questions, however, can lead to new questions, and form part of an ongoing dialogue. It would have been impertinent or arrogant of me to try to provide answers for questions that have been constantly been asked since the time of the first mammoth hunts. Hopefully, the reader of Curiosity will take these questions and ask them in new and keener ways.

Alberto Manguel will be in conversation with John Sutherland about Curiosity on Wednesday 29 April. Book tickets here.