by Ann Vroom, Chair, Friends of the McGill Library
It was a sold-out crowd at the Friends of the Library evening March 12, 2015 at our event On Reading, Writing and Fiddling with Words: an Informal Talk with Alberto Manguel. The noted Argentinian-born Canadian author, critic and translator captivated his audience with thoughts on the role and responsibilities of the reader and insights from his career.
The evening also served as the official launch of the book Meeting with Books, Special Collections in the 21st Century, co-edited by Richard Virr, Head of McGill’s Rare Books and Special Collections and Jillian Tomm, Assistant Head of Rare Books and Special Collections. The volume grew out of the Meeting with Books: Raymond Klibansky, Special Collections and the Library in the 21st Century symposium held at McGill in March 2013, at which Alberto Manguel gave the keynote address. Many of the contributors to the special volume were present on March 12th.
Jillian Tomm led Alberto in a relaxed yet deeply thoughtful conversation about his work and thoughts on reading and writing, leaving the audience with a number of significant observations.
“There are hierarchies of writing, and poetry is seen at the top. But I don’t have the mind of a poet. Poetry is the ability to use words to reveal that which is left unsaid. It alludes to experience that lies outside language.”
“Reading almost always leads to writing. It becomes communal, a dialogue, what you want to share with others.”
“Contrary to the popular myth that reading pulls you away from reality, reading actually plunges your nose into reality.”
“Looking back in history, St. Augustine has written the most intelligently about reading.”
Asked about the current pushback by the young against the Western literary canon, Manguel replied, “This is very much tied to the sin of labeling. The mistake comes in confusing popular with that which is not profound. We must not forget that ‘the Canon’ was considered popular literature in its day! Much popular writing of today – science fiction, romance novels, detective stories and others – can have profound meanings.” Similarly Manguel believes some books in “the canon” are actually not that profound. Readers have the right of choice to say, “This book is not for me.” The Library is a very personal thing.
Friends’ of the Library member Helen Kahn, who was in the audience, was particularly impressed with the rapport interviewer Jillian Tomm created with Manguel. “Jillian’s questions and comments elicited some great responses from him. I especially appreciated Alberto’s observation – one he said he learned from Jorge Luis Borges – that ‘writers write what they can and readers read what they want.’ The entire evening was one of the loveliest and liveliest exchanges I have heard for some time.”
The conversation with Alberto Manguel is now online for all to enjoy here.
If you can’t get enough, you may also be interested in reading Robert Fulford’s National Post interview with Manguel here. It was published the day before our talk and explores Manguel’s recently published book entitled Curiosity.
Happy viewing and reading!