Monday, December 22, 2003

Alberto Manguel speaks of his Reading Pictures: A History of Love and Hate as being made of "haphazard notes and indecisions" (292). This assessment is true and yet fails to do his book justice.

I'm still not sure what his ultimate goal was with this book. He writes that he "began this book thinking that I would write about our emotions and how they affect (and are affected by) our readings of works of art," and that he feels that "I seem to have ended up far, very far, from my imagined goal" (xi). Yet what cohesiveness the book does have exists because of that initial goal. Certainly the book otherwise seems scattered. In his A History of Reading--one of my very favourite books about books, and a must-read for anyone who likes to read--Manguel is blessed with a subject that has a built-in organising principle of chronology. When writing about emotions and art, that's less true. His response to this conundrum is to consider images as sources of: story, absence, riddle, witness, understanding, nightmare, reflection, violence, subversion, philosophy, memory, and theatre. Picking a central image for each chapter, he surveys treatments of these concepts in visual media, and essays to provide a sense of the scope of visual response.

The first few chapters read almost like I would imagine a textbook of art appreciation to read: they outline how the viewer might consider form, content, and effect, and wonders how external information--be it biographical, historical, what the artist has said about the work--should be weighed in one's consideration. When I got to chapter six ("Marianna Gartner: The Image as Nightmare"), though, the book, while not abandoning its informative nature, shifted in a way that I have trouble explaining. Manguel's writing no longer seemed at all textbook-y. The chapters became more intriguing, raising more questions than they answered. I wish I could better articulate this shift; however, I find it nearly impossible to talk about.

I bought the book because of A History of Reading. Reading Pictures was on remainder, and it's nigh impossible to say no to a $4.99 book by an author you enjoy, especially when you're even remotely interested in the topic. While I feel little more confident when it comes to approaching an image by myself, and attempting to make some sense of it, this was an enjoyable book. If you like art, you'll at least be intrigued by the relationship between words and images that, while almost always implicit in this book, contributes the majority of my lasting impressions of the book. After all, as Manguel says:
...I would say that if looking at pictures is equivalent to reading, then it is a vastly creative form of reading, a reading in which we must not only put words into sounds into sense but images into sense into stories. Of course, much must escape our narratives becasue of a picture's chameleon quality and because of the protean nature of a symbol. Image and meaning reflect each other in a gallery of mirrors through which, as through corridors hung with pictures, we choose to wander, always knowing that there is no end to our search--even if we had a goal in mind. A line from Ecclesiastes sums up, I think, our dealings with a work of art that moves us. It acknowledges the craftmanship, it intimates the inspiration, it tells of our helplessness to put our experience into words. It is worded like this in the King James Version: "All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing; nor the ear filled with hearing" [1.8]. Hence of a work of art can no doubt be understood, because it is, after all, a human experience. But that understanding, in all its illuminating and ambiguous revelations, may be condemned, because of its very nature, to remain for us just beyond the possibilities of our labours. (149)