Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Stan Persky, Topic Sentence: A Writer’s Education, 2007.

I started reading this one based on the Globe’s review of it (I should really start recording when I add things to my to-read list; I think I acquired the book shortly after it came out, and have only just finished it). It’s been bed-time reading—most of its sections are sufficiently short that I culd read one or two before going to sleep—and with my earlier bedtimes of late, I’ve been doing more of such reading.

Topic Sentence is an intriguing collection. Almost every piece therein is at least partially a memoir. Organized into “Before,” “During,” and “After,” the collected thoughts examine what it is to write well—poetry, memoir, and essays. They describe relationships with some of the most prominent poets of the twentieth century. One of my particular favourites, “The Horses of Instruction” is one of the best pieces of writing about education and philosophy that I’ve encountered. The pieces in the “During” section revolve primarily around Persky’s sexuality—both his life experience, and his making sense of society and culture—and comprise some moving and insightful writing. The epilogue to “Eros and Cupid” is genius.

As you read this collection, your own sense of writing is likely to shift: whether it’s a renewed appreciation for words in “The Translators” or the attempt to survey aspects of what it is to read the times one lives through—and especially the work of Orwell, Isherwood, Miłosz, Creeley, or contemporary music—Persky’s clarity and thoughtfulness are well worth the read. Like some of my other favourite writers, he is clearly interested in everything and wants to think deeply about what he encounters: it’s been nice having him as a teacher while I’ve read his book.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night, 2006.

I crossed another book off my to read list today, and was surprised to see that I’d neither crossed this one off the list nor blogged about it, though I read it shortly after finishing The City of Words back in the fall.

It’s a lovely book, easy to dip into and read from in tiny pieces at a time—and I’m likely biased, given my own predilections and desire to have (what could justifiably be called) a library of my own, rather than a mere trifling collection of books. Manguel offers fifteen reflections on libraries, each loosely structured around a way of conceiving of a library’s import, meaning, and identity. Yet each of these sets of musings are really more about books in general, and—really—about reading. Consider what Manguel writes in “The Library as Island”:
Our society accepts the book as a given, but the act of reading—once considered useful and important, as well as potentially dangerous and subversive—is now condescendingly accepted as a pastime, a slow pastime that lacks efficiency and does not contribute to the common good. As our visitor [a gedankenexperiment of a visitor from the past, looking at our reading habits] would eventually realize, in our society reading is nothing but an ancillary act, and the great repository of our memory and experience, the library, is considered less a living entity than an inconvenient storage room.

Hard to see why I might like such a book as this one, isn’t it? I think Manguel is spot on, here. Our society has come to devalue reading, to marginalise it much as the CBC is currently trying to help marginalise art music. Fewer and fewer people admit to me that they have time to read—does being too busy to read really serve as a commendation of one’s own life? Really?—and when they do, it’s usually to complain that it’s not worth the effort, that television provides better entertainment. Reading, Manguel argued when I heard him speak at McMaster just before he gave the Massey lectures, is what keeps us from being barbarians. My own gloss on this idea is that to read is more than to be entertained: it is to remember stories, moments, vibrant images, ideas; reading is an engagement with the real, and it is restorative, invigorating, challenging, and expansive. Reading helps us to make sense of life, and libraries offer the tools to read and to reread, to find new treasures and to re-encounter anew treasures that are only half-remembered.

Manguel’s book is well worth the time spent reading it (I read it mostly on GO train rides into Toronto), both to wonder about our own relationships with libraries and to think again about what a gift reading is in our lives. And as a fun side benefit, you’ll learn both about neat libraries and about neat books. Add this one to your library. You’ll want to return to it.