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Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Alberto Manguel, The Immutable Act

on the shore
no copyright infringement intended

E-books, virtual libraries, i-pads allow us to read in ways we never read before: we can now carry whole libraries in our pocket and, from our own bedroom, we can access volumes ensconced in the remotest libraries. And yet, sophisticated readers complain that the new gadgets don’t have the sensual qualities of the printed book, the erotic touch, the comforting smell; that they lack the hierarchical distinctions that used to exist between paperbacks and hardbacks; that they have none of the aristocratic features of leather-bindings and marbled end-paper pages.

So begins the Alberto Manguel's essay about various ways of reading. You'd say a very elegant rendition of the argument between old and young people, or better said very old and very young.Well, old and young (or very old and very young) are misnomers: Felicia Antip was in her eighties and every morning she was opening her PC to read the news. Her husband, the General Constantin Antip, was all for the printed stuff. The same reasons: everything in your pocket, versus the touch, the smell. She was a distinguished journalist, and a woman of great convictions. He was a honored military historian. I had the privilege to enjoy their friendship, and I must say that in addition to their superb intellect they also were very kind people.

And Alberto Manguel goes on, No doubt similar complaints were heard from Sumerian tablet-readers with the arrival of the scroll, and from Roman scroll-readers with the arrival of the codex. The socialist Georges Orwell was appalled by the invention of the Penguin tascabile (paperback, for those more used with English wording than with Italian). “In my capacity as writer I pronounce them anathema,” he said in 1935.

What is then better, to read printed books or to use smart devices? Or, as the title of this essay seems to suggest, is reading on paper support an immutable act, impossible to demolish regardless of any advantage brought by the electronic universe?

Well, the title is beguiling, because the essay of Alberto Manguel makes the demonstration of an immutable paradox: regardless the support we use, we actually never achieve to read a book properly. It's a superb demonstration, stuffed with famous examples from the whole history of literature (Borges giving lectures on Finnegans Wake without reading more than one or two episodes from it; Dante judging Homer without ever reading him; Shakespeare summarizing Iliad as the history about a cuckold and a whore; deceitful reading - we'll never dare to say we haven't read Hamlet, while we'll indulge ourselves in recognizing that Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus is maybe not on our night table; the books we assume or reject without reading them, based on our political allegiances, like Salman Rushdie or Günter Grass; and so on and so forth; Sydney Smith couldn't miss from the list - he never started to read a book without firstly reviewing it - otherwise it would have been too frustrating, he used to say).

But you should read this essay by yourself, it's a little gem of irony and sophistication:

And if you continue to ask yourselves which way is better, paper or smart devices, here is the opinion of Robert Louis Stevenson (More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter):

But that is the bitterness of arts:
you see a good effect
and some nonsense about sense
continually intervenes.

(Alberto Manguel)



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