Thursday, April 27, 2006

Help, readers! Our books need rescuing!

Here's more from Alberto Manguel, from a chapter on how we categorize and classify our books:

Rooms, corridors, bookcases, shelves, filing cards and computerized catalogues assume that the subjects on which our thoughts dwell are actual entities, and through this assumption a certain book may be lent a particular tone and value. Filed under Fiction, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels is a humorous novel of adventure; under Sociology, a satirical study of England in the eighteenth century; under Children's Literature, an entertaining fable about dwarfs and giants and talking horses; under Fantasy, a precursor of science fiction; under Travel, an imaginary voyage; under Classics, a part of the Western literary canon.

Here's the best part of the passage:

Categories are exclusive; reading is not -- or should not be. Whatever classifications have been chosen, every library tyrannizes the act of reading, and forces the reader -- the curious reader, the alert reader -- to rescue the book from the category to which it had been condemned.

It's another way that reading is subversive -- whether we like it or not. Any book transcends the category we want to confine it in, and as readers we are able to recognize the ways the categories are misleading and limiting. Of course, we need classification systems for our books, or we'd never find them, but I like Manguel's reminder that our categories don't have any existence in and of themselves. They are imaginary and they are arbitrary. And it's great to think that by reading imaginatively we're fighting tyranny. Even if we are talking about the tyranny of libraries, generally excellent institutions. Actually, he's not really talking about the tyranny of libraries, but about the habit of believing that the books really and truly belong to the categories we place them in and nowhere else.

So, please, don't let your books lead narrow lives, isolated lives. Read them with curiosity and imagination, and rescue them!

I promise I'll stop posting on Manguel one of these days. You may be getting sick of him by now. But he's SO GREAT!