Alberto Manguel, The City of Words, Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2007.
It’s become a cliché to call a book “thought-provoking” these days. Just about any non-fiction book gets the label. Yet I think there’s a big difference between a book that provokes thoughts of your own, and one that tells you what to think. I’m going to use the former definition, obviously, and so I can say without much reservation that The City of Words by Alberto Manguel is the most thought-provoking book I’ve read in a long while. Perhaps because Manguel raises plenty of questions, but provides few if any answers (as we might say, it’s the Question that’s the thing). Some people are going to be frustrated by this, but Manguel’s roundabout way of dealing with the subject illustrates something pretty important about literature as a whole and its relationship with society: stories change us by opening up multiple avenues of thought, allowing for multiple readings and interpretations by which the experience of the author and the experience of the reader intermingle in a rare way.
From the Introduction:
Why do we seek definitions of identity in words, and what is, in such a quest, the storyteller’s role? How does language itself determine, limit and enlarge our imagination of the world? How do the stories we tell help us perceive ourselves and others? Can such stories lend a whole society an identity, whether true or false? And to conclude, is it possible for stories to change us and the world we live in? (3)
These questions stay in the background through the bulk of the text, and as Manguel warns, he’s not trying to provide a concrete solution to any of them. What follows is a meaningful cross-cultural journey through literature’s relationship to society and the self. Manguel doesn’t shy from digressions—from a discussion of the prevalence of dog-men in various pre-modern chronicles and their relation to the Other, to the way in which, until relatively recently, written words needed to be read aloud to gain meaning, to Inuit conceptions of time, history and landscape. It’s the kind of text that jumps from the myth of Cassandra in one sentence to 2001: A Space Odyssey in another, easily shifting across a wide range of time, space, and forms by which we experience stories.
In many ways, this meandering (yet entirely natural) style comes from the book’s beginning as a lecture. This marks the third time I’ve read a book that’s essentially a set of lecture notes; not sure what that says about me, but I do think Alberto Manguel was exactly the right person to undertake this sort of thing. Among other projects, Manguel co-wrote The Dictionary of Imaginary Places (which I’ve mentioned before), and his love of storytelling shines on every page. To Manguel, the act of storytelling is a fundamental part of being human, as the following quotations illustrate:
Stories are our memory, libraries are the storerooms of that memory, and reading is the craft by means of which we can recreate that memory by reciting it and glossing it, by translating it back into our own experience, by allowing ourselves to build upon that which previous generations have seen fit to preserve. (9)
Under certain conditions, stories can assist us. Sometimes they can heal us, illuminate us, and show us the way. Above all, they can remind us of our condition, break through the superficial appearance of things, and make us aware of the underlying currents and depths. Stories can feed our consciousness, which can lead to the faculty of knowing if not who we at least that we are, and essential awareness that develops through confrontation with another’s voice. (9-10)
Manguel makes often-surprising connections between literature and history, self-identity and cultural identity. I was especially delighted by Manguel’s focus on the Epic of Gilgamesh for a good chunk of the book, delving into one of our earliest stories of self and Other, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and how an Akkadian text reflected back on early Sumerian ones to express issues at the heart of Mesopotamian society. Stories, language and civilization are so intrinsically linked in Manguel’s analysis that you cannot understand one without understanding the others. “The relationship between a civilization and its language is symbiotic,” Manguel writes, “a certain kind of society gives rise to a certain kind of language; in turn, that language dictates the stories that inspire, mould, and later transmit the society’s imagination and thought” (63). A case further developed in Manguel’s impressive reading of Don Quixote against the backdrop of the Marrano and Morisco expulsion from Christian Spain; in fact, against the backdrop of Spain’s history from the Visigoth king Rodrigo to Cervantes’ time. This is, I think, the best sort of literary criticism, and my only real complaint about The City of Words is that it’s over far too soon.
The City of Words ends in ambiguity, and I think that was the point. It is certainty and ignorance we must fear, and the best literature expands horizons, provides us with a means to vicariously experience that which we cannot experience directly, and may therefore give us a means to escape our own narrow definitions of reality and empathise with humanity as a whole.
Literature is the opposite of dogma. A literary text lies constantly open to other readings, to other interpretations, perhaps because literature, unlike dogma, allows both for freedom of expression, and is, like those essential genes that grant us the power of imagination, self-reproductive. I find it moving that no literary text is utterly original, no literary technique is completely unique, that it stems from previous texts, built on quotations and misquotations, on the vocabularies fashioned by others and transformed through imagination and use. Writers must find consolation in the fact that there is no very first story and no very last one. Our literature reaches further back than the beginnings our memory permits us, and further into the future than our imagination allows us to conceive, but that must be the only barrier. (139)
So yes, The City of Words is a thought-provoking book, in the truest sense. Some might be baffled by it, others frustrated by the seeming lack of “about-ness” to the text, but I found it a deeply moving study of what it means to tell stories, to experience stories, and to be human.
The 2007 CBC Massey Lecture, from which this book emerged.
Alberto Manguel’s website, which includes a nice collection of essays for free readin’.