March 6, 2024

《A Reader on Reading》书摘


We come into the world intent on finding narrative in everything: in the landscape, in the skies, in the faces of others, and, of course, in the images and words that our species creates. We read our own lives and those of others, we read the societies we live in and those that lie beyond our borders, we read pictures and buildings, we read that which lies between the covers of a book.

unless you are reading for some purpose other than pleasure (as we all sometimes must for our sins), you can safely skim over difficult quagmires, cut your way through tangled jungles, skip the solemn and boring lowlands, and simply let yourself be carried by the vigorous stream of the tale.

In such cases of willful madness, reading helps us maintain coherence in the chaos. Not to eliminate it, not to enclose experience within conventional verbal structures, but to allow chaos to progress creatively on its own vertiginous way.

they offered nothing but what the senses could apprehend immediately, all at once, fleetingly, without space or time for reflection. Alice’s Looking-Glass Wood is not made up of such images: it has depth, it requires thought,

True experience and true art (however uncomfortable the adjective has become) have this in common: they are always greater than our comprehension, even than our capabilities of comprehension.

Gradually he lost his recollection of his own writings, and was delighted at rediscovering his own essays: ‘Why, these things are really very good,’ he told his daughter.”

I WASN’T GOING TO WRITE. For years the temptation kept itself at bay, invisible. Books had the solid presence of the real world and filled my every possible need,

At twelve I wasn’t willing to give over even a couple of evenings to the writing of a piece. What for? I settled comfortably back into my role as reader.

I was, of course, almost invisible to them, but from time to time one would notice me and ask: “Do you write?” My answer was always “No.” It was not that I didn’t wish, occasionally, to be like them and have my name on a book that other people would admire. It was simply that I was aware, very clearly, that nothing that I could produce would ever merit sitting on the same shelf as the books I loved.

But I listened. I heard Bioy discuss the need to plot carefully the successive episodes in a story so as to know exactly where the characters are headed, and then cover the tracks, leaving only a few clues for the readers to think that they are discovering something invisible to the writer. I heard Ocampo explain why the tragedy of small things, of ordinary people, was more moving than that of complex and powerful characters.

The idea for the book was Gianni’s: a serious guide to fictional countries, for which we read more than two thousand books, with an energy that one only possesses when one is young.

There was a lack of craft. Readers can tell when a sentence works or doesn’t, when it breathes and rises and falls to the beat of its own sense, or when it lies stiff as if embalmed. Readers who turn to writing can recognize this too, but they can never explain it.

Whatever I had not managed to convey in my novel wasn’t there, and no self-respecting reader would supply, out of nothing, the laughter and sorrow that I had left out. In this sense I’m always puzzled by the generosity with which certain readers agree to mend the deficiencies of dismal writers. Perhaps a book has to be not just mediocre but outright bad to elicit this Samaritan response.

Books refuse to sit quietly on shelves: Gulliver’s Travels jumps from “Chronicles” to “Social Satire” to “Children’s Literature” and will not be faithful to any of these labels. Our reading, much like our sexuality, is multifaceted and fluid. “I am large,” wrote Walt Whitman, “I contain multitudes.”

Doesn’t the word fiction imply the creation of an imagined rather than a physically experienced world?

Appropriating everyday language, undermining the bureaucratic use of common words, using the guerrilla tactics of the surrealists to fill the commonplace with a sense of danger — these are the things gay literature, like any literature of the oppressed, can do best.

Similarly, lesbian images are accepted — in fact, encouraged—in heterosexual male pornography, the fantasy being that these women are making love among themselves in expectation of the male to come. The heterosexual male code of honor is thereby preserved.

In ancient Greece and Rome, no moral distinction was made between homosexual and heterosexual love; in Japan, gay relationships were formally accepted among the samurai; in China, the emperor himself was known to have male lovers. Among the native people of Guatemala, gays are not seen as outsiders: “Our people,” said the native leader Rigoberta Menchú, “don’t differentiate between people who are homosexual and people who aren’t; that only happens when we go out of our society. What’s good about our way of life is that everything is considered a part of nature.”

The infinitely varying shapes and shades of sexual desire are not the pivot of everyone’s life, yet gay men find themselves defined through that single characteristic — their physical attraction to others of the same sex—notwithstanding that those who attract them run the gamut of the human male: tall, short, thin, fat, serious, silly, rough, dainty, intelligent, slow-witted, bearded, hairless, right wing, left wing, young, old, with nothing in common except a penis.

Once limited and defined by this grouping, the quarry can be taunted, excluded from certain areas of society, deprived of certain rights, sometimes arrested, beaten, killed.

Variety is the soul of pleasure. Aphra Behn, The Rover, Part 2

Every library has its shadow: the endless shelves of books unchosen, unread, rejected, forgotten, forbidden. And yet the exclusion of any subject from literature, whether by design of the reader or of the writer, is an inadmissible form of censorship that degrades everyone’s humanity

BETWEEN THE END OF HIGH school in Buenos Aires and the beginnings of a full-time publishing career in Europe, I spent a splendid decade in Paris and London reading in an almost perfectly haphazard way, dipping into books that were too expensive for me to buy, skimming over others that incautious friends had lent me, borrowing a few from public libraries for company rather than for instruction’s sake, and hardly ever finishing anything. No method, erudite order, sense of duty, or rigorous curiosity ruled my reading. In body as in mind, I drifted.

My Argentinean passport made it impossible for me to get a work permit in Europe, so I made a living selling painted leather belts, which I hawked on Carnaby Street and later in a store called Mr. Fish. My hour of glory came when Mick Jagger Himself bought one of my belts and wore it onstage during a concert. Life was never that magnanimous again.

Immigration officials are different. Whether French or British (especially in those days before the now quasi-borderless European Community), these clerks are ruled not by the Spirit of Justice but by the Phantom of Power, and they delight, like butchers, in holding in their cold hands your identity papers as if it were your liver or your shank. The officer behind the passport desk looked very much like Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. He cast pale blue eyes on my passport, raised them to look at me, looked back at the passport, and once again at me. What he saw seemed to make him immensely sad.

Suddenly I realized that, just as if I’d been confronted by his namesake in Heaven above, I had to give Peter a good reason to let me into his kingdom. My brain made a quick deduction. This man was a bureaucrat. Bureaucrats are impressed by officialdom. My father had been, fifteen years earlier, the Argentinean ambassador. There are few people more official than ambassadors. In my best pseudo-Argentinean accent, I told him that I had come to meet my father, the ex-Argentinean ambassador. Peter’s eyebrows arched ever so slightly. “And where are you to meet the … ehm … ambassador?” Again, my brain desperately scrambled for an answer. Once I had stayed at a Salvation Army hostel in London, just across from (what seemed to me at the time) a very chic hotel. I remembered the name.

The stories I liked best took place there; Chesterton and Dickens had made it familiar to me; it was what to others are the North Pole or Samarkand. And now, because of two pesky, prissy officials, it had become just as remote and unattainable. Bureaucracy, unfair immigration laws, power given to blue-eyed employees who are allowed to squeeze other people’s toothpaste seemed to me then (and now) despicable abominations. France, on the other hand, was the land of Freedom, Fraternity, Equality, though perhaps not in that order. I thought fondly of Robespierre. And that is how, in November 1970, I became a moderate anarchist.

Indeed: Who are we? The answers that we try to give throughout our unfolding lives are never utterly convincing. We are the face in the mirror, the name and nationality given to us, the sex that our cultures steadfastly define, the reflection in the eye of those we look at, the fantasy of the one who loves us and the nightmare of the one who hates us, the incipient body in the cradle and the motionless body in the winding sheet. We are all these things, and also their contrary, our self in the shadows.

Our identity, and the time and place in which we exist, are fluid and transient, like water.

said the Duchess: “and the moral of that is — ‘Oh, ’tis love, ’tis love, that makes the world go round!’” “Somebody said,” Alice whispered, “that it’s done by everybody minding their own business!” “Ah, well! It means much the same thing,” said the Duchess.

the Argentinean Communist Party (which, Ernesto Sábato once said, was indistinguishable from the Conservative Party because most of its senile members attended its meetings asleep). Communism, to Borges, who in his regretted youth had written a book of poems in praise of the Bolshevik Revolution, was anathema.

There was a long pause during which the journalist sat bewildered. Just as she was about to ask for an explanation of such a curious choice, Borges continued, “… have distanced me from the true image of the hero.”

Ocampo had the unsettling habit of springing questions on her guests, such as “How would you commit suicide, given the choice?”

After the night of her first meeting with Borges, Canto often had dinner at the Bioys’, dinners at which the conversation was lively, since Ocampo had the unsettling habit of springing questions on her guests, such as “How would you commit suicide, given the choice?”

Borges’s courting of Estela Canto lasted a couple of years, during which, she said, “he loved me and I was fond of him.” They would go for long walks or for aimless tram rides across the southern neighborhoods of Buenos Aires. Borges was fond of trams: it was on the number 7 tram, on his way to and from his miserable job at a municipal library, that he taught himself Italian by reading a bilingual edition of Dante’s Commedia.

Here, as a young man, he had spent a few happy summers with his family, reading; here, a desperately unhappy thirty-five-year-old man, he attempted suicide on 25 August 1934 (an attempt he commemorated in 1978, in a story set in the future called “25 August 1983”); here he set his metaphysical detective story, “Death and the Compass,” transforming Las Delicias into the beautifully named villa Triste-le-Roy.

Borges’s escape from Elsa was decidedly inglorious. Since divorce did not exist in Argentina, his only recourse was a legal separation. On 7 July 1970, his American translator, Norman Thomas di Giovanni, picked him up in a taxi at the National Library (where Borges had his office) and secretly accompanied him to the airport, where they caught a plane for Córdoba. In the meantime, instructed by Borges under di Giovanni’s guidance, a lawyer and three removal men rang the doorbell at Elsa’s flat with a legal writ and the order to take away Borges’s books. The marriage had lasted just under four years.

Once again, Borges felt that it was not his destiny to be happy. Literature provided consolation, but never quite enough, since it also brought back memories of each loss or failure,

all these were the men whose fate Borges felt he somehow shared. “Plato, who like all men, was unhappy …” began one of his lectures at the University of Buenos Aires. I think Borges felt this to be the inescapable truth.

the superb French Pléiade edition of his Oeuvres, so lovingly edited by Jean-Pierre Bernès that in my mind it almost supersedes the original Spanish. (Borges might not have minded: he once said of the English version of William Beckford’s Vathek, written in French, that “the original is unfaithful to the translation.”)

Roger Caillois, responsible for making Borges known in France (“I’m an invention of Caillois,” Borges said once), suggested that the master’s central theme was the labyrinth;

The essays are written in Borges’s slow, precise, asthmatic voice; as I turn the pages, I can hear his deliberate hesitations, the ironic questioning tone with which he liked to end his most original remarks, the solemn recitativo in which he would quote long passages from memory.

begins with a statement that he would have made in conversation with disarming simplicity

I am wary of seeing in one man’s reading, however brilliant that reading might be, a reflection of his own self; as Borges would no doubt argue, in his defense of the reader’s freedom to choose and to reject, not every book serves as a mirror for every one of its readers.

Argentina had remained neutral during World War II, but most of its military had supported Hitler and Mussolini. The rich upper classes, noted for their antisemitism, though they opposed Perón in almost everything else, remained silent about his pro-Nazi activities.

In 1948, to stifle the incipient protests of the Argentinean Jews, Perón decided to appoint an ambassador to the newly created state of Israel and chose my father, Pablo Manguel, for the post. Because my father was Jewish (the family had arrived from Europe and settled in one of Baron Hirsch’s colonies in the Argentinean interior), there was much opposition to his nomination, especially from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, traditionally staffed by Catholic nationalists. A Vatican-approved candidate was proposed, but Perón, who realized how much he needed the Jewish support, held firm.

In Perón’s Argentina, Jorge Luis Borges was one of the few intellectuals to speak out against the Nazis. As early as April 1934, in answer to an accusation by the editors of the nationalist magazine Crisol (that he “maliciously hid his Jewish ancestry”), Borges published a short text, “I, a Jew,” in which he acknowledged that he often delighted in imagining himself a Jew, but that, alas, he had not been able to trace a single Jewish ancestor in the past two hundred years of his family history

In such a state, in which good and evil are swept away with the same indifference, the events of the past will be reinvented and a false memory will be set up as truth. This is what happens in one of his later stories, “Utopia of a Man Who Is Tired.”

A dignified, self-effacing, intellectually honest man, Borges wished not to be remembered; he hoped that a few of his writings would survive, but to his own fame he was indifferent. He longed for personal oblivion (“to be forever but not to have been,” he says in a poem) and yet feared the capricious memory of History, or, rather, the capriciousness with which we tend to rewrite the facts of History to suit our meanest, basest impulses. That is why he despised politics (“the vilest of all human activities”) and believed in the truth of fiction and in our ability to tell true stories.

It is very difficult to give an English-speaking reader a sense of the atrocious style. Let me try:

which, he said, not only does not resemble anything by Borges but also “seems to have been written by a semi-illiterate person.”

He had invited her to dinner and was bringing her a present, no doubt a book.

Borges’s strategy is double-edged. On the one hand, he suggests (playfully, no doubt) that authorship is a casual, haphazard thing and that, given the right time and place, any writer might be the author of any text.

On the other hand, Borges suggests, it is the reader who determines the nature of a text through, among other things, attribution. The same text read as penned by one writer changes when read as penned by another.

No book is entirely innocent of connotations, and every reader reads not only the words on the page but the endless contextual waves that accompany his or her very existence. From such a point of view there are no “fakes,” merely different books which happen to share an identical text.

Borges’s own writings are full of such redemptive fakes.

Che had seen what we had seen, he had felt, as we had felt, outrage at the fundamental injustices of “the human condition,” but unlike us, he had done something about it.

Bookkeeping is an excellent word. Its present meaning is fully justified. In the brightest of our mornings, when writing was invented, the first human to scratch a readable sign on a piece of clay was not a poet but an accountant. The earliest examples of writing we have, now probably destroyed in the looting of the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad, are two small tablets that record a certain number of goats or sheep: the receipts, in fact, for a commercial transaction. Our first books were ledgers, and it should not surprise us that poets later retained the two essential characteristics of their accountant elders: the delight in making lists and the responsibility of keeping records.

Emblematically, blindness has a double and contradictory meaning. It is said to be vision-inspiring, supposed to open the inner eye, but it is also the reverse of sight, and stands for the quality of misguided judgment personified by the goddess Ate, the deity who causes mortals to make wrong decisions and become victims of undiscriminating Nemesis. The double quality of blindness is apparent in Homer’s poems.

And through this self-consciousness, or simultaneously with this self-consciousness, we acquired the gift of imagination.

This function enables us to learn by creating in the mind situations that do not materially exist in order to study them and overcome any difficulties they may present, to be used later when such situations arise in real life.

The old image of humans as stardust is scientifically true: our atoms belonged long ago to exploded stars. But as Darwinism has taught us, each species has evolved different methods to adapt to this material world, and our species acquired along the way the ability of self-consciousness, to know not only that we are on this earth but that we are on this earth. And through this self-consciousness, or simultaneously with this self-consciousness, we acquired the gift of imagination. Not imagination regarded as some flimsy, immaterial quality like that of the fantastical phlogiston which our great-grandparents thought to cause combustion, but as a biological human function such as eating or breathing. This function enables us to learn by creating in the mind situations that do not materially exist in order to study them and overcome any difficulties they may present, to be used later when such situations arise in real life. Battles are fought in the mind and strange landscapes explored before we ever have to take up arms or set upon our travels; the Iliad and the Odyssey are our preparation for every struggle and every displacement.

Perhaps in the same way, the reader too must acquire a positive blindness. Not blindness to the things of the world, certainly not to the world itself, nor to the quotidian glimpses it offers of bliss and horror. But blind to the superficial glitter and glamour of what lies all around us, as we stand erect in our selfish point of observation, a point that, because we stand in it, remains invisible to us and makes us believe that we are the center of the world, and that everything is ours for the taking. With greedy eyes we want everything to be made to our measure, even the stories we demand to be told. They should not be stories larger than ourselves, or stories of such minuteness that they take us inward, into our unacknowledged being, but merely adventures that are skin deep, easily perused and quick to grasp without causing the merest ripple. We are given to read neatly packaged books alike in size and color, which the industry tells us will entertain us without worry and lend us thoughts without reflection, offering us simple, ready-made models, ambitious, egotistical, and thin, to which we can aspire without giving up anything. We want our poets to be like the tyrant described in W.

The blind bard is a universal paradigm. Our Homer, creator of the mythical world on a human scale, required the one feature that prevents our senses from misleading us, from being distracted by a conventional reality, from being “programmed” (as we’d say today) by preconceived patterns of thought. But we too, the readers, on the other side of the page, require such a gift to keep us, as Rupert Brooke more accurately put it, from “being blinded by our eyes.” Such a gift, as Northrop Frye taught us, lies at the core of the true craft of reading.

At either end of our life we are alone, in the womb and in the grave, but the space in between is a common realm in which rights and responsibilities are defined by each of our neighbors’ rights and responsibilities, and every perjury, every falsehood, every attempt to conceal the truth damages everyone in that realm— including, in the final account, the liar himself.

Like Socrates, Don Quixote knows of the risks of attempting to prevent “a great many wrongs and illegalities from taking place in the state to which he belongs.” And for this, Don Quixote is deemed a madman.

But what precisely is his madness? Don Quixote sees windmills as giants and sheep as warriors, and has faith in enchanters and flying horses, but in the midst of all this fantasy, he believes in something as solid as the earth he treads: the obligatory need for justice.

This is the great paradox that Cervantes wants us to face: justice is necessary even if the world remains unjust.

Through cowardice, through ignorance, through arrogance, and, in fewer cases, through shame, most societies have at times denied or attempted to change certain culpable events in their past.

Joseph Stalin ordered that party members who had fallen from grace be deleted from official photographs so that no record of their political existence remain for future historians. Closer to our time, the Chinese Communist Party refused to acknowledge that the massacre at Tiananmen Square had ever taken place. The examples, alas, are endless.

As Don Quixote would argue, most acts of injustice are committed because those responsible know that they will not be made to face the consequences. Under such circumstances (and here we return to Socrates), it is every citizen’s duty “conscientiously” to try to prevent “a great many wrongs and illegalities from taking place in the state to which he belongs.” And that duty includes the active duty of memory, a secular ritual of atonement in which the guilty acts of the past are put into words for all to hear.

“I think I should understand that better,” Alice said very politely, “if I had it written down.” Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 9

There is an illumination in the sixteenth-century French manuscript Chants royaux du Puy de Rouen that depicts Christ as an apothecary, dispensing (at cost, I’m sure) the drugs of eternal life to Adam and Eve. I do not believe that this image is known to the trustees of GlaxoSmithKline.

I am tempted to say that perhaps this is all that literature really does. I am tempted to say that every book that allows a reader to engage with it asks a moral question. Or rather: that if a reader is able to delve beyond the surface of a given text, such a reader can bring back from its depths a moral question, even if that question has not been put by the writer in so many words, but its implicit presence elicits nevertheless a bare emotion from the reader, a foreboding or simply a memory of something we knew, long ago. Through this alchemy, every literary text becomes, in some sense, metaphoric.

A few years after Kafka’s death, Milena Jesenskà, the woman he had loved so dearly, was taken away by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp. Suddenly life seemed to have become its reverse: not death, which is a conclusion, but a mad and meaningless state of brutal suffering, brought on through no visible fault and serving no visible end. To attempt to survive this nightmare, a friend of Milena’s devised a method: she would resort to the books she had read, stored in her memory.

in all these catastrophes, the survivors may have sought in a book, as did Milena’s friend, some respite from grief and some reassurance of sanity. For a reader, this may be the essential, perhaps the only justification for literature: that the madness of the world will not take us over completely though it invades our cellars (the metaphor belongs to Machado de Assis) and then softly takes over the dining room, the living room, the whole house.

Of all this we are aware, as we also aware the old trusims: that violence breeds violence, that all power is abusive, that fanaticism of any kind is the enemy of reason, that propaganda is propaganda even when it purports to rally us against iniquity, that war is never glorious except in the eyes of the victors, who believe that God is on the side of large armies. This is why we read, and why in moments of darkness we return to books: to find words and metaphors for what we already know.

What is this value? This is the best answer I know: “Value does not carry whatever it is written on its forehead. Instead, it transforms each of the fruits of labor into a hieroglyph. In time, man seeks to decipher the meaning of the hieroglyph, to penetrate the secrets of the social creation to which he contributes, and this transformation of useful objects into objects of value is one society’s creations, just like language itself.” The author of this splendid discovery is the sadly ill-reputed Karl Marx.

I am not certain that a piece of writing, any writing, however brilliant and moving, can affect the reality of South Africa’s AIDS sufferers, or any other reality.

The need to indicate the end of a written phrase is probably as old as writing itself, but the solution, brief and wonderful, was not set down until the Italian Renaissance. For ages, punctuation had been a desperately erratic affair. Already in the first century a.d., the Spanish author Quintilian (who had not read Henry James) had argued that a sentence, as well as expressing a complete idea, had to be capable of being delivered in a single breath. How that sentence should be ended was a matter of personal taste, and for a long time scribes punctuated their texts with all manner of signs and symbols, from a simple blank space to a variety of dots and slashes. In the early fifth century, Saint Jerome, translator of the Bible, devised a system, known as per cola et commata, in which each unity of sense would be signaled by a letter jutting out of the margin, as if beginning a new paragraph. Three centuries later, the punctus, or dot, was used to indicate both a pause within the sentence and the sentence’s conclusion. Following such muddled conventions, authors could hardly expect their public to read a text in the sense they had intended.

RENÉ DESCARTES BELIEVED THAT monkeys could speak but preferred to remain silent in order not to be forced to work.

Poetry, in fact, is proof of our innate confidence in the meaningfulness of wordplay. That we should trust rhyme to lend meaning or alliteration to express a thought is not too far from the spirit of the Renaissance necromancers who believed that the secret name of Rome was Roma spelled backwards. (What hope is there for Vancouver, which magically reads Revuocnav— “Revue of Knaves” in the Evenki tongue, or Toronto, which reveals itself as Otnorot, “The Rot of Otno” in Esperanto?)

The page is the reader’s space; it is also the reader’s time. Like the changing numbers of an electronic clock, the pages mark the numbered hours, a doom to which we, the readers, are called to submit. We can slow down or speed up our reading, but whatever we do as readers, the passing of time will always be clocked by the turning of a page. The page limits, cuts, extends, censors, reshapes, translates, stresses, defuses, bridges, and separates our reading, which we arduously attempt to reclaim. In this sense, the act of reading is a power struggle between reader and page over the dominion of the text. Usually, it is the page that wins.

Reading on the screen precludes (up to a point) the time-restricting quality of reading on paper. The scrolling text (like that of the Roman or Greek scrolls) unfurls at a pace that is not dictated by the dimensions of the page and its margins. In fact, on the screen, each page shifts shape endlessly, remaining the same in size but altering its content, since the first and last line keep changing as we scroll, always within the fixed frame of the screen. Though reading a long text on the screen is thoroughly inconvenient (for physiological reasons that may, no doubt, change as we evolve), it does free us (if we want to be freed) from the very temporal realization of progress illustrated by the thickening bulk of pages held in the left hand and the diminishing bulk of pages held by the right.

Dante, like every poet, repeats the words of the Unicorn to Alice through the Looking-Glass: “If you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you. Is that a bargain?”

For Dante, for the Dante we come to know, the Commedia is not a fiction: it is the enactment in words of a truth, that of salvation from the suffering of the world.

They argue for a divided or graded reading (literal, allegorical, analogical, anagogical), when in fact, as Dante no doubt knew, no reader proceeds in such an orderly fashion. All or none of these levels takes priority in the act of reading.

His Quixote, if we can credit at least in part the modest disclaimer placed at the beginning of the first volume, was for Cervantes something lamentably minor. “What could this barren and ill-cultivated spirit of mine produce but the story of a dry, wizened son, whimsical and full of all manner of notions never before conceived?” he asks the reader. On his deathbed, intent on judging his own labors, Cervantes concludes that the Persiles, or perhaps his long, poetic unfinished Galatea, is to be his literary testament. Readers have decided otherwise, and it is Don Quixote that lives on as our contemporary, while the rest of Cervantes’s work has largely become fodder for scholars. Don Quixote now stands for the whole of Cervantes’s work, and perhaps for Cervantes himself. Like Cervantes, we are mostly unaware of our destiny. Cursed with consciousness, we understand that we are on this earth on a journey that, like all journeys, must have had a beginning and will no doubt reach an end, but when was the first step taken and which will be the last, where are we meant to be traveling to and why, and in expectation of what results, are questions that remain implacably unanswered.

Not knowing what they are meant to do but feeling that they must know when they have done it: this paradox haunts artists from the beginning of time. Artists have always been aware that they engage (or have been recruited for) a task whose ultimate purport must escape them. They may realize, sometimes, that they have achieved something without understanding exactly what or how, or may guess that they are on the verge of achieving something that will, however, escape them, or that they have been allotted a task defined by the very impossibility of being achieved.

Certainly from our distance as readers, their work seems self-sufficient, mature, perfect. But did the artists see it as such?

The paradigm is Dante, who, in writing his great poem knows that it is great and tells the reader it is so. For most others, however, the learning of the craft never ceases, and no resulting work is fully achieved. Witness the following confession: “From the age of six I felt the compulsion to draw the shape of things. In my fifties, I showed a collection of drawings, but nothing accomplished before I turned seventy satisfies me. Only at seventy-three was I able to intuit, even approximately, the true form and nature of birds, fish, and plants. Therefore, by the age of eighty I will have made great progress; at ninety I will have penetrated the essence of all things; at a hundred, I will no doubt have ascended to a higher state, indescribable, and if I live to be a hundred and ten years old, everything, every dot and every line, will live. I invite those who will live as long as I to hold me to my promise. Written in my seventy-fifth year by myself, formerly known as Hokusai, now called Huakivo-Royi, the old man maddened by drawing.”

We would be missing the approximations, the tentative versions, the variations, the changes of tone and perspective, the circuitous itineraries, the circumventions, the dealings in the shadows, the rest of their creative universe. We would be missing the errors, the stillbirths, the censored snapshots, the trimmings, the lesser inspired creations. Since we are not immortal, we have to content ourselves with a sampling, and therefore the choice of testamentary works is fully justified. As long as we remember that under the pomp and circumstance there is a rustle and a stirring, a vast, dark, rich forest full of fallen or discarded leaves.

THE IDEAL READER IS THE writer just before the words come together on the page. The ideal reader exists in the moment that precedes the moment of creation. Ideal readers do not reconstruct a story: they re-create it. Ideal readers do not follow a story: they partake of it.

For the ideal reader all devices are familiar. For the ideal reader all jokes are new. “One must be an inventor to read well.” Ralph Waldo Emerson. The ideal reader has an unlimited capacity for oblivion and can dismiss from memory the knowledge that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are one and the same person, that Julien Sorel will have his head cut off, that the name of the murderer of Roger Ackroyd is So-and-so.

Stendhal’s ideal reader: “I write for barely a hundred readers, for unhappy, amiable, charming beings, never moral or hypocritical, whom I would like to please; I know barely one or two.”

Pinochet, who banned Don Quixote because he thought it advocated civil disobedience, was that book’s ideal reader.

The ideal reader is a ruthless enforcer of the rules and regulations that each book creates for itself. “There are three kinds of readers: one, who enjoys without judging; a third, who judges without enjoying; another in the middle, who judges while enjoying and enjoys while judging. The last class truly reproduces a work of art anew; its members are not numerous.” Goethe, in a letter to Johann Friedrich Rochlitz.

But society does not encourage this necessary search for difficulty, this increase in experience. Once Pinocchio has suffered his first misadventures and accepted school and become a good student, the other boys begin to attack him for being what we would today call “a nerd” and laugh at him for “paying attention to the teacher.” “You talk like a printed book!” they tell him. Language can allow the speaker to remain on the surface of thought, mouthing dogmatic slogans and commonplaces in black and white, transmitting messages rather than meaning, placing the epistemological weight on the listener (as in “you know what I mean?”). Or it can attempt to re-create an experience, give shape to an idea, explore in depth and not only on the surface the intuition of a revelation. For the other boys, this distinction is invisible. For them, the fact that Pinocchio speaks “like a printed book” is enough to label him an outsider, a traitor, a recluse in his ivory tower.

As teachers, they are useless, because they believe themselves accountable only to society, not to the student.

In Alice’s world, language is restored to its essential rich ambiguity and any word (according to Humpty Dumpty) can be made to say what its speaker wishes it to say. Though Alice refuses such arbitrary assumptions (“ But ‘glory’ does not mean ‘a well-rounded argument,” she tells him), this free-for-all epistemology is the norm in Alice’s world.

A teacher is forever caught in this double bind: to teach in order to make students think on their own, while teaching according to a social structure that imposes a curb on thinking.

School, in Pinocchio’s world as in most of ours, is not a training ground for becoming a better, fuller child but an initiation place to the world of grownups, with its conventions, bureaucratic requirements, tacit agreements, and caste system. There is no such thing as a school for anarchists, and yet, in some sense, every teacher must teach anarchism, must teach the students to question rules and regulations, to seek explanations in dogma, to confront impositions without bending to prejudice, to demand authority from those in power, to find a place from which to speak their own ideas, even if this means opposing, and ultimately doing away with, the teacher herself.

But in most societies, the intellectual act has no prestige whatsoever. The budget allotted to education is the first to be cut; most of our leaders are barely literate; our national values are purely economical.

Almost everything around us encourages us not to think, to be content with commonplaces, with dogmatic language that divides the world neatly into white and black, good and evil, them and us.

This is a language that pretends to communicate but, under several guises, simply bullies; it expects no answer except obedient silence. “Be sensible and good,” the Blue Fairy tells Pinocchio in the end, “and you’ll be happy.” Many a political slogan can be reduced to this inane piece of advice.

Voltaire would have agreed. Voltaire, above all the philosophers of the Enlightenment, wished us to act as if we, and not a Divine Commander, were accountable for the consequences of our acts.

In Shakespeare’s time, the erotic borrowing of the geographical vocabulary had become sufficiently common to be parodied. In The Comedy of Errors the slave Dromio of Syracuse describes to his master the dubious charms of the wench lusting after him— “she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out countries in her”— and proceeds to discover Ireland in her buttocks, Scotland in the barren palm of her hand, America upon her nose,

Pornography must faithfully embrace official normality in order to contravene it for no other purpose than immediate arousal.

For the mystic, the whole universe is one erotic object, and the whole body (mind and soul included) the subject of erotic pleasure. The same can be said of every human being who discovers that not only penis and clitoris are places of pleasure but also the hands, the anus, the mouth, the hair, the soles of the feet, every inch of our astounding bodies. That which physically and mentally excites the senses and opens for us what William Blake called “the Gates of Paradise” is always something mysterious, and, as we all eventually find out, its shape is dictated by laws of which we know nothing. We admit to loving a woman, a man, a child. Why not a gazelle, a stone, a shoe, the sky at night?

But reading out loud was not only considered normal, it was also considered necessary for the full comprehension of a text.

This accounts for the difference in the vocabulary used by Augustine and myself to describe the act of reading. Augustine spoke of “devouring” or “savoring” a text— a gastronomical imagery derived from a passage in Ezekiel, in which an angel commands the prophet to eat a book, an image repeated later in the Revelation of Saint John. I instead speak of “surfing” the Web, of “scanning” a text. For Augustine, the text had a material quality that required ingestion. For the electronic reader, the text exists only as a surface that is skimmed as he or she “rides the waves” of information from one cyber area to another.

So why do we fear the change? It is unlikely that reading will lose, in the electronic revolution, its aristocratic qualities.

And while Gutenberg’s printing press, re-creating the miracle of the loaves and fishes, multiplied one same text a thousand times, every reader proceeds to individualize his or her copy with scribbles, stains, markings of different sorts, so that no copy, once read, is identical to another.

Our fears are endemic fears, rooted in our time. They do not branch into the unknowable future; they demand a conclusive answer, here and now. “Stupidity,” wrote Flaubert, “consists in a desire to conclude.” Indeed. As every reader knows, the point, the essential quality of the act of reading, now and always, is that it tends to no foreseeable end, to no conclusion. Every reading prolongs another, begun in some afternoon thousands of years ago and of which we know nothing; every reading projects its shadow onto the following page, lending it content and context. In this way the story grows, layer after layer, like the skin of the society whose history the act preserves.

Understandably, because they were written with the exuberance and know-all of youth, the stories stray from time to time from sober blue to lurid purple. Since translators, unlike writers and God Himself, have the possibility of amending the faults of the past, it seemed to me that to preserve every glitter and volute of Yourcenar’s young text would have been nothing but a pedantic undertaking, less intended for lovers of literature than for literary archaeologists. Furthermore, the English language is less patient with ebullience than French. And so it was that a few times— mea culpa, mea maxima culpa— I silently clipped an adjective or pruned a simile.

No translation is ever innocent. Every translation implies a reading, a choice both of subject and interpretation, a refusal or suppression of other texts, a redefinition under the terms imposed by the translator, who, for the occasion, usurps the title of author.

If we acknowledge that every translation, simply by transferring the text to another language, space, and time, alters it for better or for worse, then we must also acknowledge that every translation— transliteration, retelling, relabeling—adds to the original text a prêt-à-porter reading, an implicit commentary.

Even the most inexperienced writers of fiction know that if they are to be published at all, their manuscripts must pass through the hands of professionals known as “editors,” employed by publishing companies to read the books under consideration and recommend changes they think appropriate. (This paragraph you are now reading will not be the paragraph I originally wrote, since it will have to undergo the inquisition of an editor; in fact, when an earlier version of this essay was published in Saturday Night magazine, this sentence was cut out completely.)

Recognition of the profession of editor is not so ancient or widespread as the Anglo-Saxon public might suppose. In the rest of the world it is virtually unknown: even in England it appeared almost two centuries and a half after the introduction of the printing press. The Oxford English Dictionary gives 1712 as the earliest date for the mention of editor with the meaning “one who prepares the literary work of another,” used by Joseph Addison in The Spectator to specify someone working on material the author had either finished or left incomplete. Perhaps this was the meaning William Hazlitt, intent on reaffirming the writer’s sole responsibility in a text, had in mind when he remarked, “It is utterly impossible to persuade an Editor that he is nobody.”

attempted to elucidate: “Editors have several functions,” he writes, “which vary in number according to the size and complexity of the publishing house. They may include acquiring rights to publish book projects; selling subsidiary rights; developing plans for promotion and marketing; writing copy for book jackets;… overseeing production; and proofreading. And, of course, editing.”