A reader sent me a link to an essay by a writer whose name I have seen for decades but whose work I have never read: Alberto Manguel. I’m not certain what has kept me away. Perhaps it’s my glibness detector, which is the same reason I’ve never read Umberto Eco and feel no urge to correct the lapse. “Notes Towards a Definition of the Ideal Reader” is less essay than list, and is collected in A Reader on Reading (Yale University Press, 2009). In that volume it carries an epigraph from Through the Looking-Glass:
“`Let’s hear it,’ said Humpty Dumpty. `I can explain all the poems that ever were invented –and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet.’”
That’s another of my prejudices, one I feel no need to defend: Writers who use whimsical quotations from Lewis Carroll. But on to Manguel’s essay, which amounts to seven pages of sentences, most beginning with some variation on the phrase “The ideal reader is . . .” The first dozen or so would-be aphorisms are not promising, until Manguel’s sense of humor kicks in: “The ideal reader has no interest in the writings of Brett Easton Ellis.” There’s the name of another writer I’ve never read, but instinctively I know it’s prudent to agree with Manguel. Of course, a bottomless supply of other names could be inserted. Just to pick on the Canadians: Margaret Atwood, Douglas Coupland, Anne Carson, Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munro and the rest.
Manguel is right about this: “The ideal reader is a cumulative reader: every time he reads a book he adds a new layer of memory to the narrative.” Which is why I devote so much of my reading time to rereading. Memories of one’s earlier readings of a book serve as comparative supplements to the original volume, and accentuate one’s enjoyment. A barren stretch follows – psychobabble clichés, New Age horseshit – though “The ideal reader enjoys using a dictionary” is predictable but always worth repeating. Then he returns to the subject of rereading, and cites the final statement on that theme: “The ideal reader treads the beaten path. `A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.’ Vladimir Nabokov.” That’s from Lectures on Literature (1980). Next comes another patch of nonsense (“The ideal reader proselytizes” and “The ideal reader is guiltlessly whimsical.” No, never).
With his final entry, Manguel comes to his senses: “Literature depends, not on ideal readers, but merely on good enough readers.” A good enough reader is tough, smart and pleasure-driven. He’s not afraid to dump a lousy book, regardless of what critics and book clubs say. He’s immune to “buzz” and doesn’t restrict his reading to that provincial little realm known as “The Present.”