Cleverly using the story of Pinocchio (Carlo Collodi's original version, not Disney's), as a framing narrative for his talk, Manguel insisted that it is not enough for Pinocchio (and our society) to just learn the basic mechanics of reading. Pinocchio learns his alphabet and the rudimentary skills of reading, but he never becomes a true reader because of the obstacles that society (in this case, his school) put in his way. His fellow students mock him with the insult, "You talk like a printed book" and throw heavy tomes at him. There are constant temptations to veer him away from books. His "moral guides" are continually telling him that books won't feed an empty stomach and neglect to instruct him on the true value of reading - that books can not only be sources of revelation but that one can see one's own life reflected in them and the literary traditions that all books cull from. All Pinocchio is left with is the ability to parrot the words without digesting them; he is trained to repeat society's propaganda, but not to question it.
"In Canada, the intellectual act has no prestige whatsoever," Manguel said. "Most of our leaders are barely literate; our values purely economical." He pointed out that it is very easy to become superficially literate but that time and a deliberate effort are the two essential requirements of the act of reading (what the Slow Reading movement is all about). Reading, unlike so much of what the contemporary consumer desires, is never obtainable with the least possible effort, and schools and libraries need to continue to be advocates for the printed word. He is by no means anti-internet which he recognizes as an invaluable tool, but he warns that we have to be careful not to privilege the "container over the content". Judging from the number of librarians who, during the Q & A session lamented the greater allocation of budgets towards computers at the expense of books, and the mentality that makes them slaves of circulation numbers, Manguel hit quite a few nerves. But as he pointed out, it's not just about providing the public with what they want, but to also provide them with what they don't yet know they need.
Hear, hear! It was a terrific talk. You can read the crux of it on his website here. Just click under "Notebook" and then "Essays". You can also check out his recommended reading suggestions (with a real international flair - Manguel is fluent in six languages!). His favourite books for 2007, for example, include My Uncle Napoleon by Iranian author Iraj Pezeshkzad, Hungarian writer Sándor Márai 's The Rebels (I concur - all his books have been Dewey picks for me - Esther's Inheritance will be out this fall), a Spanish classic, Nada by Carmen Foret, and the latest collections from two Canadian poets - Margaret Atwood's The Door and Lorna Crozier's The Blue Hour of the Day.
And if you are inspired to read the original Pinocchio, NYRB books is publishing a new translation this fall by Geoffrey Brock, with an introduction by Umberto Eco. Don't you just love the cover?
I took Alberto out to lunch following his very long signing session, and he was so delightful to chat with. We talked non-stop about books from the bread rolls to the dessert. These are the days when I truly, truly, love my job.