For Christmas, a proposal that will outlive the clutter and all other kindnesses

December 21, 1997|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

If you are of a mind this Christmas to do a kindness, let it be this: Once during that day, spend no less than a half-hour reading aloud or being read to. Please do that with the seriousness and abandon and the singlemindedness that are appropriate to sacraments both spiritual and secular.

The text can be almost anything, so long as it is a single continuous piece of writing - somebody's traditional favorite, a chapter at random from a book for which you have strong feeling or imagine you might. A fine encyclopedia entry. A piece of an old diary.

Even if you are a nonbeliever - or a believer of non-Christian persuasion - you will not regret reading the first nine chapters of the Gospel According to St. Luke, in the King James version.

This I promise you: If you give that half-hour your all, it may very well provide more pleasure than any material thing you give or get this season, and - almost certainly - you will remember the experience long after you have forgotten all the other gifts.


The answers lurk deep in history, or in independent histories. I know of no more enchanting exploration of them than "A History of Reading," by Alberto Manguel (Viking/Penguin. 372 pages. $26.95 hardcover; $14.95 paperback).

Mining glories

This is a book worth having. You will not be sorry to spend that half-hour or so reading aloud from page 177 onward, as Manguel explores the very beginnings of writing and reading, concluding, among other glories, that:

"The primordial relationship between writer and reader presents a wonderful paradox: in creating the role of the reader, the writer also decrees the writer's death, since in order for a text to be finished the writer must withdraw, cease to exist. ... At that point, the existence of the text is ... silent until the moment in which a reader reads it. ... All writing depends on the generosity of the reader."

Manguel's book is not only a celebration of reading, but also - and more importantly - a celebration of all life, for he renders life unimaginable without the capacity to read. To me, today, it is particularly telling that this splendidly accessible yet scholarly work, examining its subject through a vast array of historic documents and artwork, concludes that "reading out loud was the norm from the beginnings of the written word."

So deeply so, he notes, that "the primordial languages of the Bible - Aramaic and Hebrew -do not differentiate between the act of reading and the act of speaking; they name both with the same word."

It is a lovely book, for Manguel has a wonderfully learned and eloquent mind, ennobled by genuine respect for readers, for clarity. Such work more effectively assaults pomposity, pretentiousness and obscuranatism than all the scorching attacks of critics.

As simple as it is, reading is also the one sole road of access to bTC the enrichments of complexity, allegory, paradox - without which human lives and human minds would be precisely as capable of delight or wisdom as those of the brighter members of the hamster family.

Finding meanings

In all Manguel's 372 pages of celebration, I find no more deliciously instructive passage than his recitation on the meanings of "The Metamorphosis," the short story by Franz Kafka (1883 - 1924):

"My daughter Rachel read Metamorphosis at 13 and thought it humorous; Gustav Janouch, Kafka's friend, read it as a religious and ethical parable; Bertolt Brecht read it as the work of 'the only true Bolshevist writer'; the Hungarian critic Gyorgy Lukacs read it as the typical product of a decadent bourgeois; Borges read it as a retelling of the paradoxes of Zeno; the French critic Marthe Robert read it as an example of the German language at its clearest; Vladimir Nabokov read it (partly) as an allegory on adolescent Angst. The fact is that Kafka's stories, nourished by Kafka's reading experience, offer and take away, at the same time, the illusion of understanding; they undermine, as it were, the craft of Kafka the writer in order to satisfy Kafka the reader."

If that seems puzzling, go through it again. It is not. And though there are endless other ways to make its point, Manguel's little model serves fine even if you have never read "Metamorphosis."

Manguel's insistence on perspective offers added excitement to any moment of reading, any but the most utilitarian kind. It can dramatically enrich the experience of reading aloud, especially of reading aloud to children.

As you do your Christmas reading, think about that point: Certainty is the deadly enemy of the mind. The truths that are found in literature - in all art - happen in the eye and consciousness of the beholder.

That idea may assault the earnestly doctrinaire. But, then, the minds of the intensely doctrinaire are already numb beyond awakening. They are terrified of complexity, allegory, paradox.

Proof and promises

The allegory of this season is birth, regeneration, be that celebrated as strictly Christian, anciently pagan or - as Victoria // Brownworth explores elsewhere on these pages today - fiercely secular.

There is no braver proof of the immortality of humankind, no richer promise - and thus no greater mystery - than birth. It is the opening of fresh hope, the reassertion of life's infinite possibilities.

Few of those possibilities would matter much or long be remembered were it not for writing - and particularly for reading.

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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