Where Have All The Stories Gone?

A brilliant reader champions narrative as our key to understanding chaos.

It is fitting that quotations taken from Lewis Carroll’s Alice books should be a connecting thread prefacing each work in Alberto Manguel’s new collection of essays, A Reader on Reading, an assembly of pieces previously published in Geist, TLS and elsewhere that explores Manguel’s passion for the printed word. Indeed, to examine the state of reading today is to admit that we have fallen very far down the proverbial rabbit hole with little sense of where we are going to land. The Wonderland of reading today, a strange landscape of floundering publishing houses, dying newspapers, digital reading devices, status updates, blogs, tweets, cell phone novels, indecipherable text-speak and illiterate youth, is as perplexing as Alice’s bizarre adventure.

The matter of how we consume text for pleasure and for purpose—on paper, on screen—has been made especially newsworthy by the recent release of devices such as the Apple iPad; but concerns about how we read are really secondary to questions about why we read and what value reading still has in our contemporary lives. No one is more qualified to address these questions than Manguel, whose essays in this collection, whether reflecting on the literary contributions of Jorge Luis Borges, challenging the label of gay literature or describing the ideal reader and the ideal library, all have at their thematic heart the conviction that “we come into the world intent on finding narrative in everything,” and that “words on a page give the world coherence.”

Such faith in the power of narrative to impose a sense of order and create meaning in our tumultuous times can admittedly seem unrealistic, and has been challenged in recent months by a number of writers and critics who increasingly renounce narrative, especially in the novel form, as a way of accurately reflecting the fragmented realities of 21st-century life. The avowal that the novel is dead is not new, but the argument being made by individuals such as American writer David Shields, author of the controversial book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, is that conventional fiction, in its teleological devotion to plot and resolution, guides readers into a false belief that there is such a thing as wholeness or coherence in the world. Never before, in Shields’s estimation, has fictional narrative been less equal to the task of representing “what it feels like to be alive right now.”

In our information-saturated, unfocused age, Shields—not surprisingly—advocates for briefer, more splintered forms of narrative, such as lyric essays, that do away with winding, imaginative yarns. Favouring a supposedly more authentic method of conveying current ideas and chaotic real-life experiences, he feels that our perceived hunger for more reality in our art can be satiated by literary forms that compulsively collect and juxtapose in a collage approach only the most relevant, disjointed, stripped-down, thematically rich chunks of contemporary culture and media. Borrow and build on what material is already here, Shields argues, stating that “anything that exists in the culture is fair game to assimilate into a new work, and having preexisting media of some kind in the new piece is thrilling in a way that ‘fiction’ can’t be.” Originality, in his opinion, is overrated and imagination is so yesterday. The art that we create and consume should confuse and destabilize, and he makes it clear that his own ambition with his writing is to “make every paragraph as discomfiting as possible.” Like Alice at the Mad Hatter’s table, who finds it impossible to participate in the nonsensical conversation, the ideal reader in Shields’s absurdist view cannot, and should not, engage in a rational dialogue with the writer.

In “A Reader in the Looking-Glass Wood,” Manguel recognizes all too well this growing and problematic impulse to read the world as a series of disconnected, superficial bits and pieces:

The impoverished mythology of our time seems afraid to go beneath the surface. We distrust profundity, we make fun of dilatory reflection. Images of horror flick across our screens, big or small, but we don’t want them slowed down by commentary: we want to watch Gloucester’s eyes plucked out but not to have to sit through the rest of Lear.

Manguel understands that to sit through the rest of Lear requires patience and deliberateness, a willingness to commit to deeper investigation and meaning-making. Rather than adopting the simplistic notion that traditional forms of reading cannot serve the culture or help us to know ourselves, he assures that “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. Not to trust the glittering surface of words but to burrow into the darkness.”

And yet trusting the glittering surface of words without burrowing deeper is exactly what so many of us are doing these days. As an English teacher in the Ontario college system, I am constantly confronted with what I and my colleagues view as a crisis in foundational literacy skills among our students. Emerging from high school, these young people do not possess the kinds of reading comprehension and analytical abilities we expect from them at the post-secondary level. They consistently display an inability to confidently and successfully tackle even their most basic reading and writing assignments. Without even a rudimentary fluency in English, a basic understanding of how language works and how patterns of thought are formed, and an ability to follow and scrutinize another’s line of reasoning, how can young people be expected to complete higher-level thinking tasks in school or the workplace? How, for instance, can they formulate a persuasive essay that responds to an author’s argument about a complex topic like human cloning? Doing so requires being able to decode the author’s ideas, to digest and assess those ideas, to understand the technique of persuasion, to determine one’s own position on the matter, and then to articulate that position on paper. This is a challenging enough task for those of us who have facility with language; it is virtually impossible for students who cannot read beyond the grade-school level.

Sidetracked by the cacophony of the world around them, students are disinclined, or simply unable, to move beyond a mere surface comprehension of issues, ideas and events shaping that very world. They aggressively form opinions for which they often have no supporting evidence, as in the case of one of my students, who informed me in a written assignment that same-sex schools dangerously promote homosexuality and have a potentially long-term negative effect on the population of countries. When quizzed about the means by which he arrived at this preposterous, not to mention discriminatory, conclusion, he could present no substantiation for his argument but continued to view it as valid simply because it was his opinion.

Reading, to students, really means being perpetually online, posting and scanning status updates, blogs, tweets and text messages, all in abbreviated, mangled forms of English that allow them on one hand to know intimate, hourly details about others (“Kathy is tired,” “Steve is looking forward to Friday,” “Jennifer is drinking coffee”), while on the other never actually developing more profound connections to them—the kinds of connections that may inspire creativity, acts of good will, self-knowledge and human progress. In “The Death of Che Guevara,” Manguel ponders the role narrative might have had in the development of the Argentinean revolutionary’s determination to take action against injustice: “At what point did he [Che] pass from lamenting the sorrows of this world, pitying the fate of the poor, and conversationally condemning the ruthless greed of those in power, to doing something about it, taking action against the unjust tide?” Citing Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” as one text to which Che may have been exposed, Manguel suggests that literature, when taken seriously, has the potential to inspire social activism and even heroism. One wonders, justly, if the kind of meagre narrative frequently found on Facebook and Twitter, for example, can inspire in the same meaningful and lasting way.

Today, the critical consideration, through explication or close reading, of an extended piece of narrative like “Civil Disobedience” drives many students further into themselves, their techno-­gadgets and the comfort of distraction from the task at hand, as they admit defeat before they even begin. Instead, this new Wikipedia generation of readers, with their drastically reduced attention spans, quite happily practises the kind of unimaginative knowledge-borrowing described by Shields. Comfortable and accustomed to allowing the works and words of others to speak on their behalf, sadly they make little attempt to forge new thought or contribute to a larger social and human narrative. In “The End of Reading,” an essay concerned in part with the effects of digital technology on reading, Manguel points out that

Librarians today are increasingly faced with a bewildering problem: users of the library, especially the younger ones, no longer know how to read competently. They can find and follow an electronic text, they can cut paragraphs from different Internet sources and recombine them into a single piece, but they seem unable to comment on and criticize and gloss and memorize the sense of a printed page. The electronic text, in its very accessibility, lends users the illusion of appropriation without the attendant difficulty of learning. The essential purpose of reading becomes lost to them, and all that remains is the collecting of information, to be used when required.

“How Pinocchio Learned to Read,” one of the most revealing essays in Manguel’s collection, speaks eloquently to any educator, to anyone at all, who is concerned about the broader consequences of a superficially literate youth. Manguel describes how Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio, whose greatest wish is to become a real boy, and therefore a real citizen of society, learns that in order to do so, he must learn to read:

But what does this mean, “to learn to read”? Several things.
• First, the mechanical process of learning the code of the script in which the memory of a society is encoded.
• Second, the learning of the syntax by which such a code is governed.
• Third, the learning of how the inscriptions in such a code can serve to help us know in a deep, imaginative, and practical way ourselves and the world around us.

For Pinocchio, the real challenge is to achieve the third, and in Manguel’s estimation, most important level of literacy. Only by understanding the cultural and historical significance of the words he reads will he become a fully realized individual, whose ability to use language to question and reflect will empower himself and others.

Unfortunately, for the little wooden puppet, as for real students of today, distractions and barriers abound, and his commitment to reading wavers, as “difficulty (in Pinocchio’s world as in our own) has acquired a negative sense which it did not always have.” In a sharp observation easily applied to the contemporary student, Manguel notes that “the Latin expression ‘per ardua ad astra,’ ‘through difficulties we reach the stars,’ is almost incomprehensible for Pinocchio (as for us) since everything is expected to be obtainable with the least possible expenditure.”

Ultimately, neither society nor the conventional education system, Manguel argues convincingly, will encourage Pinocchio or today’s students to continue the quest for true literacy because, he says, there is danger inherent in the educated citizen who is prepared to question and subvert authority. While his comments may hint at conspiracy, his logic is sound: “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 the language of extremism, sprouting up everywhere these days, reminding us that it has not disappeared.” In a world too apt to promote acceptance of the status quo, Manguel places unfairly the burden of responsibility on the teacher, imploring those in the teaching profession to “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.” Articulated in Manguel’s characteristically rousing style, these are ambitious and quixotic goals not easily achieved in the classroom, nor, regrettably, particularly valued in contemporary society.

Finally, Manguel, in his quiet confidence, defends the value of fiction in a way that puts David Shields and his ilk to shame. In “At the Mad Hatter’s Table,” he uses the analogy of the tea party, populated by the crazy characters Alice encounters in her Wonderland experience, to demonstrate the host of irrational, inexplicable and frequently frightening personalities, actions and perspectives we bring to the world table daily: “Alice and her Wonderland shadows play out for us the parts we enact in the real world. Their folly is tragic or amusing, they are themselves exemplary fools or they are eloquent witnesses to the folly of their shadowy brethren, they tell us stories of absurd or mad behavior which mirrors our own so that we may better see and understand it.” To accept and experience madness in the world without seeking explanation for its existence, and without trying, even if we fail, to understand our motives for cruelty and destruction, is to surrender our humanity. Fictional narratives, in Manguel’s interpretation, are a means by which we can safely and composedly examine the chaos of real life. Stories are where “our folly can be trapped in its own doings, made to repeat itself, made to enact its cruelties and catastrophes (and even its glorious deeds) but this time under lucid observation and with protected emotion, beneath the aseptic covering of words, lit by the reading lamp set over the open book.”

A thoroughly heartening and provocative collection, A Reader on Reading reaffirms the centrality of reading in a time of undeniable human struggle, ordeal and, even, possibility. Alice woke to find that her adventure in Wonderland, as bizarre and disorienting as it was, was merely a dream, and that there was still logic in the real world. Our reality may seem like an unbearable, disjointed and meaningless mess, often mirrored in art such as the type David Shields favours, but if we are to believe Manguel, the antidote may just be, as it has been for a very long time, the good old-fashioned story.