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book review

Alberto Manguel’s contemplative tone creates an atmosphere of brewing tea, of sitting with a friend to discuss important issues.

Alberto Manguel's newest book is an eloquent blend of philosophical review, literary audit and memoir. He's a writer interested in tackling big questions, but much like his previous books, A History of Reading and A Reader on Reading, Curiosity is also, fundamentally, about our relationship with the written word. Beginning with the premise that curiosity is an impulse that connects learning, imagination, development and progression, Manguel turns to the extensive catalogue of books (including philosophy, history and literature) that have marked his own life, for both clues and guidance. And what a life: Manguel, a renowned translator, editor, critic and writer, was born in Buenos Aires, and lived in Europe and the South Pacific before moving to Canada in 1982. The personal anecdotes, many from childhood, that start each chapter aren't overly revealing in the way we often expect contemporary memoir to be, but dramatic personal revelations aren't what we're after here. Instead, they work as suitable ice breakers for chapters that feature ambitious titles such as "How Do We Reason?" "What Are We Doing Here?" "What Is Language?" "Who Am I?" and "Why Do Things Happen?"

The most touching of these introductory reflections is perhaps Manguel's description of the stroke he suffered in 2013, when he found himself "unable to mouth the words except in a painfully protracted stutter." To confirm that his memory wasn't permanently damaged, he would recite pieces of literature by heart. It was poems by Saint John of the Cross, Edgar Allan Poe and large chunks of Dante that "echoed clearly in the darkness of my hospital room."

Along with an anecdote, each chapter opens with a print from a 15th-century edition of Dante's The Divine Comedy. In a (moderately) similar way that Rebecca Mead pays tribute to George Eliot in her excellent book, My Life in Middlemarch, so, too, has Manguel written an absorbing tribute to many of his favourite books, the most important and "all-encompassing" being Dante's epic 14th century poem. It's Dante's presence, along with Manguel's retrospection, that completes the organizational thrust of the book.

There are some diversions throughout the narrative that may irritate some people, but these digressions encourage the reader to do the same – to have fun among the density, to drift along with the wandering, yet clear, ideas and dissections. It doesn't matter if you agree with Manguel's analysis, or how swiftly he might jump from one inquiry to the next. He wants us to pause and think. Instead of sitting through a pedantic lecture, Manguel's contemplative tone creates an atmosphere of brewing tea, of sitting with a friend to discuss something like why Rachel Carson was actually anti-Aristotelian.

There are plenty of intriguing images and illustrations embedded within the text that help to place us in an earlier time, but a reader's experience with language can also be constructively reset with the help of Manguel. Unfamiliar, dated usage is exciting. We know (theoretically) how pliant language can be, but still require broad exposure to appreciate how versatile and adaptable it is. Reading Manguel's book is a pleasing reminder that time, as much as anything, changes our relationship with art, ideas, but also with language itself.

Reading new books (obviously) isn't bad. It's good. But, after stepping into Manquel's capacious library, only reading contemporary books would feel limiting. Manguel's is of course a new book, too, but its greatest effect might be its ability to gently turn a reader back. Not to find answers, but to uncover more questions.

"Every one of our achievements opens up new doubts and tempts us with new quests, condemning us for ever to a state of inquiring and exhilarating unease," he writes. "This is curiosity's inherent paradox."

Manguel is at home here, within the paradox, where a single question will inevitably lead to more. He's not trying to show the correct way, or reveal a concealed truth. He isn't trying to simplify or untangle. "Illusion," he writes, "is the only reality: This is perhaps what we mean when we say that a writer knows."

Manguel is our capable pilot, but stories are the fuel. Explanation isn't his goal. He's not hoping for resolution. After all the reading and thinking he's done, he's aspiring to start a dialogue, not finish one. Curiosity isn't his end, or even his target. It's his passport, his invitation to travel.

Iain Reid is the author of two memoirs and a forthcoming novel.

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