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The City of Words by Alberto Manguel ~ Saturday, December 27, 2008



I’m reading City of Words right now, by Alberto Manguel—it’s one of the Massey Lectures. The one from last year—this year was Margaret Atwood’s timely talk on debt, which doesn’t necessarily interest me much, unless someone tells me something about it that piques my curiosity.

I really like some of Manguel’s concepts and imagery, but am getting a little frustrated with his presentation. His writing doesn’t strike me as all that organized. It meanders somewhat, which I tend to dislike in non-fiction particularly. I love good, evocative non-fiction, certainly, but I feel like, for my tastes, it should actually have some purpose, and that should be clear from relatively early on. So, his second chapter, “The Tablets of Gilgamesh” is somewhat interesting, talking about the notion of the Other, but he only really gets to his core point 2/3rds or 3/4ths of the way through the chapter (before that it really does meander through anecdote and example).

Far too late, in my opinion. I feel like he ought to have begun with the evocation, then moved into some version of his overall point, before returning to the idea of the evocation. It would have required some skill, I admit, but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?

Writing for publication is about skill and structure and being able to convey your point, evocatively but also skillfully. That’s what communication is about, really. And it’s ironic, because certainly the first chapter of his book is a paean to communication via the written word. Ironically, it is rather opaque in its prose, for all that it poetically celebrates writing and narrative. I also found 3 or 4 typos/grammatical/stylistic errors in 27 pages. It feels like he got the final draft to the publisher at the very last moment and they chucked it into the workflow and printed the books up because they no longer had time to do up proofs. Wacky!

I did, however, enjoy many of the ideas that it dealt with, including the metaphor of Cassandra. He talks of how the most important truth-tellers (Manguel cites Alfred Döblin’s Berlin, Alexanderplatz) are able to speak this deeper, and often horrifying or unwelcome truth via fiction—and yet, because it is fiction, people are able to dismiss it as mere story. And so, like Cassandra, such visionaries are often met with disbelief and disdain.

::Posted by Anduril Elessar @ 11:55 AM::::

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Anduril Elessar
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Susan Deefholts

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