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The City of Words (CBC Massey Lecture) (2007)

by Alberto Manguel

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This is a brilliant ramble of a book, and I felt as though I were on a long meandering walk-and-chat with one of the smartest, most thoughtful people I know. I've been lucky enough to met Manguel a few times and every time we bump into each other I'm struck by what a scholar and a gentleman he is. These attributes are evident throughout the work.

I love all his books, for they make me think, and if I leave their covers asking more questions, filled with more curiosity about the world and book and language than I was before, I think this is all to the good. Manguel trusts his reader to be engaged with the world, to question and to read and to drawn his/her own conclusions, even as he encourages the reader to think, read and live more deeply.

In this collection of essays on the power of language and story, Manguel’s erudition shines on every page. He ranges from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the writings of the ancient Greeks, to the Bible to Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

This is a trek through literature’s relationship to society and the self and it is full of the most marvelous digressions—Inuit conceptions of space and time, the myth of Cassandra, Don Quixote---and all of them interesting.

At the core is Manguel's belief that storytelling is an essential and fundamental aspect of being human. Consider:

"Stories are our memory, libraries are the storerooms of that memory, and reading is the craft by means of which we can recreate that memory by reciting it and glossing it, by translating it back into our own experience, by allowing ourselves to build upon that which previous generations have seen fit to preserve."

and:

"Under certain conditions, stories can assist us. Sometimes they can heal us, illuminate us, and show us the way. Above all, they can remind us of our condition, break through the superficial appearance of things, and make us aware of the underlying currents and depths. Stories can feed our consciousness, which can lead to the faculty of knowing if not who we at least that we are, and essential awareness that develops through confrontation with another’s voice. "

His discussion of the historical idea of the 'other' and how it has haunted us from the earliest writings of the Greeks, to present day political policies, is alone worth the price of the book.

Highly recommended. ( )
  Laurenbdavis | Apr 20, 2012 |
Compared with Manguel's other books, this is probably not his best effort. But it is still deliciously erudite and literary without a whiff of pretension, far beyond what most other essayists could ever attempt. While I have a soft spot for anything touching on Don Quixote, it is the final chapter critiquing the state of publishing and reading in our society that should draw special attention. ( )
  dono421846 | Jan 27, 2012 |
Empathy is often mistaken for sympathy. Sympathy is about loving your neighbour; empathy is about loving your enemy. Nice idea, but is it possible? In the City of Words, Alberto Manguel shows how stories are our first clue to the existence of others, and how the creative use of language allows us to understand those quite different than ourselves, so that we may together build a civilized society.

According to legend, Cassandra had both the gift of prophecy and a curse that no one would believe her. No one heeded her prediction of the fall of Troy. Such is the state of storytellers across time. Their language suggests ideas that do not conform to the current Zeitgeist. So the poets were excluded from Plato’s republic, and the literate were persecuted in Nazi Germany. Outsiders. But we need these stories; they serve a vital purpose in unfixing inapt labels, and animating lifeless dogma.

One of our oldest stories, that of Gilgamesh, tells of the discovery of “other”. Gilgamesh is a tyrant king who discovers a wild man, Enkidu, outside the city walls. Gilgamesh brings him into the city, and they become brothers, together more powerful and wonderful than before. We see our evil twin, or doppelganger in many things, including the technology which we fear will supplant us. If we can imagine a way to integrate these perceived evils, we can create a better society.

In the story of Babel, a plan to build a tower to heaven was thwarted by God when he confused the tongues of the builders. Language began as a tool to identify things and keep stock, and without a common language it is difficult to work together; ask the foreigners who come to our cities. But words are not simply our tools; they often take us places we did not expect. It is imagination that gives a sense of hope, progress and the future. Writers create stories in which readers find a hopeful reflection; their interest in turn creates writers to tell more stories. The presence of many tongues can be a blessing, bringing new stories. It may be better to think of the future as an unending stream of stories than a single project or conclusion. Don Quixote is a tale of a hero who does not necessarily win his battle, but moves us with his aspiration.

The theme of the evil foreigner who must be destroyed plays itself out in other stories, often with a chilling outcome. In Jack London’s The Assassin’s Bureau, the assassin’s own rules eventually force him to kill himself. In Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey 2001, the computer Hal is forced to see the spaceship’s occupants as obstacles that must be killed. In our society, advertising is the new storytelling, the book industry has become business not culture, and the consequences are becoming clearer. The machines of our economics are zeroing in on us. Manguel warns that literature is essential to disrupting this narrow path, to allowing other futures to be imagined, and a better society to be built.

http://johnmiedema.ca/2008/02/05/the-city-of-words-by-alberto-manguel-book-revie... ( )
  jmiedema | May 15, 2008 |
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Epigraph
''The love of liberty is the love of others; the love of power is the love of ourselves.''
- William Hazlitt, Political Essays, 1819
Dedication
To Alice, Rachel, and Rupert, to Nathan, Amanda, Naomi and Andrew -
who will no doubt find their own stories.
First words
AFTER THE TWO World Wars of the past century, the exercise of assembling and disassembling countries gave birth to two opposing impulses.
Quotations
Stories are our memory, libraries are the storerooms of that memory, and reading is the craft by which we can recreate that memory by reciting it and glossing it, by translating it back into our own experience, by allowing ourselves to build upon that which previous generations have seen fit to preserve.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0887847633, Paperback)

The end of ethnic nationalism — building societies that promote civic nationalism with universally accepted value systems — seems eminently sensible. But something is going wrong. In these 2007 Massey Lectures, Alberto Manguel takes a fresh look at the problems that come with creating new societies. Race riots in France, political murder in The Netherlands, bombings in Britain — all appear to be symptoms of a multicultural experiment gone awry. Politicians and sociologists are puzzled; why is it so hard for people to live together given the grim alternatives? Is blood still more important than peaceful coexistence? In The City of Words Manguel proposes a different approach: look at what writers have to say — maybe books and stories hold secret keys to the human heart, keys that social planners can’t find. With his trademark wit and erudition, Manguel suggests looking on the library shelf marked “fiction” for the book titled How to Build a Better Society.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:26:15 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"In the 2007 CBC Massey Lectures, author Alberto Manguel takes a fresh look at the rise of violent intolerance in our societies. Many of us agree that the end of ethnic nationalism is a good idea. We strive to build societies that promote civic nationalism, with sets of values all citizens can agree on. But something has gone wrong: race riots in France, political murder in the Netherlands, bombings in Britain - are these symptoms of a multicultural experiment gone awry? Why is it so difficult for us to live together when the alternatives are demonstrably horrifying?" "Alberto Manguel suggests a fresh approach: We should look at what visionaries, poets, novelists, essayists, and filmmakers have to say about building societies. Perhaps the stories we tell hold secret keys to the human heart. From Cassandra to Jack London, the Epic of Gilgamesh to the computer Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Don Quixote to Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, Manguel draws fascinating and revelatory parallels between the personal and political realities of our present-day word and those of myth, legend, and story."… (more)

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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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