Alberto Manguel is an Argentinian-born Canadian essayist and novelist. He has written twenty works of criticism, including The Dictionary of Imaginary Places (with Gianni Guadalupi), A History of Reading, and The Library at Night; edited more than twenty literary anthologies; and is the author of five novels, including News from a Foreign Country Came, which won the McKitterick Prize in 1992. An Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France), he has also been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. His next book, Curiosity, will be published by Yale University Press in March 2015.

Dante’s Dogs

William Blake: <i>Cerberus</i>; from his illustrations to Dante's <i>Divine Comedy</i>, 1824-1827
Of all the insults and derogatory comparisons Dante uses in the Commedia on both lost souls and evil demons, one recurs throughout: they are like dogs. The wasteful in the seventh circle are pursued by “famished and fast black bitches”; the burning usurers running under the rain of fire behave “like dogs who in the summer fight off fleas and flies”; a demon who pursues a barrater is like “a mastiff let loose.”

Conversations with the Dead

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot: <i>La Petite Liseuse</i>, circa 1855-1861
Reading has always been for me a sort of practical cartography. Like other readers, I have an absolute trust in the capability that reading has to map my world. I know that on a page somewhere on my shelves, staring down at me now, is the question I’m struggling with today, put into words long ago, perhaps, by someone who could not have known of my existence. The relationship between a reader and a book is one that eliminates the barriers of time and space and allows for what Francisco de Quevedo, in the sixteenth century, called “conversations with the dead.” In those conversations I’m revealed. They shape me and lend me a certain magical power.

The Unanswerable Question

One day in 1842, the thirty-eight-year old Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in his notebook: “To write a dream, which shall resemble the real course of a dream, with all its inconsistency, its eccentricities and aimlessness—with nevertheless a leading idea running through the whole. Up to this old age of the world, no such thing has ever been written.” Indeed. From the first dream of Gilgamesh four thousand years ago on to our time, Hawthorne’s observation proves to be right. Something in the retelling of a dream, however haunting and however true, lacks the peculiar verisimilitude of dreams, their unique vocabulary and texture, their singular identity.