Quote: Books are transformed by the sequence in which they are read.
— Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night
Start simple: the meaning of words is transformed by the sequence in which the words are read.
- I grabbed the bottle, poured myself a glassful and took a swig.
- I grabbed the bottle, took a swig and poured myself a glassful.
In the first the swig was likely from the glass, in the second from the bottle. The basis of such inferences is twofold: we assume that preceding events cause succeeding events, and we use sequences of words to indicate relationships between them. The former is post hoc ergo propter hoc, sequence implies causality—usually a fallacy, yet linguistically indispensable. The latter is a generalisation of how we interpret pronoun antecedents.
I held out the bottle, ready to pour the drink. As I reached for the glass, she knocked it to the floor.
She knocked the glass, right, not the bottle? Without any further information that’s the reasonable assumption because it is closer to glass than to bottle. A combination of the two principles also means that you assume the swig (in the original example) was taken either from the bottle or from the glass, and not from a nearby jar mentioned earlier in the scene.
So spacial arrangement and causality yield coherent events yield meaning.
Which brings us to books.
They’re a bit like words: once you’ve seen them you can’t unsee them and they colour everything that comes after. For example, a few years ago I read about a small, evil creature that renounces love in order to wrench a powerful (cursed) ring from the depths of a river. I’m talking about Albert, a dwarf in Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung. Throughout the reading I could not shake a familiar feeling: it was like a more nordic, germanic, poetic version of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Yet, Wagner wrote his masterpiece a century before Tolkien, so literary influences must have cascaded the other way. My personal reading sequence is to blame.
Why stop at thinking about sequences, though?
I have up to two dozen books on the go simultaneously, representing a cross-section of my current, most acute interests. This means that they blend and weave in and out of the tapestry that is me, as I finish some and start others: Anne Carson’s red-winged monster-man from Autobiography of Red shades into Cortázar’s Bestiary; beggar’s velvet from Mark Forcyth’s Horologicon flies from the bed sheets as I settle down to read Felisberto Hernández’s Lands of Memory; the shrunken heads of Augusto Monterroso’s story Mister Taylor bob along with the stuffed lion of John Banville’s Irish circus in Birchwood.
In my case, I suppose, it would be more apt to say: Books are transformed by the webs to which they belong.
How would you personalise the Quote?
- Compete Works and Other Stories, Augusto Monterroso. Try making heads or tails of it. Let me know.
- QQ posts on Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red.
- QQ posts on Tolkien.
- Between Infinity and a Sneeze, QQ. On how Hernández writes infatuation.