Medieval curiosity machines

Alberto Manguel 2

Alberto Manguel is the owner of a vast library, documented in his book The Library at Night, and a writer of books about books, and his latest book, Curiosity (Yale), takes the theme of intellectual curiosity as an excuse for more loving wandering through his favourite literature, including Kafka, Lewis Carroll, Borges, Plato and especially Dante. The book itself mimics a randomly shelved personal library, and reading it mimics the experience of leisurely pulling books off the shelves, dipping into them, whetting one’s appetite or being recalled to the glories of faded favourites. And he may cause you to actually put the book down a moment to go fossicking through the shelves for something praised.

As Dante was guided through the underworld by Virgil, Manguel follows in the relentlessly inquisitive poet’s footsteps. There is a sense in the writing that Manguel thinks Dante was heretically curious, in contrast to a Church that expected its followers to park their curiosity. This is a caricature, and not really accurate when one thinks of Aquinas or Peter Lombard and the long scholarly tradition that the Church encouraged. But this is a sidetrack in a narrative where Manguel scoops up much material of interest. In chapters with titles such as ‘Who am I?’, ‘How do we reason?’ and ‘What is an animal?’ Manguel touches on medieval curiosity machines (a kind of mechanical aid to moving through topics of inquiry which Manguel admits he still doesn’t quite understand), Incan knot writing, Venetian Jewish printers, the author’s experience of a stroke and the invention of the atom bomb.

Manguel’s books, including this one, are personal affairs. There is not the strict separation between the scholarly and the personal, or the walling off of the personal in order to seem academically rigid. Manguel sees literature as an aid to living life, and the exposition of that literature as a natural process that is tied to one’s individual experience of reading. The depth is here, in the research and perspicacious reading, but warmed by the human element of engagement with a life and a history.

At the beginning of the book Manguel replicates a list of the Guardian newspaper’s ten questions ‘science must answer’, suggesting that some may not be answerable at all. He then goes on to make the good point, I think, that links curiosity with literature, that there is a parallel between what we need to answer and what we can imagine. Dante’s Divine Comedy looms large for Manguel because of the almost infinite imagination poured into it, which mirrors Dante’s almost infinite curiosity.


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