Reading Reports

Giuseppe Montesano
Lettori selvaggi

Report by Andrea Tarabbia

(Saronno, 1978), is a writer. He received a Ph.D. in Theory of Literature from the University of Bergamo – where he kept on working for some years as a researcher...

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Emma Mandley’s first degree was in Italian and History of Art, and she also has a Masters degree in translation, specialising in Italian.  Emma’s career has mainly been spent in...

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The book
“This book is a map marked with works by poets, writers, thinkers, composers and scientists, suggesting passages, for those who want them, through the turbulent storms that toss us between opposing forces”. With these words, Giuseppe Montesano introduces Lettori selvaggi to his readers. But this is just one of countless possible keys to understanding this colossal book. So what exactly is Lettori selvaggi, apart from a labour of love and the fruit of many years’ work? A personal encyclopedia, an autobiography construed through reading, a mapping out of (almost) all that our species has produced in terms of art, science and thought from pre-history through to the modern age (although contemporary figures will be covered in the next volume). The book tells stories, examines celebrated lives, looks at obsessions and poetics. It provides selected bibliographies and suggests pathways and connections that are sometimes daring. In almost two thousand pages, Montesano has produced a collection of brief but authoritative monographs, illuminating insights, quotations and personal passions – all combining to make a massive work that can be approached from any angle and through which everyone can find their own way (thanks in part to its well-organised structure). The most profound passages are dedicated to several (very personal) keystones in the history of culture, explored in short, interconnected chapters. Still more names, more books, more stories spring out from these keystones like little constellations. Reading Lettori selvaggi is like wandering through the author’s immense library and reconstructing, in chronological order (although of course readers will explore it in whatever order they choose) the fundamental moments in human evolution as expressed through human achievements.

Readers will be intrigued to discover, for example, that the chapter devoted to De Sade and De Maistre triggers other stories and reflections concerning Alessandro Volta, Laclos, Goya and Alfieri. In Lettori selvaggi, students and academics operating in almost any discipline will find something that is relevant to them and will be able to enter into a dialogue and possibly even disagree – why not? – with the author’s interpretation. Lettori selvaggi could be read by virtually anyone: a unique work of reference, it’s too personal, too partisan, too much of a narrative to be a true and proper encyclopedia, but that’s what it’s aiming for: the summation of everything we are.

Language and style
The tone of Montesano’s writing may lean towards the narrative, but it is backed up by rigorous research. Additionally, the author reveals as much about himself as about his themes, declaring his own literary passions and giving us anecdotes about himself as well as about his subjects. Some passages are more narrowly factual, others are more personal, but all have one unifying characteristic: readability.

In my opinion
For some time, Montesano seems to have abandoned pure fiction: his most recent novel, Magic People, dates from 2005. Since then, he has published Il ribelle in guanti rosa, an award-winning monograph on Charles Baudelaire, but after that he withdrew to concentrate on Lettori selvaggi, doing something that no one else has ever dared to do, at least in Italy: constructing a work that presents a non-fictional world, a monument to reading but also a manual, a sort of guide book. In parts of the text, it clearly comes across as an act of love and a form of challenge: why should we read? Why should we become wild readers? In order “not to live in way that is base or craven”. Making time for reading will help us to become better people, to remain fully alive. So without doubt there’s also a didactic, moral imperative hidden amongst the pages. It’s not by chance that the author has dedicated his book to his daughter.

Why translate it?
This book is extraordinary, not only because of its bulk and for the courage it must have taken to write it, but because it’s a reference book unlike any other, bringing books emphatically back to the centre of our world. Montesano demonstrates that this world is unimaginable without the contribution of the works that helped to create it, and especially without the effort and pleasure of those who, by reading, don’t give in to its decline. Some may be reminded of Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon and it’s true that there are some parallels: for instance, both works take books as the starting point for a journey through human history. But there are as many differences as similarities: in the tone, which in Montesano’s work is not academic, and in the personal mission. For Montesano has not confined himself to the West, and where Bloom’s emphasis was on style and on the works themselves, Montesano focuses on the weighty responsibility of reading.

Other opinions
“It’s not a book, nor is it an encyclopedia – it’s a vision.”
Roberto Saviano, La Repubblica

“A survey that stands out also as a universal autobiography and a common narrative, a journey that isn’t exactly non-fiction, but something much greater.”
Marilù Oliva, Huffington Post


Born in Naples in 1959, Montesano is the author of the novels Nel corpo di Napoli (Mondadori 1999, finalist for the Premio Strega), A capofitto (Mondadori 2000), Di questa vita menzognera (Feltrinelli 2003, Premio Selezione Campiello and Premio Viareggio-Rèpaci) and Magic People (Feltrinelli 2005). He has translated many French writers and also wrote Il ribelle in guanti rosa – Charles Baudelaire (Mondadori 2007, Premio Vittorini). He is a regular contributor to the newspaper ‘Il Mattino’.
18 January 2017

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