Alberto Manguel on Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

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Several times, during a long life of reading, I’ve been tempted to write an autobiography based solely on the books that have counted for me. Someone once told me that it was customary for a Spanish nobleman to have his coat of arms engraved on his bedhead so that visitors might know who it was who lay in a sleep that might always be his last. Why then not be identified by my bedside favourites, which define and represent me better than any symbolic shield? If I ever indulged in such a vainglorious undertaking, a chapter, an early chapter, would be given over to The Wind in the Willows.

I can’t remember when I first read The Wind in the Willows, since it is one of those books that seem to have been with me always, but it must have been very early on, when my room was in a cool, dark basement and the garden I played in boasted four tall palm trees and an old tortoise as their tutelary spirit. The geography of our books blends with the geography of our lives, and so, from the very beginning, Mole’s meadows and Rat’s river bank and Badger’s woods seeped into my private landscapes, imbuing the cities I lived in and the places I visited with the same feelings of delight and comfort and adventure that sprang from those much-turned pages. In this sense, the books we love become our cartography.

In 1888, John Ruskin gave a name to the casual conjunction between physical nature and strong human emotions. ‘All violent feelings’, he wrote, ‘produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of external things, which I would generally characterize as the “Pathetic Fallacy”.’ Kenneth Grahame magnificently ignored the warning. The landscape of Cookham Dene on the Thames (where he lived and which he translated into the world of Mole and Rat, Badger and Toad) is, emotionally, the source and not the result of a view of the world that cannot be distinguished from the world itself. There may have been a time when the bucolic English l

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About the contributor

Alberto Manguel is a reader who lapses from time to time into writing, and who, a few years away from the prescribed three score and ten, now spends most of his time rereading. Among his favourite books are Alice in Wonderland, The Adventures of Pinocchio, The Divine Comedy and, of course, The Wind in the Willows.

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