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A History of Reading

by Alberto Manguel

I’ve long been devoted to books like Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, books that gather around a single subject and with the help of history and literature and a sympathetic sensibility of their own, illuminate it as if it were a mineral known but never before properly valued. Walter de la Mare’s Desert Islands is another book of similar shine, as is Alexander Theroux’s The Primary Colors.

And then there’s this more recent volume, Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading, a book that, in its compendious virtuosity, got me thinking about Chatwin, Theroux, and de la Mare – and about what, how, where, and why I read to begin with.

At first pass, perhaps, a history of reading sounds a hopeless enterprise; even a reader as erudite, as resourceful, as Columbian in his fervour for discovery as Manguel must have at some early point quailed at the stretch of the horizon before him. Where do you start a history of reading? You might as well wonder how to write a geography of happiness or an autobiography of summertime.

And yet, of course, Manguel does start, with great grace, fascinatingly, in the only direction there is to go – inward, to his own experience. For while this is, in its widest embrace, social history, a history of human understanding and of communication, an account of great libraries and epics and empires, of cities and age-defining philosophies, it is most of all a book about individual experience, a book as much about the reader I am, have been, want to be, as it is about Manguel. “We cannot do but read,” Manguel writes. “Reading, almost as much as breathing, is our essential function.” But like breathing, it’s something we experience individually. “Ultimately,” Manguel continues, “the history of reading is the history of each of its readers.”

Not surprisingly, then, A History of Reading scorns chronology. Like a reader, it skips chapters, browses, selects, rereads, refuses to follow conventional order. He does get to the beginning of it all – we visit with the first unknown reader (who also, of course, would have been the first writer) in Babylon around about the fourth millennium BC. Writing, it’s reasonably conjectured, was invented as a commercial tool, as a way, say, of recording who owned which cow.

Manguel’s cast of subsequent characters is, by needs, vast: the pages are full of readers, from the Virgin Mary to George Steiner, from Aristotle to Dorothy Parker. Furthermore, we’re introduced to neurolinguistics (the relationship between the brain and language), to the advent of silent reading, to the evolution of reading as metaphor, to book designers, book thieves, book burners, collectors of books and their “voluptuous greed,” and the first men to wear reading glasses.

All praise to Manguel for his daring, his devotion, his learning, his reading. In its organization, tone, and content, in its research, its profusion, its synthesis, A History of Reading is a marvel.

The last chapter of the book is a charming bit of metafictional fancy worthy of Manguel’s beloved Jorge Luis Borges. Here Manguel conjures a book he’d like to read but that is yet unwritten. It would be called, yes, A History of Reading, though it would be nothing like this history of reading.

Cleverly, then, Manguel remakes the point about subjectivity. But in describing the effect he imagines this second, non-existent book having on him, Manguel is also – how Borges would have liked this – reading my experience of his book. “It is amicably written,” he dreams, “accessible and yet erudite, informative and yet reflective…. I feel I’m in good hands. I know that as I proceed through the chapters I will be introduced to that ancient family of readers, some famous, some obscure, to which I belong…. I will read of their triumphs and persecutions and almost secret discoveries. And in the end I will better understand who I, the reader, am.”