Wednesday, May 4, 2011

On "A History of Reading" by Alberto Manguel ***

Published in 1996, Manguel's book, I take it, probably fell toward the beginning of a span of time in history writing when cultural histories were hip. We got books on the history of dust, on the history of salt, on the history of cooking, and other such topics that, in a sense, in their vastness, don't really lend themselves to a concise narrative. And that lack of ability to confine the book to a singular narrative haunts Manguel's attempt here. But it's also why he calls it A History rather than The History.

Rather than following a strictly chronological sequence, Manguel divides his history into themes. Thus, we get chapters on censorship, on reading aloud, on the character of the nerd, on the shape of the book, on places of reading (indoor/outdoor), on writers as readers, on translators as readers, on silent versus oral reading, on the reading brain. As such, the book reads more like a set of discrete essays related to the main subject at hand than as a history, which also makes the book difficult to summarize, for what remains with me is not a story but a mood and a list of random facts. Did you know, for example, that reading aloud was the norm until the tenth century? He shares an anecdote of Saint Augustine's surprise as seeing Saint Ambrose read silently. (Another writer disputes this date, placing the silent reading era as beginning near the end of the seventeenth century. That book, I will be reading next.)

There are wonderful anecdotes and photos. We learn of slaves forbidden to read, lest they turn into rebels. We learn of books considered by the government as terrorist acts (in Argentina in the 1970s). We read of how much a translation can affect the text we receive in our native tongue--how much a translation is really one particular kind of reading. We learn of how readers "make" the text they read. We get the by-now-familiar-to-me discussion of the brain and language, the brain and books. We see pictures like the one of a library after the bombing of London, the ceiling missing, the windows blown out, the people still walking among the stacks, examining the undamaged books on their shelves.

And there is history here. Manguel offers a brief rendition of the supposed start of reading (in receipts for bills of sale), in the advantages that reading offered (the messenger no longer having to be present), in the disadvantages that worried philosophers (in the way in which memories would become lazy), and in the introduction of punctuation (especially for the purpose of allowing silent readers). But if straightforward history is what you're looking for, this may not be the best book to peruse.

It's almost as if Manguel gave up on a single narrative line because he doesn't believe there can be. In his final chapter, he offers us a hypothetical book called The History of Reading. He outlines the book's chapters and closes by denoting that the end of the book is blank because it can never be finished. One might even say that it can't really even be started. In that, Manguel expresses something that seems Borgesian in tone, and Jorge Luis Borges's influence seems to be all over this book, for Manguel, we learn early on, was the blind Borges's reader at a younger age.

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