A history of reading

by Alberto Manguel

Hardcover, 1996




New York : Viking, 1996.


At one magical instant in your early childhood, the page of a book - that string of confused, alien ciphers - shivered into meaning. Words spoke to you, gave up their secrets; at that moment, whole universes opened. You became, irrevocably, a reader. Noted essayist Alberto Manguel moves from this essential moment to explore the 6000-year-old conversation between words and that magician without whom the book would be a lifeless object: the reader. Manguel lingers over reading as seduction, as rebellion, as obsession, and goes on to trace the never-before-told story of the reader's progress from clay tablet to scroll, codex to CD-ROM.

User reviews

LibraryThing member John
This is a wonderful book that will entertain, educate, and give great pleasure to anyone who enjoys books and reading. Manguel wears his erudition so simply and so cleanly that he is a joy to read; his readings and the connections that he makes across writers and ideas and centuries are truly wonderful.

Manguel explores the physical aspect of reading and the theories of the ancients as to how letters are transformed into words and into thoughts and interpreted in the brain; he looks at what it means to learn to read; the importance of being read-to; the development of silent reading, as opposed to reading out-loud (Aramac and Hebrew have the same word for reading and speaking); the shape of books over the centuries; the early scrolls and "books", and the development of printing and its impact on literacy and the availability of books; failed historical efforts to limit what people read; the failed ideas of "voice"; the limitations and potentials of translation; forbidden reading as of slaves; the wonderful worlds of book collectors and even book thieves; and most importantly, the relationships that Manguel explores between authors and readers and among various readers, across cultures and centuries, with varying and never-ending interpretations and readings so that the whole becomes a vast conversation and exchange of ideas, and for some the definition of life. He makes reading alive, vibrant, essential.

Manguel would not approve of my approach to the physical treatment of books which sees them retain as pristine an appearance as they have from their beginnings. To him, a book is something to be made familiar like a well-worn and comfortable sweater, complete with commentaries and arguments and ideas scribbled as annotations (all of which can enrich a reading when one comes across these from other readers); the stains and well-worn nature of an oft-read book as testimony to its value and its belovedness. He makes a good argument.

As usual, in reading Manguel, one comes across various striking passages or quotes. Some examples.

...with increasing effect, the artificial dichotomy between life and reading is actively encouraged by those in power. Demotic regimes demand that we forget, and therefore they brand books as superfluous luxuries; totalitarian regimes demand that we not think, and therefore they ban and threaten and censor; both, by and large, require that we become stupid and that we accept our degradation meekly, and therefore they encourage the consumption of pap. In such circumstances, readers cannot but be subversive.

Franz Kafka on books:

...I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn't shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we'd be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.

Manguel again:

However readers make a book theirs, the end is that book and reader become one. The world that is a book is devoured by a reader who is a letter in the world's text; thus a circular metaphor is created for the endlessness of reading. We are what we read. The process by which the circle is completed is not... merely an intellectual one; we read intellectually on a superficial level, grasping certain meanings and conscious of certain facts, but at the same time, invisibly, unconsciously, text and reader become intertwined, creating new levels of meaning, so that every time we cause the text to yield something by ingesting it, simultaneously something else is born beneath it that we haven't grasped. That is why...no reading can ever be definitive.

And finally:

...we tread firmly. We know that we are reading even while suspending disbelief; we know why we read even when we don't know how, holding in our mind at the same time, as it were, the illusionary text and the act of reading. We read to find the end, for the story's sake. We read not to reach it, for the sake of the reading itself. We read searchingly, like trackers oblivious of our surroundings. We read distractedly, skipping pages. We read contemptuously, admiringly, negligently, angrily, passionately, enviously, longingly. We read in gusts of sudden pleasure, without knowing what brought the pleasure along. "What in the world is this emotion?" asks Rebecca West after reading King Lear. "What is the bearing of supremely great works of art on my life which makes me feel so glad?" We don't know; we read ignorantly. We read in slow, long motions, as if drifting in space, weightless. We read full of prejudice, malignantly. We read generously, making excuses for the text, filling gaps, mending faults. And sometimes, when the stars are kind, we read with an intake of breath, with a memory shudder, as if someone or something had "walked over our grave", as if a memory had suddenly been rescued from a place deep within us--the recognition of something we never knew was there, or of something we vaguely felt as a flicker of a shadow, whose ghostly form rises and passes back into us before we can see what it is, leaving us older and wiser.
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LibraryThing member john257hopper
This was an interesting and reflective look at the history of reading and books, touching inevitably on the history of education and indeed of human thought generally. Densely erudite in some places, but delightfully light touch in many others. Some interesting nuggets such as:

·Reading, even to oneself for pleasure, was very largely carried out aloud until early Medieval times; only in about the fourth century AD did silent reading become more accepted.

·Reading and writing were initially seen as destroyers of human memory and therefore bad things.

Well worth dipping into, and some interesting and unusual illustrations as well. 4/5
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LibraryThing member CharlesBoyd
A History of Reading is a book by someone, Alberto Manguel, who loves books and reading.

There is much information about books, reading, and the evolution of both. It was interesting to learn that reading silently wasn't done much until centuries after the invention of writing and reading. Someone centuries ago loved reading so much he had to have his books with him wherever he went, so he had his camels trained to march in alphabetical order. Unfortunately Manguel doesn't present what should be facinating material in an interesting way. He's written a book that is a chore to read.

Good, interesting writing has a variety of sentence patterns and lengths. Manguel's are almost always 30+ words long. That gets old after awhile, especially when those sentences often include material tangential to the main idea of the sentence. That's a problem.

Another problem is he's fallen prey to the common desire of some writers to include every bit of his research into the book.

Fortunately, there are many photos to take up space in this 319 page book. Some are full page photos. But, for some reason known only to God and perhaps Manguel, he elects to describe in detail each of them. An example is a full page photo of an elderly woman in a hospice in France in 1929 who is reading in bed. Manguel takes nearly a full page to describe this photo. All the time I'm screaming in my mind: "I can see the damned thing!"

I can't recommend this book, but I'm not sorry I read it. It's the kind of book that, despite its flaws, the rewards make it almost worth reading. It's kind of like having dental work done: It's a pain to go through, but the result is positive.
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LibraryThing member GingerbreadMan
Not at all organised as a straight chronological history of reading, this is rather a series of essays, following Maguel's associations around the subject. It's divided into two parts, where the first part focuses on different aspects on the ACT of reading (learing to read, reading loudly or quietly, reading the last page of a book and so on), the second on aspects of the postion of the reader (translators, readers of forbidden books, the image of the bookish fool etc.). A typical chapter centers on one or two prominent historical readers as examples of a phenomenon, but makes lots of detours, following a chain of association.

I personally much prefer the earlier part. Here Manguel draws more examples from his own reading life, making the essays personal and vivid. To me the second half of the book instead sadly focuses on a lot of namedropping, a drier and less interesting way of talking about something as engrossing as reading.

I know many love this book, but for me it doesn't quite live up to the hype. The borgesian ending chapter however, is brilliant.
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LibraryThing member stipe168
has tons of information, but most of it is boring. Sure, I'm interested in binding, libraries, and banned books.. but I just wish the book was a little bit fresher and better paced. And I guess I realized reading about reading isn't such a great idea.
LibraryThing member neurodrew
A History of Reading
Alberto Manquel
April 2, 2010 8:10 PM
This is partly a memoir and essay, partly a history of the book, and the readers who grant the book its meaning. Manquel seems very erudite, and writes extremely well, so that the meandering chapters are readable even without cohesion one to the other. He was at one time a reader for the blind Jorge Luis Borges, an experience sure to cement a love for reading. He is an international character, starting in Argentina, alluding to Tel Aviv, Germany and Paris. He talked about reading to complete his sexual education, mentioning two books I had not heard of, The Conformist by Alberto Moravia and The Impure by Guys de Cars. His motto becomes “Scripta manet, verba volat” (“What is written remains, what is spoken vanishes”) cited in a chapter about cuneiform script.
The reader is essential; Petrarch remarks that the reader should pick and choose interpretations of the text based on his memory and learning “Reading rarely avoids danger, unless the light of divine truth shines upon the reader, teaching him what to seek and what to avoid.” He writes about the practice of Cuban cigar factory workers hiring a reader for the work shift; The Count of Monte Cristo was so popular that the factory workers sought permission to name a cigar brand - the familiar and excellent “Monte Cristo” cigar. Aldus Manutius produced the first plain-text editions of classics printed, establishing the familiar appearance of the book page. “All writing depends on the generosity of the reader” Etruscan script remains undeciphered, a poem describes the lose of meaning as dissolving like a fresh track across the snow. The ancients used the “sortes Virgiliana”, consulting a line of the Aneid at random as an oracle. The lily, an immacculately white flower with asexual blooms, serves as a symbol of Mary. “And now, after the years, my memory seems like a looted library” Comstock’s early twentieth century crusade against suggestive books is dismissed by H.L Mencken as the “New Puritanism ... not ascetic but militant, its aim is not to lift up saints but to knock down sinners”. Sigmund Freud opined that fiction loosens the tensions of our minds, “enabling us thenceforward to enjoy our own day-dreaming without self reproach or shame”; Manguel argues that reading tightens the tension instead, “drawing them taut to make them sing”. Altogether a memorable book.
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LibraryThing member idiotgirl
Very much enjoyed this book. Very eclectic and free associational. Not a timeline history at all. Takes on issues like reading to self, reading aloud, stealing books. And then finishes with an afterword that is an alternative version of this book.
LibraryThing member datrappert
Manguel, one of the smartest writers you will ever read, has written a fascinating history of reading. The episodes and anecdotes he presents are well chosen. If you agree with Kafka's quote...

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”

... then this book is for you.
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LibraryThing member LynnB
If you love reading, this is a book you will enjoy. Mr. Manguel takes us through a history of reading, from how we learn to read to the present day. He looks at early examples of writing and reading, at when we first began to read silently, the role of scribes in society, the invention of eyeglasses, and many other fascinating aspects of reading and books.… (more)
LibraryThing member sinsofthedove
I would love this book if it wasn't so clearly written by an amateur. It's wonderful as a romp through the history of readership - why people read books, own them, and love them, but he presents a lot of (wrong) assumptions about fact, seemingly because the legend they create is so much more enticing than the truth.
LibraryThing member drewandlori
A lot more interesting than it sounds. Manguel gives a very interesting overview of reading and how it has evolved (and stayed the same) over time.
LibraryThing member acheekymonkey
If you're into LibraryThing, you'll really like this book. It's all about reading and the love of books!
LibraryThing member libraryclerk
Very interesting history.
LibraryThing member bhagerty
Modestly entertaining, but mostly fluffy.
LibraryThing member Praj05
Even though I am in the midst of reading of this book, every page is a passage to scintillating information. It clears the misconception of reading being restricted to literacy(books) and moves on to this unbelievable plethora of deciphering methods for gaining wisdom and knowledge. From primitive methods of reading faces,pictures to highly cultivated medium of materials, this book is not only an enlightment but also a wonderful gift to a hungry mind.… (more)
LibraryThing member bookwoman247
This book is exactly what the title proclaims, a history of reading. It is more than that, though. Every reader will recognize themselves at some point in this book. For that reason, and because Manguel shares his own story as a reader, it feels like an intimate book. It is also intelligent, without being snobbish or pretentious.

It is a book to delve into, and as I burrowed my way through, it was with a happy sense of recognizing a bit of myself, and of communion with others, past, present, and future.

I could not recommend more excellent forage for a bookworm!
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LibraryThing member kingcvcnc
Explores the history of the conversation between written words and the reader. Reading can be seductive, rebellious, and obsessive. Traces readers interactions with the "word" from clay tablets to CD-ROM. The essays speak of book thieves, anarchists, book burners and censors, 11th century Japanese women who invent the first novel, and African American slaves risking death to read.… (more)
LibraryThing member sage_76
This book is a must of anyone who says they love reading and books. It was recommeded reading for a literature class and it was a pleasure to read and discuss.
Manguel covers every facet of reading--eg. Translator as Reader--and relationship to books--eg. Shape of the Book--possible. The greater implication of this work rocked my ideas of literacy. Who knew reading silently was not always the norm? In fact, it was quite strange behavior until around the 10th century for Western cultures (43).

This a an easy and informative read for readers of varied interest: one chapter or all. Enjoy!
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LibraryThing member joeydag
I can't quite remember when I read this (probably in the mid 00's) but I remember being amazed.
LibraryThing member jonfaith
My biomom gave me her copy of this after a visit in 1998: I honestly can't recall which visit, though there were only two. The book is lush with bibliocomfort and I kneaded the pages four seemingly months on end. I would like to scurry about within it again.
LibraryThing member podocyte
Books about books
LibraryThing member DinadansFriend
A very interesting investigation about the process of acquiring information by eye. What a lot of polysyllabics to say that this is a good book about reading as well as containing a certain amount of autobiography about a South American poet of some stature.
LibraryThing member MickyFine
A collection of loosely related essays on a variety of elements encompassed within a history of reading.

Manguel's style is free-flowing easily segueing from one historical period to another while exploring a single theme such as being read to. This is no history textbook moving in an inexorable march from early texts to modern reading, but instead a slow and enjoyable meandering from one time period to another in the beginnings of an exploration of this act is only of interest to those who are already readers themselves. Favourite chapters included those on women as readers and forbidden reading. An enjoyable read, Manguel's book is a small foray into the history of an act that continues far beyond the last page.… (more)



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