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.
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.
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.
...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.
·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
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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!
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!
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.