The History of Reading by Alberto Manguel. Viking, 372 pp., $26.95.
September 15, 1996        

“The history this book records,” Alberto Manguel writes of his method in The History of Reading, “is made, so to speak, of its digressions. One subject calls to another, an anecdote brings a seemingly unrelated story to mind, and the author proceeds as if unaware of logical causality, as if defining the reader’s freedom in [his] very writing about the craft.” No reviewer could have said it better.

What a reviewer can say is that, for the most part, Manguel’s digressions are delightful, his anecdotes appealing, and his stories scintillating. What might have been no more than one damned thing after another turns out to be, at the hands of this splendid raconteur, one divine thing after another.

A novelist, essayist, and translator, born in Argentina-- these things Manguel has in common with the great Jorge Luis Borges, whom he met as a teenager in a Buenos Aires bookstore and was invited to read to in the evenings. (Borges was blind.) He apparently absorbed some of Borges’ sensibility as well. The whimsical erudition and wry charm abounding in The History of Reading would have pleased the master.

In his meditative or speculative moments, Manguel sometimes teeters between eloquence and sentimentality:

"On occasion ... we wander endlessly in those fictional landscapes, lost in wonder, like Don Quixote. But most of the time 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, passionately, enviously, longingly. ... And sometimes, when the stars are kind, we read with an intake of breath, with a 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 or a shadow, whose ghostly form rises and passes back into us before we can see what it is, leaving us older and wiser."

Some readers will undoubtedly warm to such passages. For others (including me), a little of this earnest rhapsodizing goes a long way. Fortunately, there is only a little in The History of Reading.

Mostly, there are stories. Saint Augustine marveling in his Confessions at the sight of Saint Ambrose reading soundlessly introduces a chapter about the history of silent reading and the history of punctuation. The two developed in tandem: until roughly 500 AD, nearly all reading was aloud and nearly all lettering was continuous. (And nearly all libraries were the scene of a “rumbling din.”) Change was slow; not until well into the Middle Ages was silent reading “common enough in the scriptorium for the scribes to start separating each word from its encroaching neighbor.”

Another chapter, “The Book of Memory,” summons many eminent witnesses, from Socrates and Cicero to Petrarch and Racine, all testifying to the value of learning well-loved texts by heart. The most poignant testimony comes from the young Manguel’s German teacher, who quiets his pupil’s protest at having to memorize verses with the story of his father, killed by the Nazis. The older man, a classical scholar, solaced his fellow death-camp inmates by reciting Greek and Latin poetry from memory.

Other chapters sail by -- “Learning to Read,” “Picture Reading,” “Being Read To,” “The Shape of the Book,” “Private Reading,” “Reading Within Walls” (in which we’re introduced to the women novelists of medieval Japan), “Stealing Books” (in which we’re introduced to Count Guglielmo Libri, all-time champion book thief), “Forbidden Reading,” and a dozen others -- each with its cargo of funny or touching anecdotes. Among my favorites: the tenth-century Grand Vizier of Persia, Abdul Kassem Ismael, “in order not to part with his collection of 117,000 volumes when traveling, had them carried by a caravan of four hundred camels trained to walk in alphabetical order.” Then there’s Benjamin Franklin’s unexpectedly soulful epitaph, written by himself (though not used on his tombstone): “The Body of/B. Franklin, Printer,/ Like the cover of an old Book,/Its Contents torn out,/And stript of its Lettering & Gilding/Lies here, Food for Worms./But the Work shall not be lost;/For it will, as he believ’d,/Appear once more/In a new and more elegant Edition/Corrected and improved/By the Author.” And there are the 19th-century Cuban cigar workers who hired students and intellectuals to read to them in their factories until the government forbade it, and re-established the custom after migrating to the United States.

Best of all, perhaps, are the illustrations: 140 of them in black-and-white, selected, reproduced, and placed with consummate skill. (Kudos to the publisher for superb design and production.) Stone tablets, woodcuts, illuminated manuscripts, painted screens, friezes, sarcophagi, calligraphy, hornbooks, heart-shaped books, book covers, portraits, busts, caricatures, posters, comic strips, photographs -- they make a jolly parade of visual anecdotes and witty comments on the text. Again, a few favorites: the world’s smallest book (from 17th-century Holland) juxtaposed with John Jacob Audubon’s elephant-folio Birds of America; Albrecht Durer’s frontispiece for the first edition (1494) of The Ship of Fools; a five-thousand-year-old sculpture of a fat, bald Sumerian scribe named Dudu; an 1856 photograph of a slave woman reading while a circle of black and white children play at her feet; photos of the eighteen-year-old Colette reading in a garden, Rilke in a Paris hotel room, Kafka as a handsome high-school student.

It is all utterly beguiling. And more: there are intimations of continuity and flickers of solidarity across the millennia. There is not, admittedly, a “community of readers” -- Manguel shows that we are too many and diverse for that. But some books create a kind of community; and the community of readers of The History of Reading will be a happy one.