|Publisher: Penguin Books (Paperback)|
First Published: 1996
Author: Alberto Manguel
Alberto Manguel’s stellar book about the craft of reading leaves you mesmerized. Hyperbolic it may sound, but until you have read this book, you might not be able to relate to the lavish praises its readers have showered upon it over the years.
An Argentinean by birth who later settled in Canada, Manguel is a writer, editor, and critic. But whenever asked, he happily defines himself as a reader first.
You don’t need to look at any other credential of his other than A History of Reading to understand why reading is so central to his life.
He even considers it a more important craft than writing. Here’s him on the importance of reading:
“I could perhaps live without writing. I don’t think I could live without reading. Reading – I discovered – comes before writing. A society can exist without writing, but no society can exist without reading.”Alberto Manguel
A Feast for the Mind
It is one thing to write about a generic subject such as reading, it is another to go down the rabbit hole and emerge on the other side as its cheerleader. His deep dive into the auxiliary aspects of reading and consequent storytelling leaves no doubt in my mind that there are very few like him around.
With essays on books, bibliophiles, bibliokleptomanes, printing, translation, censorship, and even reading glasses, A History of Reading is a sui generis feast for the mind.
Again, at the risk of exaggeration, this book imbued me with the same mental bliss as books like Jorge Carrión’s Bookshops, Alan Jacobs’ Breaking Bread with the Dead or Umberto Eco’s This is not the End of the Book did.
A Gallery of Illustrious Figures
His narrative works as an aphrodisiac for the curious mind. It stimulates your imagination and transports you to bygone places. From the dim-lit reading rooms of the library of Alexandria to the domed Pantheon of 18th-century Rome, he writes as if he had been there.
However, it’s not the places, but the people in the book who capture your attention more. It’s as if Manguel is walking by your side down a long corridor, introducing one historical figure after another and telling you their story as you sip on your Sauvignon Blanc.
You meet a host of illustrious figures from different times – from Saint Augustine to Saint Thomas Aquinas to Eleanor de Aquitane to Margaret Fuller to Colette, to the master printer Aldus Manutius to the legendary bibliophile Beatus Rhenanus, and many more.
You also encounter Callimachus of Cyrene, who worked in the vanished library of Alexandria and laid the foundations for what we know today as the library catalog.
In one of the book’s most moving accounts, Manguel recounts his scholarly encounters with another Argentine great – Jorge Luis Borges. When an almost blind Borges asked him to become his reader, Manguel out of his love for reading and respect for the elderly writer took on the role of his literary Au Pair.
Fascinating Stories Galore
One of my favorite chapters in the book is Being Read To. It underlines the joys of reading to others. Manguel details how reading to others used to be a full-time job in ancient times. He writes about public readings – the accounts of which can be traced from 6th-century Rome to mid-19th-century Cuba.
A History of Reading teems with such interesting accounts. From reading aloud to reading silently and from the physical pleasures of a book’s shape, binding, and smell to the less physical qualities of books, Alberto Manguel’s bibliomanic panorama is a thoroughly enjoyable celebration of one of life’s greatest pleasures.
In the chapter titled The Silent Readers, he talks about times when reading loudly in libraries wasn’t an offense, when reading and writing were considered menial tasks meant only for poor clerics to when understanding was not a requirement of knowledge because the students were forced to learn the rules by heart.
Another chapter called The Shape of the Book describes the book as the physical entity we know today and how it evolved over the years. In it, Manguel explains how the preferred writing material transitioned from clay tablets to papyrus and parchment scrolls to hand-written codices until the invention of the Gutenberg printing press.
A History of Reading is an engrossing reading experience. Its language is gorgeous; its images are beautiful, and it makes you think about all kinds of fantastic questions.
This is exactly the kind you want to read with a highlighter in your hand. It is a book born out of its author’s own appetite for books and reading. However, it’s not a book that can be devoured in a single seating. It’s not highly demanding either. If reading is your indulgence, then you might cherish a stroll through the material than a gallop.
A History of Reading shines in constructing a through-line of passion for reading even as every chapter can be read separately. The chapters are stand-alone vignettes, not necessarily following a chronological model. The research is solid and it serves as a springboard into the history of scholarship.
Alberto Manguel is not only one of the most erudite people on the planet, but he is also a deft craftsman of sweeping tours of history and intense narratives. His book bears a testimony to his craft and will remain a force not easily forgotten.
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