“Since the earliest vestiges of prehistoric civilization, human society has tried to overcome the obstacles of geography, the finality of death, the erosion of oblivion. With a single act—the incision of a figure on a clay tablet—that first anonymous writer suddenly succeeded in all these seemingly impossible feats.”
Originally published in 1996 in the early days of the digital age, A History of Reading has been rereleased, but not significantly updated, with a new introduction by the author. Alberto Manguel’s history delves into many diverse and even tangential subjects, from the invention of writing (and thereby reading) to the invention of printing, from a history of how reading has been taught to a history of reading aloud, traveling from Greece to Japan in the process. Some of these topics relate more closely to writing or publishing than to reading itself, but really, all are inextricably intertwined, as Manguel aptly demonstrates. Each topic is illustrated with vivid historical examples and case studies, though Manguel also draws frequently on his own personal history of reading. Some readers may find these parts dry, if they don’t care about his personal reading, or perhaps even pretentious, since his own reading is both prodigious and multilingual. Personally, I found these sections interesting precisely because they differed from my own unilingual experience, and because I didn’t find Manguel to be either condescending or prescriptive about how others read. In fact, he rages against prescriptive dictates, chafing at categories, and deriding the practice of designating certain books as only being appropriate for a particular audience
Though Manguel has not updated his text to extend beyond the CD-ROM that was the height of reading technology at the original time of writing, the short introduction at the beginning of this new edition makes his feelings on the subject abundantly clear. Referencing The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he writes, “Frollo fears that the new technology will annihilate the preceding one; he forgets that our creative capacities are prodigious and that we can always find use for yet another instrument. We don’t lack ambition.” In short, we should, as we have always done, choose the format best adapted to each individual context. Perhaps because he delves so far into the past and covers such a broad expanse of history, the absence of the last twenty or so years doesn’t seem all that significant in the grand scheme of things. In a later chapter, discussing the invention of the printing press, Manguel dryly notes, “”it may be useful to bear in mind that printing did not, in spite of the obvious ‘end-of-the-world’ predications, eradicate the taste for handwritten text.” In fact, most early printed texts sought to emulate the style and appearance of the hand-scribed book, just as e-readers now attempt to mimic the turn of a page on a screen. Manguel observes, “It is interesting to note how often a technological development—such as Gutenberg’s—promotes rather than eliminates that which it is supposed to supersede, making us aware of old-fashioned virtues we might have otherwise either overlooked or dismissed as of negligible importance.” So while Manguel does not directly address the e-reading revolution, there is ample discussion of the subject of new reading technologies throughout history, which in turn serve to illuminate more recent inventions.
Given Manguel’s distaste for the tyranny of categories, it is perhaps not surprising that his own work straddles borders, a little esoteric for some general readers, but insufficiently rigorous and overly personal for academics. The mistake would be to take this brief survey of many related subjects, and mistake it for an in-depth treatment of a complex topic. In his conclusion, Manguel deftly highlights that fact that there could be many histories of reading, and that no one history is definitive. His book is titled, after all, A History of Reading, not The History of Reading (note the indefinite and definite articles that precede each). An ideal history of reading would be unlimited in length, and would contain information that is now lost to history, and photographs that were never taken. And of course, it would be incomplete, since the history of reading is ongoing. But Manguel does manage to both inform and inspire, encapsulating the power and beauty of reading, and the many and varied cultural practices that have grown up around it. If his prose is sometimes a little purple as he waxes poetic on the joys of reading, perhaps we do well to occasionally be reminded exactly how amazing and powerful a tool it really is
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