Today I finally finished A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel. I started this book expecting to read it quickly, skim it perhaps, and then donate it or give it away. It had been recommended to me years ago by a friend, a writer and former professor of mine whom I deeply admire, who had given me this copy of it. But I’d picked it up and found the introductory chapter sentimental, pretentious and frankly dull. I’m not sure why I kept it on my shelf for so long, except out of some sense of obligation to my friend and to reading as a vocation. A few weeks ago I decided I’d read that shelf of books I’d been meaning to in anticipation of my next move, freeing myself of their burden in the process, and thought it poetic to start with this one.
I’m a dedicated reader, and once I commit to reading a book I very rarely stop before the end. In fact, I can only recall doing so twice: Foucult’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco and A Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. But that’s another story. Anyway, I powered through the first chapter where Manguel apologizes for his approach, spends several pages describing works of art that are reproduced on the facing pages, and reminiscing ostentatiously about his early love of reading. And then when I got to the first chapter, “Reading Shadows”, I found myself suddenly engaged.
Perhaps it’s my penchant for ancient history and archeology that got me hooked here, hooked enough to wade through the rest of the book. Manguel’s combination of self-important memoir and suspect historical scholarship makes this a tricky book to read, but the creative essay (and this book seems a collection of creative essays on a similar subject) allows for liberties that memoir and academic scholarship do not. This is not a serious, comprehensive study of the history of reading. Neither is it a memoir of my history of reading (the my standing in for the author, of course). It is, the article carefully chosen, a history of reading. One possible history, among countless varied histories of reading.
One might even argue, having read this, that a person can be understood fully if one knows all the books they’ve read, in the order that they were read in. There’s something consummately Borgesian in his approach, and in his underlying assumptions and interests that provide shape and scope to the book. This is no surprise, they share the city of Buenos Aires and Manguel even describes reading as a teenager to the blind Borges. There is no question that Borges’s fanciful, infinite and absurd orderings of the universe form the unseen foundation for this work.
The anecdotes retold here, not as historical evidence but for the pleasure of them, largely fall into the absurd: a category of books added to the Biblioteque National in Paris that consisted entirely of books made up by the compiler, the exploits of a gifted book thief, an encyclopedia of an imaginary world written in an invented language and published in the 1970s.
The anecdotes serve as the structure for each chapter, and the work Manguel does is more that of collector than anything else. As though filling a Victorian curio cabinet, which he discusses, he has plucked interesting stories from history and placed them alongside each other with no regard for context or chronology and little interpretation or reflection. The interpretive work, perhaps befittingly, has to be done by the reader. And that takes time, patience, endurance. It is not what we expect in terms of scholarship, which tends to be organized like a museum, in an easily digestible chronological and causal order, with expert explanation that minimizes the amount of work the viewer or reader has to do to understand the information presented. Here we have to extrapolate, draw connections and reflect for ourselves on the significance of these juxtaposed anecdotes.
In fact, this is why having finished it I know I’ll be carrying the book around for at least a few more moves – I’ve dog-eared pages and circled footnotes for future reading and reflection. This book is valuable if for no other reason than to provide a collection of interesting stories about reading in its many forms over several thousand years. But it does more than that. Manguel in his moments of critical reflection invests readers with a huge power, and with that power a huge responsibility. This is not a new idea, but he writes about it eloquently.
This book is in large part also a history of Christianity. This is not surprising, given its relationship to the written word, and the pervasiveness of Christianity in literary works since it became the official religion of imperialism. However, it proves tedious in parts, even for someone like me who did a degree in comparative study of religion. Despite this, as his criticism of consolidated and institutionalized power becomes clearer throughout the book, the anecdotes from Christian history become more poignant and engaging.
Would I recommend this book to others? No, not as a book. But taken as a collection of essays, in which some are inevitably stronger than others, it is immensely successful. I recommend “Learning to Read” for people who, like myself, teach students how to write. “Beginnings” for those interested in the ancient origins of the written word. “Ordainers of the Universe” for people interested in the categorization of knowledge. “Reading within Walls” for those interested in literature of outsiders (and by extension genre literature). “Stealing Books” for those with a penchant for biblio-mystery. “The Author as Reader” for creative writers. As a translator, I’m dismayed by the simplicity and sloppiness of “The Translator as Reader” – especially since Manguel himself is a translator and should think more carefully about that work. But “The Book Fool” as a timely defense of critical thinking against anti-intellectualism.
Taken like this, the parts far outweigh the whole.