7 March 2008

Alberto Manguel - A History of Reading

Alberto Manguel is becoming a small publishing phenomenon, producing a couple of books a year on a variety of subjects, most of them connected with bibliophilia. His The Library at Night, out next month, is eagerly anticipated, and I wrote about A Reading Diary recently. This book, published in 1996 and now out of print in the UK (I got mine from amazon.com) has already achieved classic status, which is fully justified.

Manguel approaches his subject on a thematic basis.There are chapters on reading aloud and reading in private - apparently it was normal for books to be read aloud, even when in private contemplation, so the low murmuring of monks at study was common, and Alexander was noted with astonishment when he read a letter in front of his troop without moving his lips. Reading was thus originally about vocalising text, and it went through a transition to become internalised comprehension.

This book is full of fascinating information like this, and Manguel is a beguiling guide. His easy style makes this book more of a leisurely chat than an academic lecture, and he hops from one subject to another without effort. His historical anecdotes are not just entertaining but pertinent, and the illustrations within the text are neatly embedded so that they appear alongside the reference, enhancing the reading experience.

Manguel's mentor was Borges - as a sixteen year old he was employed as a reader to the blind writer - and his final chapter is deliberately Borgesian. He describes all the things he might have written about reading, an infinite book, like Borges's infinite library. It's a witty conclusion inkeeping with the tone of the book.

This is a book to be savoured rather than devoured - I read it in a couple of weeks, one short chapter per night. (Manguel also has things to say about eating metaphors for reading) It's highly appropriate that a book on the pleasures of reading should be such a pleasure to read.


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