Thursday, April 16, 2009

A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel

If it were not for the desire to read other books, I might never have finished A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel. As it was, I read a little at a time over about five weeks. I had to renew the book once. I could have renewed it again, as no one is waiting for it. The title is sort of drab and not promising of thrills, but once I got into the book, I thoroughly enjoyed all the arcane details about people, places, and eras that I know so little about.

For instance, on page 55, I read that Petrarch carried a pocket-sized edition of the Confessions of St. Augustine wherever he went. Petrarch lived in the 13th century and predated Gutenberg. I was surprised to learn there were pocket-editions of books even then.

On page 226, Manguel tells us about women of 1st century Greece who spent their time reading romance novels. Greek men thought that would keep them servile and out of mischief. Little did the men know that the women found ways to broaden their learning and gender communications through the supposedly safe literature. You can't keep readers down.

"The Silent Readers" is a particularly interesting chapter. In ancient times, reading was expected to be aloud. Reading quietly was thought of as sinister and diabolical. Only someone with evil purposes would not share with others their interaction with text.

Perhaps Manguel should have called the book A History of Readers as every chapter tells about individual persons and their experiences reading. Some are names that you will recognize, such as Franz Kafka, Colette, Gutenberg, or Charles II, King of England. In some ways, the book is autobiographical, as we learn about Manguel's education, work, and travels. In some other ways, it is about all of us and our habits of reading.

A History of Reading, with its nice type and many illustrations, is definitely a book for serious book lovers. Are you one? There are lots of copies on library shelves just waiting for you.

Thanks to Christine Pawley for recommending A History of Reading in her article on Readers' Advisor News.

Manguel, Alberto. A History of Reading. Viking, 1996. ISBN 0670843024

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