Review: A History of Reading

A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel

There are some recommendations on my reading list that are fairly obscure; A History of Reading is one of them. I didn’t find much about it online when I featured it on The Literary Horizon, and don’t even get me started about trying to find the cover image. Yeesh. So I had little to no expectations when I took the elevator to the third floor of the local library here and picked it up when Freakonomics proved to be out, despite me checking thirty minutes prior to see if it was in. Oh, the trials and tribulations of a library patron. But I was pleasantly surprised by A History of Reading, even if I wasn’t blown away by it.

A History of Reading is just that—a history of the craft of reading and readers throughout the ages. In each chapter—really, essays that could stand on their own—Manguel, the translator, writer, and editor, takes a certain aspect of the history of reading and examines it with the clear vision of hindsight, using accounts and depictions of readers throughout the centuries to give a clear picture of the peculiar and wonderful history of reading and the fellowship of readers the world over.

I really want to call this a collection, even though none of the chapters were published previously on their own as essays. But Manguel is such a neat and orderly writer that each chapter stands on its own, easy to read and brimming with fascinating facts. Most of the entries in my commonplace book from A History of Reading are such facts—did you know that the first named author in the history of ever is the Akkadian priestess and princess Enheduanna? She wrote poems about the goddess she served back in 2300 B.C. That’s millennia ago! I love stuff like this, and apparently, so does Manguel—he brings together seemingly random stories of readers throughout the centuries (and, occasionally, millennia) to show how the practice has evolved over the years, occasionally bringing to the table his own experiences as a reader. He connects bibliophilic warnings against theft (I particularly love the vehemence with which an anonymous monk threatened potential book thieves) across the ages, examines reading in bed, the association of glasses with readers, using books to predict the future, having a book read to you, the evolution of the codex, banned books, and the common metaphors used for reading, among many, many others. That last one particularly delighted me, considering how much mileage I get out of the books as food metaphor.

But this isn’t simply an collection of bookish facts and thoughts across history; while Manguel’s touch is so light that you might not notice it at first, he’s proposing ideas about reading and writing all the time. In Stephen King’s On Writing, the horror writer talks about how writing is a form of telepathy; Manguel takes that idea and runs with it, explaining how the invention of writing allowed man to conquer death and how valued scribes were. But what I found particularly interesting was how Manguel explores the subversive and political nature of reading. In one chapter, “The Symbolic Reader”, Manguel analyzes André Kertész’s photo “Hopsice de Beaune”, which features an elderly woman reading in bed—but the book’s title is obscured, leaving the reader to imagine what she might be reading. Later, when discussing libraries, he points out the tyranny of labeling books by genre with the example of Gulliver’s Travels, which, I’m not ashamed to say, made me almost cry in relief—that’s what I’ve been saying! And, in fact, that’s part of the charm of A History of Reading—being able to recognize your own bibliophilia in people throughout the ages makes this most solitary of pleasures almost a team sport. (I could go into fandom at this point, but I think that’s a point I’ll save for a Sunday Salon.)

Really, I could just go on and on about all the things I learned here—did you know that originally reading out loud was the norm and reading silently to yourself was hugely subversive, especially in a religious context. How else could someone figure out you were reading it wrong and come and correct you? Did you know that all ships bearing books into Alexandria had their books seized and copied for the great library? That from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, books were the possessions mothers passed to their daughters most? Manguel’s style won’t blow you away, but it’s a fun, light, and accessible read. The chapter “Endpaper Pages” (which, as you might gather, is the last chapter in the book), however, is extremely indulgent—Manguel is making the point that no one can write the authoritative The History of Reading, since that would be infinite, but he gets carried way away, to the point that your attention wanders, even as he peppers in fun anecdotes like Oscar Wilde translating the Passion of the Christ. It’s an odd ending to an otherwise lovely book.

Bottom line: A fun, light, and accessible romp through the history of reading; Manguel takes an aspect of reading for the subject of each chapter and reaches across history to provide fascinating facts, illuminating analysis, and a general feel of community among readers. While the style is light and the last chapter a remarkably indulgent and boring exercise, it’s a book bibliophiles ought to read.

I rented this book from the public library.

12 thoughts on “Review: A History of Reading

  1. I read this earlier this year, but it was during a month of crazy academic busyness, so I didn’t get around to reviewing it. I loved many of the same things you did, though! I think I slightly prefer his The Library at Night, but both are hugely informative and fun.

  2. The only book I have read like this a Every Book It’s Reader and I have to say it wasn’t as exciting as I thought that it might be. This one sounds a little more focussed on the act of reading, rather than the books that people read so it might prove to be a better option. I will look for it.

  3. I purchased this one from Half Price Books maybe six months ago. I have been meaning to get to it. I’ve read a lot about The Library at Night, but nothing about A History of Reading. I’m glad you enjoyed this one so much. I’m pretty sure it’s a book I’ll like quite a bit.

    Only loosely related: have you ever considered (or put together) a sort of…guide to genres/formats? You’re always so precise with your classifications and labels. For instance, I would not have realized or thought about how this book would not count as a collection because the pieces in it had not been previously published. It might sound silly, but I find that sort of thing really interesting but have not come across a guide of any sort. If it could be fleshed out, it could make a cool occasional feature, maybe highlighting one at a time, or comparing similar ones that often get mixed up? Just a thought. Feel free to ignore 🙂

    • Yeah, A History of Reading doesn’t get a lot of attention, but it ought to!

      It doesn’t sound silly at all! That would be a great topic for a Sunday Salon; I have ranted about “urban fantasy” as a misnomer before and talked about my own literary taxonomy, and this is just the excuse to talk about formats and how I define genres, especially as my views on them evolve. I think I’ll definitely do it.

      • I thought I remembered you talking about some of this once. It was that literary taxonomy post from last year. Thanks for the link! I definitely enjoy your discussions on topics like this. Your views are always very well defined and expressed, and I always end up really (re)considering my own definitions.

  4. Pingback: The Sunday Salon: Bookish Questions « The Literary Omnivore

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