A History of Reading
Alberto Manguel
Remember that noisy Angie Peters who sat in front of our sixth grade class? Whenever Miss Herlong had a question, Angie was straining out of his seat, waving his hand right in her face in her face.

Sometimes the old witch would try to nab one of the rest of us for an answer, and we'd have to mutter something stupid, because we never did our homework. But mostly she'd sigh, and say, "OK, tell the class, Angie."

And Angie would get up, sort of smirking, and half turn around in his seat and come out with an answer that the rest of us couldn't have dreamed up in our wildest imagination. "The reason there's no pronoun," he'd say, "is because in the command form, the you is understood."

Then he would sit his fat self down, and we'd hate him, and some of the older boys would try, later on, to get him off to the corner of the playground, beat up on him a little, just because he was such a geek, but of course --- when recess came --- Angie was never to be found. He know that he was a hunted man, and the better part of valor was to hide in the cloakroom.

They don't die, these show-offs. They just go off to write fat, portentous books about, say, reading. Angie Peters has been resurrected as Alberto Manguel, and the book A History of Reading. And if there is ever a bigger name dropper, hand-waver, fact-grabber, it's Manguel.

Want to know what the first writings are, ever? Would you believe two tablets from Tel Brak, Syria, dating from 4,000 BC, having to do with the buying of lambs and goats. Manguel has seen them, and wants you to know how exciting it is to just stand there and look at them, if they weren't destroyed by the Gulf War.

Who was the first out of the Gutenberg set to print books by the most famous of the ancients? It was Aldus Manutius --- you remember Aldus --- in Venice, in 1494. He printed the books of "Sophocles, Aristotle, Plato, Thucydides, Virgil, Horace, Ovid," among others.

Want to know who Manguel read to, every week, from age sixteen to eighteen? Would you believe Jorge Luis Borges, who just happened to visit the bookstore where Manguel worked. Borges was so smitten by this bright get-up-and-go kid that he invited him to his home so he could read to him (Borges was functionally blind). And what were their favorites? Surely it wasn't theNational Enquirer (Buenos Aires edition) (where they both lived). Nope: "Kipling, Stevenson, Henry James, several entries of the Brockhaus German encyclopaedia, verses of Marino, of Enrique Banchs, of Heine..." Enrique who?

Want to know who was the biggest book thief of all times? Guglielmo Bruto Icilio Timoleone, Conte Libri-Carrucci della Somamia. (His friends called him "Libri.") How do we know he stole all this stuff? Because Manguel happened to be wading through Albert Cim's Amateurs et Voleurs de Livres (Paris, 1903) and there it is: tales of the corpulent Libri and his astonishing thefts from the libraries of Carpentras, Dijon, Grenoble, Lyons, Orléans, etc. etc.

To top off the story, according to our author, "the seventeenth century gossipmonger Tallemant des Réaux" said that "stealing books is not a crime unless the books are sold."

I hope you are catching my drift: with Manguel, we've got a someone who can't write a simple declarative sentence without dropping the name of Richard de Fournival (Chancellor of the Cathedral of Amines, 1250), or Henry Walton Smith (Bookseller, London, 1792), or Apollonius (Finance Minister of Alexandria, 258 BC)

§     §     §

Ostensibly, this is a history of reading, a study of being read to, of reading aloud, of reading silently, of the love of books, of the relation between author and reader ---where we read,how we read,when we read,why we read.

We are reading a book about reading which is meant to make us think about words, and the printed page, and that fine isolation that we value so much --- of getting inside another's mind, totally, without anything in the way, without filter and distortions.

For Manguel and the rest of us who grew up neurotic and lonely, books were a marvelous escape. There we were, alone in our rooms. We can hear our compadres outside, playing baseball and laughing and running. And yet, as we read, at the back of our minds, we're thinking that they may be out there, having a great and noisy time, but I'm here in my room, by myself, reading, and that's a much better thing, because someday I'll start writing books too, and they'll be sorry that they ignored me, laughed at me, paid no attention to me. They'll be very sorry.

Reading thus became a revenge. For some of us. For Manguel, it is a revenge in spades.

§     §     §

When the author decides to stop strutting --- which happens every hundred pages or so ---The History of Reading takes off, begins to have some narrative force. The chapter on Walt Whitman is a gem, melding Whitman's poems, and his readings, and his lust for words, and his lust for sailors and bus-boys, into one glorious whole. In a more fortunate aside, Manguel goes from Whitman to lunch, giving us books as meals, food-for-thought, writers cooking up a story, rehashing a text, having half-baked ideas for a plot, spicing up a scene or garnishing the bare-bones of an argument...a slice of life peppered with allusions into which readers can sink their teeth...

As I say, when Manguel drops his mask, and gets down to the nitty-gritty, writing something that might interest an everyday reader, he is well worth the candle.

For example, when he describes his own lonely childhood (he was the son of a constantly traveling diplomat), or when he tells the story of the cigar-wrappers of Florida --- who paid readers to go through entire books to lighten their workdays --- we get to see clear his love of words and books, free of all the frosting of verbiage and name-drop.

There are even moments of high art here, such as when he describes the genesis of the greatest monument to Western literary and religious art--- the making of the King James version of the bible, in which forty-nine men,

who, at the beginning of the 17th Century, achieved, in their private interpretations and communal blendings, an extraordinary balance of accuracy, a respect for traditional phrasing and an overall style that read not like a new work but something long existing.

At these times, the author gives us a Real History of Reading --- not the endless let-me-show-you-how-literate-I-am book that might well have been titled,

    A History of What Alberto Manguel Has Read, and How Smart It Has Made Him.

--- C. A. Amantea
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