The Power of the Reader in ‘A History of Reading’

Alberto Manguel takes a thematic rather than linear approach to a history of reading, offering an entertaining and impassioned account of reading practices and readers' agency.

I have read Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading as different people and in different places. I approached it as a book reviewer, as a lifelong bookworm, and as an English instructor having just taught a course on the 19th-century novel. It has been cradled in my palms on a bus, on a couch, in a library carrel, and in a bed, its words surrounded by not merely my hands but the sensations of public and private spaces, some jarring and others harmonious: tinny music leaking out of other people’s headphones; the intermingling of pumpkin spice lattes and dusty old books; a warm and worn blanket, a cold toe persistently peaking out from beneath it. Its pages fell victim to errant noodles dripping with sauce and my impassioned, if nearly illegible, marginalia.

In this way, A History of Reading has in my hands been a different book to me as I changed places and mind spaces, my reading experience impacted by a wide array of influences and stimuli. It has gathered a history for me in such a short time, even as it also travels backwards, embedding me in the book’s history, calling upon memories of that child who, like Manguel himself, smuggled books under the covers and past bedtimes read with the aid of a flashlight. Despite this point of connection between us, A History of Reading has undoubtedly been a different book in my hands than it was when Manguel released it from his own. It will likely be a different book for you, too.

Many a biography and critical text examine with great care the writer; her background, her influences, her style, and her impact. Manguel reminds us that a writer requires a reader, and that we, dear reader, possess an extraordinary power. From the first incision on an ancient Sumerian clay tablet, reading was invented right alongside writing. “The writer was a maker of messages, the creator of signs,” says Manguel, “but these signs and messages required a magus who could decipher them, recognize their meaning, give them voice.”

Manguel’s history of reading is a charming, sumptuous, and rambling love letter to that magus in us all. He introduces or reacquaints us with our reading kin: the Heian women of the 11th-century Japanese court who wrote books to read amongst themselves when “serious” books (books for men) were denied them; churchgoers desiring to experience the word of their God for themselves, unmediated by ecclesiastical powers; slaves who dared to learn to read, risking beatings or worse at the hands of those fearful of literacy sparking dreams of freedom, notions of personhood, and revolt; crowds composed of different social classes hearing Charles Dickens’s characters come to life from his very own lips.

If you expect this book to begin its history with the clay tablet, however, you would be mistaken. Upon encountering a book of history, it’s not uncommon to anticipate a systematic, chronological narrative, but Manguel organizes his history around looser, overarching themes: Acts of Reading and Powers of the Reader. Within a given page (page 169, in fact), he leaps from the 16th century Spanish mystic Fray Luis de Granada’s declaration that we are all but God the Author’s illuminated letters, to George Santayana’s contemplation that footnotes and marginalia can be more interesting than the text they accompany, to reading as a metaphor by which we seek to understand others, interpreting the signs of their bodies in the same way Lady Macbeth gazes upon her husband and remarks, “Your face, my Thane, is as a book where men may read strange matters.”

Interspersed throughout are accounts of Manguel’s own experiences as a reader, including his time as a teenager enlisted to read aloud to a blind Jorge Luis Borges. Manguel found himself as fascinated by Borges’s commentary on the stories they read as he did the books themselves, marveling at the differences between reading to himself and to another and at the variances in their reactions to the same works. Elsewhere in the book he explores that broader history of public reading and private reading, each contested and privileged at turns.

Rather than an exhaustive record of reading from its birth to the present – the history of reading – Manguel’s book is, as he aptly titles it, a history. It’s a history in the sense of the word’s origins, the Ancient Greek ἱστορία (hístōria) denoting “inquiry” or “knowledge from inquiry”. Indeed, Manguel inquires into what reading means and has meant, following each new kernel of knowledge as it reveals itself, drawing connections if not exhaustively and orderly, then certainly liberally and with infectious enthusiasm.

While there are times when for pages Manguel seems merely to be threading one quotation or factoid after another with little of his own analytical intervention, the wealth of fascinating material that he divulges is such a pleasure to read that it’s difficult to find fault in these moments. The text is particularly replete with stories of authors’ experiences with reading. We learn that Jamaica Kinkaid stole books from libraries as a child because once she had read a book, she just “couldn’t bear to part with it.” Percy Bysshe Shelley, Manguel tells us, was fond of stripping off his clothes, lying on a rock, and reading Herodotus. Marcel Proust found the toilet, a place typically “destined for a more special and more vulgar use”, to be the ideal place “for all my occupations which required an inviolable solitude: reading, reverie, tears and sensual pleasure.” Manguel extends this sentiment with a thoughtful examination of diverse reading spaces, exploring throughout history which books have been read where, by which readers, why, and to what effect.

Perhaps some of the most compelling moments in the text unfold when Manguel relates his own history. He recounts at one point his experience as a student at the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires, grappling with Franz Kafka’s assertion that “all that allegories intend to say is merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible.” Manguel and his classmates, the author recalls, were haunted by “the unsettling feeling that any single interpretation, any conclusion, any sense of having ‘understood’ [Kafka] and his allegories, was wrong.” There was a freedom in this too, however. If every text is allegorical, then reading is likewise allegorical, and Manguel and his peers understood that, as a result, “no reading can ever be final” and, as they took this discussion from the classroom to the café, “no authority could impose a ‘correct’ reading” upon them.

Of course, not all interpretations of a text are as equal as others – some stories cannot be mined for Marxist critique, no matter how hard one tries – but the reader has the power to transform the text at will; it is, in her hands, a living thing. We work to decipher meaning in everything around us and in ourselves; we read road signs, dreams, and faces. “We read to understand, or begin to understand,” writes Manguel. “We cannot do but read. Reading, almost as much as breathing, is our essential function.”

Manguel delights in what he calls the “wonderful paradox” of the relationship between writer and reader: “in creating the role of the reader, the writer also decrees the writer’s death, since in order for a text to be finished the writer must withdraw, cease to exist.” The text is incomplete until the writer releases it into the world; upon the reader’s encounter with it, it has its full existence. Even then, as Manguel stresses throughout the book, each reader may approach the text differently, transforming it with each encounter.

Manguel’s ardent belief in the power and privilege of the reader infuses A History of Reading with an energy that drives the text forward, so swiftly you might miss the moments he skips over. His wonderful paradox draws heavily from Roland Barthes’s essay, “The Death of the Author”, but he fails to acknowledge this, even as he gestures to other work by Barthes elsewhere in the book. This habit is present throughout the text, underscoring that while Manguel has proved in his career to be a skilled writer, translator, and editor, he is not necessarily a critical scholar. This is not a strike against the work – it does not claim to be anything it is not – but greater dialogue with and recognition of the work that has come before would not be amiss.

To his credit, Manguel is conscious of these gaps. “Like the act of reading itself,” he explains, “a history of reading jumps forward to our time – to me, to my experience as a reader – and then goes back to an early page in a distant foreign century. It skips chapters, browses, selects, rereads, refuses to follow conventional order.” This is how Manguel the reader has written his book, and this is how you too might treat it. Indeed, Manguel’s last chapter muses on the book he might have written, a history of reading alike and unlike this one. As readers, we read the book the writer has given us and also the book that he has not; we read the absences.

I anticipated a discussion of the 19th-century British novel and the rhetoric of poison that surrounded it, particularly when Manguel invokes the language of consumption that often accompanies reading. I thought surely his 2014 introduction to this 1996 book would discuss the development of new reading technologies, but there’s only a token recognition. In the text proper, there are sparse anecdotes about books on CD-ROM and the advent of word processing; he acknowledges in his description of the book he has not written that an introduction of the concept of hypertext would be useful. Of course, there are other books addressing this; there are other histories.

Manguel’s book remains informative and entertaining and his objects of interest are varied and rewarding. “One difference between history and imaginative literature,” according to writer Guy Davenport, “is that history neither anticipates nor satisfies our curiosity, whereas literature does.” Manguel’s history anticipates and satisfies curiosities you may never have known you had, imparting insights into Ancient Greek reading societies, Walt Whitman’s vision of a newspaper readership as an ideal civic community, tales of notorious and celebrated book thieves, and the origins of the Penguin Classics paperback as a means to attract “highbrow” and “lowbrow” readers alike.

“However readers make a book theirs, the end is that book and reader become one,” Manguel writes. We read for facts and meanings, but Manguel’s book is interested in how “at the same time, invisibly, unconsciously, text and reader become intertwined, creating new levels of meaning.” A History of Reading is a book that invites us to ponder on and celebrate this strange and beautiful phenomenon in its many iterations throughout history and in our own lives.

Above image: Glasses on a book from Shutterstock.com.

RATING 7 / 10