Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading, and our “essential function”

There is nowhere to begin with A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel when you’ve got a mind as speckle-y and inane as mine. Faced with this kind of book-dorkery-in-a-book, the tendency is to quote long passages from each of the chapters, and [over-] share personal experience that basically says, “I agree, I agree!”

[I have tried to offset the projected self-indulgence of this post—and, come on, these are a smidge of my notes and marginalia for Manguel’s book—by putting up two earlier posts about it, mostly quotes: [01] About that enlightened group of people who specialize in book thievery; and [02] about The Büchernarr, or the Book Fool.]

And I think I’m going to do that, or, well, do that for one chapter or two—and even then there’s a lot of chopping off to do. This is going to be a ridiculous post as it is. But I am in a ridiculous-enough mood.


» Even before the mankind’s history of reading, Manguel, in an introductory chapter, offers his own personal history of reading. Which actually makes me want to start my own. Good lord.

» Manguel describes readings as “our essential function.” YES. Also: “Each book was a world unto itself, and in it I took refuge.” Manguel talks about experiencing, as a child, the world offered by books as infinitely better than the world out there. And when encountering in the world something already experienced in books, most things feel short. Except, he says—simply, quietly—except when he touched a lover’s body for the first time. Oh, my.

» How Manguel reads, two kinds: “First, by following, breathlessly, the events and the characters without stopping to notice the details, the quickening pace sometimes hurtling the story beyond the last page . . . Secondly, by careful exploration, scrutinizing the text to understand its raveled meaning, finding pleasure merely in the sound of the words or in the clues which the words did not wish to reveal, or in what I suspected was hidden deep in the story itself, something too terrible or too marvelous to be looked at.”

» Adulterous reading! <3 Reading to Borges – by the way, as a boy he read to the blind Borges!—he “quickly learned that reading is cumulative and proceeds by geometrical progression: each new reading builds upon whatever the reader has read before.” He quotes the Argentinian writer Ezequiel Martínez Estrada: “There are those who, while reading a book, recall, compare, conjure up emotions from other, previous reading. This is one of the most delicate forms adultery.”

* * *

» The chapter “The Silent Readers,” among my favorites. Basically, we didn’t always read silently—that is, we read not so much for ourselves but to share what we are reading to the people around us. And in this silence, reading became a solitary act.

Even though he thought there were too many books to be read, and thought readers should share their findings by reporting to one another the gist of their studies, [Ralph Waldo] Emerson believed that reading a book was a private and solitary business. “All these books . . . are the majestic ecpressions of the universal conscience, and are more to our daily purpose than this year’s almanac or this day’s newspaper. But they are for the closet, and are to be read on the bended knew. Their communicatons are not to be given or taken with the lips and the end of the tongue, but out of the glow of the cheek, and with the throbbing of the heart.” In silence.

The more silent reading became the norm, the reading experience turned more personal and introspective, even intimate. Reading was, at last, more for oneself.

» “. . . the reader has become deaf and blind to the world, to the passing crowds, to the chalky flesh-coloured facades of the buildings. Nobody seems to notice a concentrating reader: withdrawn, intent, the reader becomes commonplace.” Curiously: Just as I was writing this last sentence, two women approached the one who’d been reading on the table beside me. Reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, occasionally groaning, and muttering, “My god, Umbridge!” The two girls tell her: “Have you been here all along? We didn’t see you.”

» I am optimistic enough to think that readers seek readers. We are comforted by seeing strangers rapt with a book. I know I scan the room for people whose heads are bent low over an open book, and I always feel indescribably giddy when I spot one. One of us.

[There’s this boy who frequents the same café I do. One week he’d be reading Gary Shteyngart, another he’d been juggling Proust and King Lear. And this boy, this boy looks like an awkward young Paul Auster, not in grayscale.]


I’ve barely scratched the surface. And this is an incredibly useless post, haha. I mean, I haven’t even talked about what A History of Reading is about. It’s about a the history of reading. How we learned to read, how we read from civilization’s birth to our darketh thimes noweth, and how incredibly awesome the act of reading is. That’s about it.

I think I squealed when I saw this at a local bookstore. Come on, Rest of Alberto Manguel’s Oeuvre, get to me now.

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6 comments

  1. This sounds perfectly lovely. Adding to my must read list. slowly.

  2. What a great post! I’ve been meaning to read Manguel for ages but still haven’t. It looks like I must. I too get overly excited in a very quiet way when I spot people reading actual books, especially on the tube. Most people just listen to their ipods or read newspapers. I am constantly surreptitiously trying to see the title and although I get weird looks, sometimes I get a smile.

    1. Oh, I do that a lot — sometimes, feeling impish, I let the readers know that I am staring at them and wondering what they’re reading, haha. It’s unnerving, yes, but a lot of fun. It’s so strange, no, feeling so happy when you spot someone reading a book?

  3. […] since I read Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading, I have been trying to convince myself that I would like to write a personal history of reading. A […]

  4. I just discovered this book two days ago at a used bookstore, and I cannot believe I had not run across it earlier. I love it! So soothing for a book nerd, so erudite, so right. Thanks for the post–I hope more people read Manguel’s really quite wonderful books.

  5. Watson Wolf · · Reply

    Reblogged this on Watson's Blog.

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