Manguel: A History of Reading

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Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading. New York : Viking, 1996. 372 pages, with notes and index.

What can be closer to the center of our society's culture, its continuation and spread, than reading, except perhaps for writing? Writing has been a common subject for a book; reading, less so. Now, since our culture and our science and technology are fingers of the same glove, it shouldn't surprise anyone to find here a book about reading amidst books on science and technology.

This history is not a linear narrative, but more a collection of essays on one theme, essays that play back and forth across various aspects of that theme, building its history in layers, like transparent glazes on a Renaissance oil painting. He considers reading as a new activity, learning to read, forbidden reading, the shapes of books and technology of printing, reader as translator, and images of readers across time.

While I was reading, I wrote down these adjectives about the author's writing: poetic, literary, graceful. None of these, however, preclude an analytical, deductive stance on the author's part. His approach is far from technical, but he does not exclude the technical from his narrative as anathema: it takes its natural place when the story touches on, say, the invention of movable type or the invention of reading glasses. Deducing when reading likely moved from an activity done aloud to an activity done silently was a question and answer that were both fascinating.


Augustine's description of Ambrose's silent reading (including the remark that he never read aloud) is the first definite instance recorded in Western literature [of silent reading]. Earlier examples are far more uncertain. In the fifth century BC, two plays show characters reading on stage: in Euripides' Hippolytus, Theseus reads in silence a letter held by this dead wife; in Aristophanes' The Knights, Demosthenes looks at a writing-tablet sent by an oracle and, without saying out loud what it contains, seems taken aback by what he has read. According to Plutarch, Alexander the Great read a letter from his mother in silence in the fourth century BC, to the bewilderment of his soldiers. Claudius Ptolemy, in the second century AD, remarked in On the Criterion (a book that Augustine may have known) that sometimes people read silently when they are concentrating hard, because voicing the words is a distraction to thought. And Julius Caesar, standing next to his opponent Cato in the Senate in 63 BC, silently read a little billet-doux sent to him by Cato's own sister. Almost four centuries later, Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, in a catechetical lecture probably delivered at Lent of the year 349, entreated the women in church to read, while waiting during the ceremonies, "quietly, however, so that, while their lips speak, no other ears may hear what they say" – a whispered reading, perhaps, in which the lips fluttered with muffled sounds. [p. 43]

Before there could be "reading", there had to have been "seeing". There was no need to understanding "seeing", but our curiosity persists.

Al-Haytham died in Cairo in 1038. Two centuries later, the English scholar Roger Bacon – attempting to justify the study of optics to Pope Clement IV at a time when certain factions within the Catholic Church were violently arguing that scientific research was contrary to Christian dogma – offered a revised summary of al-Haytham's theory. Following al-Haytham (while at the same time underplaying the importance of Islamic scholarship), Bacon explained to His Holiness the mechanics of the intromission theory. According to Bacon, when we look at an object (a tree or the letters "SUN")a visual pyramid is formed that has its base on the object itself and its apex at the centre of the curvature of the cornea. We "see" when the pyramid enters our eye and its rays are arranged on the surface of our eyeball, refracted in such a way that they do not intersect. Seeing, for Bacon, was the active process by which an image of the object entered the eye and was then grasped through he eye's "visual powers". [p. 34]

From reading aloud, to reading silently, back to public oration, the best intentions sometimes have unintended consequences.

Public readings were not unique to Rome. The Greeks read publicly. Five centuries before Pliney, for instance, Herodotus read his own work at the Olympic festivals, where a large and enthusiastic audience was assembled from all over Greece, to avoid having to travel from city to city. But in the sixth century public readings effectively ceased because there no longer seemed to be an "educated public". The last description known to us of a Roman audience at a public reading is in the letters of the Christian poet Apollinaris Sidonius, written in the second half of the fifth century. By then, as Sidonius himself lamented in his letters, Latin had become a specialized, foreign tongue, "the language of the liturgy, of the chancelleries and of a few scholars". Ironically, the Christian Church, which had adopted Latin to spread the gospel to "all men in all place", found that the language had become incomprehensible to the vast majority of the flock. Latin became part of the Church's "mystery", and in the eleventh century the first Latin dictionaries appeared, to help students and novices for whom Latin was no longer the mother tongue. [p. 251]

Reading has not always been the easy pastime, the congenial, relaxing, or peaceful activity that we are accustomed to. Reading was sometimes forbidden as a way for rulers to consolidate and maintain control over the ruled. I found these two paragraphs compelling:

For centuries, Afro-American slaves learned to read against extraordinary odds, risking their lives in a process that, because of the difficulties set in their way, sometimes took several years. The accounts of their learning are many and heroic. Ninety-year-old Belle Myers Carothers – interviewed by the Federal Writers' Project, a commission set up in the 1930s to record, among other things, the personal narratives of former slaves – recalled that she had learned her letters while looking after the plantation owner's baby, who was playing with alphabet blocks. The owner, seeing what she was doing, kicked her with his boots. Myers persisted, secretly studying the child's letter as well as a few words in a speller she had found. one day, she said, "I found a hymn book ... and spelled out 'When I Can Read My Title Clear'. I was so happy when I saw that I could really read, that I ran around telling all the other slaves." Leonard Black's master once found him with a book and whipped him so severely that he overcame my thirst for knowledge, and I relinquished its pursuit until after I absconded". Doc Daniel Dowdy recalled that "the first time you was caught trying to read or write you was shipped with a cow-hide, the next time with a cat-o-nine-tails, and the third time they cut the first joint off your fore-finger." Throughout the South, it was common for plantation owners to hang any slave who tried to teach the others how to spell. [p. 280]

As centuries of dictators have known, an illiterate crowd is easiest to rule; since the craft of reading cannot be untaught once it has been acquired, the second-best recourse is to limit its scope. Therefore, like no other human creation, books have been the bane of dictatorships. Absolute power requires that all reading be official reading; instead of whole libraries of opinions, the ruler's word should suffice. Books, wrote Voltaire in a satirical pamphlet called "Concerning the Horrible Danger of Reading", "dissipate ignorance, the custodian and safeguard of well-policed states". Censorship, therefore, in some form or another, is the corollary of all power, and the history of reading is lit by a seemingly endless line of censors' bonfires, from the earliest papyrus scrolls to the books of our timer. The works of Protagoras were burned in 411 BC in Athens. In the year 213 BC the Chinese emperor Shih Huang-ti tried to put an end to reading y by burning all the books in his realm. In 168 BC, the Jewish Library in Jerusalem was deliberately destroyed during the Maccabean uprising. In the first century AD, Augustus exiled the poets Cornelius Gallus and Ovid and banned their works. The emperor Caligula ordered the at all books by Homer, Virgil and Livy be burned (but his edict was not carried out). In 303, Diocletian condemned all Christian books to the fire. And theses were only the beginning. The young Goethe, witnessing the burning of a book in Frankfurt, felt that he was attending an execution. "To see an inanimate object being punished," he wrote, "is in and of itself something truly terrible." The illusion cherished by those who burn books is that, in doing, so, they are able to cancel history and abolish the past. [p. 283]

The author ends by discussing his waking dream about a book, The History of Reading, implying inadequacies about his current work, A History of Reading. Of the one, but also to be seen as of the other, he says

But the history this book records has been particularly difficult to grasp; it is made, so to speak, of its digressions. one subject calls to another, an anecdote brings a seemingly unrelated story to mind, and the author proceeds as if unaware of logical causality or historical continuity, as if defining the reader's freedom is the very writing about the craft. [p. 310]

And so I found A History of Reading an evocative, lyrical, literary, and analytical work about a subject so fundamental that we almost never think about it. Fortunately, Manguel has thought a lot about it and shared the results of his reflections.

-- Notes by JNS

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