Tuesday, 14 August 2018

A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel


I found this book when I visited the local library. For someone who loves reading, such a title is obligatory. Manguel himself, Argentinian, but roaming the world with his diplomatic parents, fell in love with books from an early age. It seems he has read it all and a little bit more.  The history oozes love of books and he takes us through times to find out who read books and how.

It starts from the very beginning when there was no writing and people had to learn stories and tell them. A time when people read aloud for an audience. A time when being able to read and write made you a privileges person in society. And, closer to our time when a book became more common and readable in your own language, and not just something for a learned few.

The next part he dedicates to the powers of the reader. From the beginning when only a few people could read, on to the people who could read the future. The symbolic reader and reading inside of walls. Stealing books. Yes, there were people so interesting in collecting books that they actually stole them from museums and libraries. Then there is the reading of writers and translators. There is a very interesting section on Rainer Maria Rilke translating the 16th century female poet Louise Labé. There is also a section on forbidden reading, where, through history, books have posed such a threat to the leaders of a country that they had to be burned.

All through the history of reading it was believed that the book changed people's mind. They would be affected of what they read, so therefore leaders must be careful what was let out to the public. Censuring books has been a big part of its history. It was easier at a time when books were handmade. With the invention of Gutenberg's printing press, the spread of books became more common. Manguel quotes a letter from a Enea Silvio Piccolomini to the cardinal av Carvajal, dated 12 March 1455, where he informs the cardinal about Gutenberg's Bible. He is very impressed by the beauty of the book, with clear and neat letters free from mistakes. It is possible to read without effort and without glasses. He will try to get an example, but fears it is impossible. There are customers who orders the Bible even before it is printed. The first most popular book!


Manguel's research into the history of reading is huge, and he takes us through it from all angles. Small details like when glasses were introduced, and how difficult it was for the writers to work on copying books and writing letters. Even special chairs made for reading and/or studying. Kafka said to a friend that "you read to ask questions". Well, after reading this book, at least questions relating to reading is more or less answered.

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