Thursday, February 24, 2011

Book Review #2: A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel is a consummate lover of books. I suspect that reading, for him, is somewhat akin to breathing, that intimate, that essential.

An award-winning editor and writer, Manguel has published numerous works including
The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, The Gates of Paradise, and News From a Foreign Country Came.

A History of Reading, published in 1996, is a tour de force, an elegant book, handsomely illustrated, thoroughly researched. As an anecdotal and highly personal history, the work celebrates the joys, delights and endless quirky details of reading, writing and books.

Manguel points out that a book, unlike life, can be reread and relived. Reading can also be a private or a public act. In a chapter titled “Being Read To”, he explores the role of the lector in nineteenth century Cuba, when tobacco workers paid one of their number to read aloud political tracts, histories, novels and poetry while they rolled cigars.

From the mysteries of cuneiform to the visual language of an Absolut vodka ad, Manguel ranges from our earliest written languages up to the present age of information.

He sneaks behind private walls to give us a view of medieval Japanese women reading in their chambers and takes us back to the bookstores, stationery shops and literary cafes of his youth in Buenos Aires. He introduces us to the greatest book thieves of all time and reminds us that Don Quixote went mad from reading too many novels of chivalry.

A History of Reading is, quite simply, a bible for bibliophiles. As Miss Prothero said to the firemen standing among the cinders of her burnt house in Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales: “Would you like anything to read?”

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