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Alan Jacobs

Revenge of the Scroll

Reading, virtual and otherwise.

Alberto Manguel's rambling, digressive A History of Reading is not exactly a history; more accurately, it's a series of often fascinating snapshots. Here we have a lector reading aloud to cigar rollers in a Key West cigar factory; there we have an account of great bibliokleptomaniacs (book thieves); and look, a photograph of Eleanor of Aquitaine's tomb, with its sculpture of Eleanor reclining, a book in her hands. Manguel provides chapters on iconography, translation, forbidden books, and the categorical schemes of libraries. Interspersed with such historical commentary are Manguel's reflections on his own life as a devout reader, including his vivid story of the evenings he spent as a teenager in his home town of Buenos Aires reading aloud to the blind and elderly Jorge Luis Borges.

Manguel is a learned and enthusiastic advocate for reading, and to his credit he disavows at the outset any narrative coherence: his book, he says, "skips chapters, browses, selects, rereads, refuses to follow conventional order." This language suggests that Manguel offers us a formal or structural imitation of how most of us read, and this is arguably appropriate; but his method is too jumpy for my taste. And taste will inevitably be the arbiter in judging a book of this kind, so frankly personal and anecdotal. It's interesting that in The Gutenberg Elegies, a plea for the value of reading, Sven Birkerts finds the reading of novels normative and so defends a slow, disciplined, linear attentiveness that contrasts strikingly with Manguel's protean fluctuations. When I first read Birkerts I complained about this emphasis, but I now realize that my sympathies are more with him than with Manguel.

Still, I learned a great deal from this historical jumble. Manguel is especially useful on the manifold ambiguities of reading. In a chapter called "Learning to Read" he notes that "in every literate society, learning to read is something of an initiation, a ritualized passage out of a state of dependency ...

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