Books: Adventures in the cock-fighting chair

Are books a kind of moral penicillin? Do we live to read or read to live? DJ Taylor ponders a chronicle of textuality
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The Independent Culture
A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel HarperCollins, pounds 25

Some of the best moments in Victorian literature come when its novelists - either in the first person or in the guise of their characters - start rhapsodising over the books they read in childhood. No Victorian bildungsroman worth the name is devoid of the scene in which our hero, alone in the schoolroom after Dr Slasher has departed, or marauding through the family library while his parents are away, discovers his first book. Thackeray's novels are crammed with images of a small boy rigid with fear as he pores by candlelight over Manfroni: Or the One-Handed Monk; Dickens and David Copperfield are rarely closer than at the moment when David comes across Smollett and Fielding; while even a broken-down old hack like Gissing's Henry Ryecroft can suddenly snap out of his benign langour when you realise that it is Gissing himself conning over the bookseller's bargains in Paternoster Row.

Here and there come occasional correctives to this tide of elegy: H.G. Wells could never quite forgive himself for the adolescent energy wasted in copying out Carlyle's feeble last work, The Early Kings of Norway. In general, though, Thackeray, Dickens and Co. are the dazzling summit of a somewhat shaky edifice. A sub-scholarly atmosphere in which bookish types discourse amiably about books is as characteristic of late-Victorian literature as snuff. The title of Leslie Stephen's Hours in a Library encapsulates a great mass of second and third-rate trifling in which "the book" is taken down and exhibited to the reader in a tone that is occasionally holy, more often complacent, but nearly always faintly dispiriting. There is, after all, no bore like a book bore, and at first sight calling a book A History of Reading looks like an excuse for the worst kind of bygone dilettanteism.

Fortunately, Alberto Manguel travels only a short distance along this path and, despite one or two antique flourishes ("There are books I read in armchairs, and there are books I read at desks; there are books I read in subways..." etc), the personal appearances are usually justified.

To learn that the teenage Manguel was frequently summoned to read aloud to a blind Buenos Aires neighbour may not be interesting in itself, but it becomes electrifying once you know that the listener is Borges. Sumptuously illustrated - with the illustrations set into the text - and elegantly got up, A History of Reading turns out to be a well-researched survey of a ritual to which Manguel, and most of his quoted fellow-readers, ascribe "a certain secret solemnity and importance".

As Babel and cuneiform tablets give way to Greek papyrus scribblers and Galen's idea of a "visual spirit" born in the brain which crossed the eye through the optic nerve and then flowed out into the air, some of this can become a little too solemn for comfort. Manguel's notions about this primal impulse - and to judge from his research the ability to read is a fundamental distinction between the primitive and non-primitive society - need constant authenticating garnishes, whether from St Jerome or modern literary theorists; by the time a certain Dr Martin C. Whittock is wheeled into view to suggest that "to comprehend a text we not only read it, in the nominal sense of the word, we construct a meaning for it", it is tempting to think of Nigel Molesworth gravely informing the under-matron that mumps were better than measles.

Manguel has a line, of course, throughout this parade of interesting facts and statistics (the 359,433 volumes, for example, registered with the US Library of Congress in 1995) and that line is the old humanist one about reading as a moral activity, the elemental legend that assimilating the contents of a printed page automatically makes you a better person. At the same time it is impossible not to share something of this high- mindedness, and to regret its passing. When Walt Whitman, in his capacity as editor of the Huntingdon Long Islander, circa 1845, proposes that "there is a curious kind of sympathy... that arises in the mind of a newspaper conductor with the public he serves... Daily communion creates a sort of brotherhood and sisterhood between the two publics"; you are shocked and charmed by what even then must have seemed mildly naive - on the other side of the Atlantic the early-Victorian cult of abusive personal journalism was already boosting circulations, and let us not forget that in America generally this was the era of the New York Rowdy Journal.

Manguel is particularly good on the paraphernalia of reading, its cosy appurtenances, like the "rotary reading desk" designed by the Italian engineer Agostino Ramelli sometime in the sixteenth century, or the "cockfighting chair" custom-made for Georgian libraries, in which the reader sat astride, facing a desk fixed to the back of the chair, while leaning against the armrests.

Or there is the arresting case of Count Guglielmo Libri, the 19th century's most accomplished book thief. Armed with official credentials and dressed in a voluminous cloak, Libri stalked the public libraries of France for the best part of a decade. When he and his wife fled to England in 1848, in advance of criminal proceedings, they took 18 chests of bibliophilic plunder with them. Libri's technique, Manguel reveals, turned on an irresistible effrontery. On one occasion he produced for his friend Prosper Merimee a copy of the Tours Pentateuch, a celebrated illuminated manuscript from the seventh century: Merimee, who made a habit of visiting libraries, remarked that he has seen something very like this in Tours. Ah, the Count explained, what he had been shown was a French copy of an original acquired by Libri in Italy...

If a History of Reading has a weakness, it lies in the compression of so much material into so many elegant mini-chapters. Crisply invoking St Augustine and Derrida from one sentence to the next, back-tracking six centuries and half a continent to forge a connection, Manguel sometimes comes over as a souped-up Marina Warner, hopping across the millenia to make links that are plausible but often not much more than that.

Running here and there through the book are the essentials of a very old debate, which might be summarised as "Live to read or read to live?" On the evidence available here, Manguel is a "live to read" man, but he does quote Kafka's sharp rebuke of the escapist justification of reading volunteered by a friend: "A book cannot take the place of the world... In life everything has its own meaning, and its own purposes for which there cannot be any permanent substitute." One of the problems that calcifies the contemporary stand-off between the average book-lover and the proponent of the bright technological future is the former's invariable descent into misty-eyed humanism, a sort of escapism by default that nearly always antagonises any non-bookish person. Somewhere, DH Lawrence suggests that books are the whole world, that everything reposes in them, and so on. Regarding the book as a kind of moral penicillin might have had some point in the 1920s, but it won't do now, and if we want the book to hold its own against the VCR and the Information Superhighway, one of the first things we should do is to treat it with a little less reverence.

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