Rhapsody between the sheets

A HISTORY OF READING by Alberto Manguel HarperCollins pounds 25
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Reading, like all solitary pursuits, carries a tang of eroticism. The outside world dissolves; the reader pleasures himself upon the text. Once the book is finished, post-biblial tristesse and a rosy afterglow mingle, perhaps wreathed in time-stopping tobacco fumes. This, at least, may be what Alberto Manguel has in mind when he mentions his habitual frisson at the phrase "taking a book to bed". And if all readers are thus blissfully self-satisfying, Manguel is an avuncular, scholarly voyeur, hopping gamely through the centuries and across geograpical borders to catch readers in the commission of their vice, to observe the chameleon mores and uses of reading.

Gustave Flaubert once enjoined a correspondent: "Read in order to live", and this is Manguel's rhapsodic line as he moves between his many charming passages of literary autobiography and tracing the contours of a global, historical community of readers. A continent-hopping polyglot raised in Buenos Aires, where as a boy he met Borges and read aloud to the blind fabulist from Kipling, Stevenson and James, Manguel is richly qualified for the task.

With a gleeful disregard for chronology, Manguel rambles through several anecdotes in each mini-chapter of 20 pages or so: the Sumerian invention of writing, diverse psycho-cognitive theories; spectacles in art; book- form from parchment to Penguins; early Christian-era prophesies wrung from "random" passages of Virgil; odd habits of the librarian. See the indefatigable 10th-century Grand Vizier of Persia, for instance, who owned 117,000 books but couldn't bear to leave them at home: when he went travelling, he had them "carried by a caravan of 400 camels trained to walk in alphabetical order".

Almost the most sophisticated rhetorical transition from one example to another, in these magpie pages, is "But sometimes ... ", implying that Manguel's talent is more anthological than analytical. Certainly there is no very interesting discussion of how reading works, as opposed to what people read, or what they sit on when they're reading. Manguel's reiterated message is, uncontroversially, that "readers re-write texts": here, more attention to Derrida than a passing quote, or more attention to Barthes than a cheerfully anachronistic reference to the concept of "the death of the author" in 1387, might have been illuminating.

There is a superb section on translation, when Rilke's German renderings of Louise Labe's 16th-century French poems are compared side-by-side: if only Manguel had focused this narrowly on words more often. "The Shape of the Book" is good history, but Manguel disdains to get bogged down in a discussion of how layout and type-face affect reading. (Not irrelevant, one would suppose, and insisted upon, for instance, in John Lennard's inspired new reading manual The Poetry Handbook.)

Another chapter, "Metaphors of Reading", devotes itself almost entirely to a slew of dismally transparent passages by Walt Whitman. Other, more wittily confrontational reader-collaring strategies (Baudelaire's "Hypocrite lecteur, - mon semblable, - mon frere!" or Melville's "Call me Ishmael") go unmentioned. Missing, too, is any discussion of extended fictional metaphors of reading - Paul Auster's City of Glass, Borges's own "Death and the Compass", Moby-Dick itself - or the peculiar, delicious conspiracy between author and reader that is sanctioned by such genre conventions as those of science fiction and the detective story.

To his credit, though, Manguel knows from the start that his subject is too enormous, and in a whimsically ludic postlude called "Endpaper Pages" he imagines himself reading the as-yet-unwritten tome, The History of Reading (note the definite article). Into his final pot Manguel apparently chucks all his disconnected, leftover apercus, without needing to argue them. But Manguel's command of tone is such that his modesty topos is a touching end to the whole generous, quixotic enterprise.

Manguel at one point carefully stresses the synergy between book and place: "There are books I read in armchairs, and there are books I read at desks ..." In this spirit, I read A History of Reading in the bath, in bed, in several pungent Underground carriages, in the gloomy offices (covertly) of a weekly women's magazine, and over Kronenbourg and Gitanes at a waterside cafe while the sun set, languorously. This last seemed to suit it best.

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