Tuesday, 6 May 2008

A History of Reading

Why do we read? This question went around in a meme not too long ago, and I didn't answer it then, because I didn't get around to it. I liked one answer (and I'm sorry, I can't remember who wrote it), when she said she read like she breathed. There was no reason why, or there are so many reasons why, there is simply, and wholly, reading because there are books. I read because I can, because I am fortuante enough to have an education that enables me to, and because, like the unknown blog writer said, I read like I breathe. A History of Reading is about this feeling we who read books all share - we read because we can, because books are there, because it gives us knowledge and a way to see the world through other experiences, because - I think - we each essentially experience the world only through our own eyes and experiences. Books are a way to bridge that gap.

A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel covers why we read, the - a - history of reading, from the development of writing on stone tablets in Sumaria, straight up to the computer. He doesn't mention 'kindle' because this book was written in 1998, and kindle is a 21st century invention. If he ever revises A History, I'm certain kindle will have a section! I've wanted to read this book for 10 years, since it first was published. It was a bestseller when it was first published, and we sold so many at the bookstore I then worked at, Books Canada (now sadly closed), that we couldn't keep it in stock. I now know why. This book is necessary for book readers like water is for breathing. It traces the history and development of books and people's attitudes to books from the very origins of Sumerian writing on clay tablets, to current thoughts by Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolfe, Kafka, Carolyn Heilbrun. This books covers everything to do with books, from Socrates, Plato, to the Bible, to the Japanese pillow book and Chinese literature, Nigerian reading aids, scrolls, vellum, and then paper. There is a chapter on reading glasses - only 7% of the population needs glasses, but this rises to 24% for people who read books!! No wonder the image of books readers as wearing glasses came about! But, this is not a dry, dreary text of facts. Manguel writes in a fluid manner, beginning each chapter at the beginning of whichever subject he is covering, and then moving through time, always ending in the present. Some chapter headings are: Learning to Read, The Shape of the Book, Private Reading, Metaphors of Reading, The Symbolic Reader, Stealing Books, Forbidden Reading, The Book Fool. It is about the joy of reading, the power conferred by being able to make sense of letters on the page, about the wisdom contained in those words, and how it affects us the readers, and thus the world. When you see someone reading a book you have read, what is your first impulse? Here is Manguel's: "Sitting across from me in the subway in Toronto, a woman is reading the Penguin edition of Borges's Labyrinths. I want to call out to her, to wave a hand and signal that I too am of that faith. She, whose face I have forgotten, whose clothes I barely noticed, young or old I can't say, is closer to me, by the mere act of holding that particular book in her hands, than many others I see daily." How many times have you seen someone reading a book, a stranger, and longed to go talk to them about it? I know I have, many times, and have to practically restrain myself if they happen to be reading a book I love. That sense of kinship is what A History of Reading is all about. This is a book about the love of books.

However, Manguel says this is not the definitive history of reading. This is his version, one version, a history as he has discovered it. There is room for other histories, other versions, and indeed this is part of the pleasure of this book - he layers textures of meanings, building a picture of a reader, who not only reads the book in his or her hand, but all the books that went before, all the way to the first time mankind discovered that by marking a clay tablet, they could make someone else who was not there, understand what they meant on the page. Every chapter builds on this idea, and all his arguments complete this fascinating idea. I have really enjoyed reading about and thinking about Manguel's book ideas and presentation of book history. We have books now because of what Plato argued about them, what Socrates thought, because of the Christian Church, because of Moslems, because of the monks endlessy transcribing for centuries, because women's literature has always been specifically about romance. Whether developed in Japan or in France or England and centuries apart, women's knowledge of the world has been for the most part limited to romance, relationships, the home- by men the world over, but that is another argument for another time! What interests me are the women who did learn to read anyway - Julian of Norwich, Saint Theresa - women became mystics because that was the only other area left open for them to explore, constrained as they were by politics. The human spirit wants expressing, and words are one powerful way of expression. Women the world over wanted to read, wrote their own books - this is how pillow books in 16th century Japan developed - because they weren't allowed to read any others. That desire to write, and the desire to read what has been written - that is what this book is about. The Negros in the American South were banned from reading, from even learning how to spell, because books led to thinking, and thinking led to freedom, in the white slavers minds. Still, many risked their lives to learn, and teach others secretly. A History of Reading is about this passion that made people risk their lives the world over, time and time again, to learn how to read, so they could write and reach out to others, what Manguel calls 'the shadowy others' that is the reader, vague until the book is picked up and read. You are that reader, I am that reader. 100 years from now, our great-grandchildren will be that reader. To have our voices heard is a powerful motivator. To not be silenced. That is why lives have been risked, and always will be, for the sake of reading and writing.

How have humans written? How was it received? What does the reader do by reading it? We 'devour books, eat them ravenously, are nourished by them, feast our mind' on them. We try to make the book ours. What is important is what comes out of this, Manguel writes: "However readers make a book theirs, the end is that book and reader become one. The world that is a book is devoured by a reader who is a letter in the world's text; thus a circular metaphor is created for the endlessness of reading. We are what we read. The process by which the circle is completed is not, {Walt} Whitman argued, merely an intellectual one; we read intellectually, on a superficial level, grasping certain meanings and conscious of certain facts, but at the same time, invisibly, unconsciously, text and reader become intertwined, creating new levels of meaning, so that every time we cause the text to yield something by ingesting it, simultaneously something else is born beneath it that we haven't yet grasped. That is why - as Whitman believed, rewriting and re-editing his poems over and over - no reading can ever be definitive." (p 173) So, this book is not definitive either - I have my own ideas about reading and books that have been altered by reading this book, and that every other reader of it has done too. That, I think, is part of the allure and fascination of books, and sometimes we find we can't go back to the same book we read once along ago. Because we have changed, so our reading of the book has changed, because the book changed already. Like the never-ending circle, the snake Orobouros that devours the world, we write the books we need to read, and by reading them, we change the books again. It also raises a very interesting idea, that I know I have hinted at in my blog, without knowing it was what I was saying, until I read it in this book:
"We never return to the same book or even to the same page, because in the varying light we change and the book changes, and our memories grow bright and dim and bright again, and we never know exactly what it is we learn and forget, and what it is we remember. What is certain is that the act of reading, which rescues so many voices from the past, preserves them sometimes well into the future, where we may be able to make use of them in brave and unexpected ways." (p 64)

I like that idea, that we use the knowledge we find in books. I think we do. Even if the most a book can do is get us to think, to recognize the power of our own ideas and that our actions matter, that is the most important fact about them, and why they have been censored and banned from almost the very first tablet. In books where the writer writes the truth, touches on it - and this is just as easily in a book of fiction as well as non-fiction - the book can bring a light of awareness to the reader, so they are changed by reading it. That hunger to know, to be made aware - even if it is of fairies and beauty, or as quiet as love, or as thundering as human rights - I think mankind wants to know the truth of this world we find ourselves in. Books - and A History of Reading explores - how we have grown in our ability to share ideas, thoughts, feelings, history, experience, with each other through the medium of the word. We discern the writer's ideas through what we bring to the reading. This is what he means by we change and how we read changes, so going back is never the same. We change, and can change the world, because of what we read. By the way, I am not going to discuss the next line of thought - the conclusion to where I'd normally be heading, banning books, because I am saving that post for when I finish my Banned Book challenge reading in June. However, do go see my next post on Fahrenheit 451, because I can't write a review of that book without talking about banning, and I'm all 'fired' up - Pun intented!!!- after reading this powerful science fiction novel. The power of books, indeed.

I recommend A History of Reading - which mentions Fahrenheit 451, by the way! - so highly. It really is worth reading, just so we can say, this is how books, which I love so much, developed. This is how we thought about them this long ago, and why, and who was allowed to read, and who is allowed to read now. So that, when you next pick up your paperback you are reading, part of you will remember that it developed in its final cheap shape in 1935 when Allan Lane brought out the first Penguin books because he wanted "a line of cheap but good-sized pocket books....They would publish a series of brightly-coloured paperback reprints of the best authors. They would not merely appeal to the common reader; they would tempt everyone who could read, highbrows and lowbrows alike." I like this quote because he got the idea while looking for something to read at the train station after spending a weekend at Agatha Christie's, and he was able to use one of her books - The Mysterious Affair at Styles - among the first 10 published on July 30, 1935, for 6 pence a book. A History of Reading covers many topics about reading, of which I've given you only a sampling, because it is literary feast of authors, from the beginning of time to current day. It's like going on a picnic and discovering a banquet of writers and ideas and words all on books, my passion. It is wonderful discovering (as indeed these blogs do now) that there have always existed people for whom books were their life-long passion. We owe alot -everything - to the printers, scribes, bookbinders, publishers, and further back poets and orators, who kept writing down their words and transcribing them for others to read. Where they went, I can follow. And across the lonely centuries, I can hear the thoughts, the whispers of another, and know that my soul was not the only one enchanted by the stars, or dying for love, or championing the poor. If we read to find ourselves, as indeed many have thought, then we read to find out everything about ourselves, the glorious as well as the dark, and books hold all this, each and every book in existence today. That is the power of the book.

Why do we keep books? Why do we go back to them if we change, and our reading of them changes? What is our enduring fascination with them? I think it's because we think we can still find something in them. And, as I discussed in an earlier meme, we see our history, our lives, our book-reading lives, before us, through the books on our shelves. Manguel writes of much the same thing in his chapter called "Book Stealing": I am once again about to move house......As I build pile after pile of familiar volumes I wonder, as I have wondered every other time, why I keep so many books that I know I will not read again. I tell myself that, every time I get rid of a book, I find a few days later that this is precisely the book I'm looking for. I tell myself there are no books (or very, very few) in which I have found nothing at all to interest me. I tell myself that I brought them into my house for a reason in the first place, and that this reason may hold good again in the future......I enjoy the sight of my crowded bookshelves, full of more or less familiar names. I delight in knowing that I'm surrounded by a sort of inventory of my life, with intimations of my future......I could, if I had to, abandon all these books of mine and begin again, somewhere else; I have done so, several times, out of necessity. But then I also have to acknowledge a grave, irreparable loss. I know that something dies when I give up my books, and that my memory keeps going back to them with mournful nostalgia." (p238.) I have to admit that i have used every one of these excuses myself!! And that mournful nostalgia is what prompted me to write that post about books I've loved and lost. And I do really think that looking at our bookshelves, we get a sense of who we are, who we were, who we want to be. The loneliest house, the emptiest house, the house where I always thought I would end up without much to say, is the house without books.

I have bookmarked this book again, and I know I will return to it again. It is written in an engaging, open, friendly style, like a long discussion of books at a dinner table. Wouldn't you like to sit at that table? Hmmm, now I'm desiging a room for writers and publishers and readers in my mind!, a huge room where anything can be read and discussed. That is what a book is, for me. A History of Reading has brought together a wide range of writers and readers - because one can't exist without the other, a point Manguel makes over and over again in the book! - over the centuries, a digestible feast of book history that makes me want to run out and look at old books in second-book stores just to see what the oldest book they have is, and buy it and treasure it just for what it represents: two hundred years ago this book was made, and has been kept alive through readers, up until now, when I hold this book in my hand. I may not agree with what the author says, but at least I can argue with him, and thus his ideas are brought forward again for the future. Or hers...that is the wonder of books, for me. Time exists, but becomes timeless because of books. Or, if not timeless, is made less far away, less impenetrable.

Although this is a long review, I want to end with a quote from A History of Reading, because I think it encapsulates it all:
' "I have sometimes dreamt" {Virginia Woolf} wrote, "that when the Day of Judgement dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards - their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble - the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms, 'Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them. They have loved reading.' " (p 312)


Eva said...

I reread this one last year and fell in love all over again! I was much less restrained in my review re: quotes, lol. I just couldn't pick between all of my favourites!

I didn't realise that this was a best seller; I found it for a couple dollars in a bargain bookstore back in high school. I felt like I was getting the steal of the century. :D

Carl V. said...

Wonderful review. This is one that I heard about last year on a book blog and it sounded so fascinating. Thanks for the reminder and for a review that certainly has me interested in picking this up.

Nymeth said...

wow, I can't believe I hadn't even heard of this before. It sounds so good. And what a great review, Susan!

"How many times have you seen someone reading a book, a stranger, and longed to go talk to them about it? I know I have, many times, and have to practically restrain myself if they happen to be reading a book I love."

I have as well. And I love that sense of kinship - of which book blogs are of course a perfect example!

3M said...

This book sounds really good.

Glad to have you on the 1% challenge!


Bybee said...

Definitely time for me to reread this book! I'm glad I have it here with me...and hardcover! Whooo!!! Thanks for your excellent review!

Anonymous said...

I can't imagine why I haven't come across this. Thanks so much for the wonderful review. It's going onto the must have list right now.

Susan said...

Eva: It was a bestseller in the beginning. I think I got my copy a couple of years ago, in the bargain bin also. I'm so glad you love this book too! It really is fun, isn't it?

carl: I hope you can find this, and I'm happy to remind you of it! It took me long enough to read, and I am so glad I did.

nymeth: thank you! I hope you can find it there too...let me know, it's available sometimes in the bargain bins over here (it's been out so long), so I can happily get one if you can't get it.

3M: thanks! And I've posted my list(finally).

bybee: You have it hardcover...lucky! I'm not sure I ever saw in hardcover! You'll have to let me know what your favourite parts are, I'm curious to know what you like most. It's such a fun book. I have bookmarks everywhere in it, to go back to.

table talk: it's a slightly older book (from 10 years ago), and Canadian...all reasons you might not have heard about it! Penguin brought it out, so at least the rights for it were available over there. If you can't get it anymore, let me know. So many people don't have it, I might see if I can find a few on sale in the bargain bins and offer them on the next Buy A Friend A Book giveaway session....! :-)

Bybee said...

I got it for Christmas when it first came out, hence the hardcover.

T. said...

I read this book about 5 years ago and loved it! Your review is wonderful; it really captures the strengths and pleasures of A History of Reading. I remember well the passage where he wished to say, "I too am of the faith" -- how spot on! Manguel's was a thick and textured and compelling read, thorough and scholarly but also quite personal. I think I'll pull it back out. Great job! TJ ( tjacques.wordpress.com )

Susan said...

t.: thank you! and welcome, thanks for coming by :-) and leaving your thoughts.

Susan said...

tj: I just went to your blog, now i can say truly welcome, and I've added you to my blog roll. I love the comment you made about texture, because that is how I think about A History of Reading - the pages have thick texture, the illustrations are varying and accompany the text to illuminate it, and the texture of the words, Manguel's personal history and the trip he takes us through the history of books is also rich with texture and meaning. thanks for your comment, because it's making me think further about what I like about this book so much!