A History of Reading

Manguel’s lifelong dedication to reading plays itself out in a work that follows reading from clay tablets to present day. No apology is made for a reader-centric view: “We cannot do but read. Reading, almost as much as breathing, is our essential function” (page 7).

Related writing

On feeding

As I write this, I am baking bread. Or, at least, I am trying to bake bread.

Reading notes

Authored by the reader

On reading as a creative, productive habit:

When Augustine (in Petrarch’s imagining) suggests is a new manner of reading: neither using the book as a prop for thought, nor trusting it as one would trust the authority of a sage, but taking from it an idea, a phrase, an image, linking to it another culled from a distant text preserved in memory, tying the whole together with reflections of one’s own—producing, in fact, a new text authored by the reader. In the introduction to De viris illustribus, Petrarch remarked that this book was to serve as “a sort of artificial memory” of “dispersed” and “rare” texts, and that he not only had collected them but, more importantly, had lent them an order and a method. To his readers in the fourteenth century, Petrarch’s claim was astonishing, since the authority of a text was self-established and the reader’s task was that of an outside observer; a couple of centuries later, Petrarch’s personal, re-creative, interpretative, collating form of reading would become the common method of scholarship throughout Europe.

Manguel, A History of Reading, page 63

That’s very much the same thing we all do now, when we share a link on Twitter with a bit of commentary, or bookmark and tag a link for later reference. Our reading sources are now more dispersed, but easier to gather. I like to think Petrarch would approve.

Jealous of the past

On the library as a personal history:

I delight in knowing that I’m surrounded by a sort of inventory of my life, with intimations of my future. I like discovering, in almost forgotten volumes, traces of the reader I once was—scribbles, bus tickets, scraps of paper with mysterious names and numbers, the occasional date and place on the book’s flyleaf which take me back to a certain café, a distant hotel room, a faraway summer so long ago. I could, if I had to, abandon these books of mine and begin again, somewhere else; I have done so, several times, out of necessity. But then I have also had 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. And now, with the years, my memory can recall less and less and seems to me like a looted library: many of the rooms have been closed, and in the ones still open for consultation there are huge gaps on the shelves. I pull out one of the remaining books and see that several of its pages have been torn out by vandals. The more decrepit my memory becomes, the more I wish to protect this repository of what I’ve read, this collection of textures and voices and scents. Possessing these books has become all-important of me, because I’ve become jealous of the past.

Manguel, A History of Reading, page 237

Imagine the same jealousy, when instead of a room full of books, you are surrounded by floppy disks, outdated file formats, drives with connections that no longer fit, URLs that return emptiness. The things we read (or see or watch) are part of who we are; we need to guard their futures like our own.