It is interesting, and perhaps ironic that a book on the history of reading requires the very thing it is about. It requires a writer and a reader. When children are taught how to read in kindergarten and grade school, reading to them is the process of manipulating the cultural sounds of written forms to understand words and sentences. Typically the child is also being taught to write at the same time s/he is learning to read. Their education of the text happens in parallel. In A History of Reading, Alberto Manguel explores the practice, largely unconscious, of modern-day reading in connection with reading’s historical roots and development. In his examination of how reading emerged as a cultural norm, from the western perspective, his writing enables the reader to understand how past traditions inform the modern reader’s actions. In parallel, Manguel’s work is also about the history of the book, writing if you will, and how this history connects to the history of reading. This, by the very fact, that scrolls, manuscripts and books require readers. “All writing depends on the generosity of the reader.” (179) However the history of the book occurs in the background to Manguel’s focus on reading’s development, not unlike the supporting second voice of a fugue. Much like a fugue trades prominence between the voices, through this short history, the reader can trace the interaction of writing and the receptive act of reading; one requires the other.
Manguel is quite ingenious in how he approaches this parallel history as he utilizes a topical approach rather than a purely linear one, choosing a-historical-exploration- by- subject approach. The chapter headings provide the reader with the direction that Manguel’s thoughts are going to travel. He has specific ideas that he wants to pursue throughout reading’s history, such as the particular history of how those in Aristotle’s day understood vision or the practice of reading out loud. Manguel uses an individual chapter to trace a particular idea about reading and its subsequent development. While this may seem wildly disparate, Manguel reaches back into the subsequent chapters and unites the previous information with newly presented historical items and an idea, requiring the reader to remember and apply what has been previously written. Manguel’s method of engaging the reader is the same method that should be required of the modern reader in order to understand any text. That is, the method of connecting previously read material with the presently read so as to critically analyze and interact with the text. “…following the text, the reader utters its meaning through a vastly entangled method of learned significances, social conventions, previous readings, personal experience and private taste. (17)
Manguel’s extensive use of images and pictures through this work is telling as it also helps to set the development of the physical book in historical context. Just as one reads texts, one also reads images though in definitively different ways. While Manguel’s text focuses on the writer and reader, the images help identify the how the book functions, whether as a status of scholarship, pure enjoyment or an object.
Alberto Manguel’s book A History of Reading presents a methodologically deep and well-explored history of reading that successfully endeavors to place both the writer and reader within their shared history so that the present day writer/reader can better understand.