Saint Ambrose, the reputed author of the Athanasian Creed, did not move his lips when he read. Neither did Ambrose’s pupil and colleague Saint Augustine. The Roman chroniclers who witnessed this feat thought it only a curiosity, and the provincial missionaries’ example took generations to become the ruling style of reading in the West.

Regardless of how it is done, reading is a social act, involving a history of formal and informal accords establishing that written words have certain meanings and shapes, that they are to be used in certain ways. Reading is also, of course, an intensely individual act: each reader approaches a text differently, bringing to bear experience and personality on another’s words. It is a complex mental activity, involving several areas of the brain at once. Reading is physiologically complex as well, demanding that the eyes dart around the page hundreds of times each second to take in bits and pieces of visual information.

All of these matters are of profound interest to Alberto Manguel, a multilingual Argentine now living in Canada, who ranges comfortably along the thousands of years that make up the history of literacy to spin a narrative that runs from cave paintings to CD-ROM, from ancient Chinese “bone-shell scripts” carved on turtle carapaces to technologies not yet in place. His History of Reading spans vast territories of the mind, dropping names and tantalizing arcana, pausing to ponder, in the space of a few paragraphs, the multiple layers of meaning of a medieval illuminated Bible, the double entendres of an advertisement for vodka, and the iconography of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s tomb (completed in 1204) which, fittingly enough, depicts her reclining in bed to read a book propped on her stomach.

Manguel’s cosmic History of Reading as social fact is also a personal one, an affecting memoir of a lifetime surrounded by books, the typical retreat of the lonely child. Less solitary in adulthood, Manguel has had the good fortune of enjoying bookish companions, notably the fellow Argentine writer and consummate reader Jorge Luis Borges, to whom Manguel read after Borges became blind in old age. The infirmity did not, Manguel writes, slow Borges down in the least; “the listener . . . became the master of the text,” pausing for reflection, repeating words and phrases, and calling for other books to illuminate the first.

Democratically minded, Manguel joins this story to a portrait of Cuban cigar rollers who appoint one of their number to read them a story as they work, a long-standing favorite being Alexandre Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo whose name honors a cigar of exceptional quality. Presumably these workers are happier and better adjusted than are their Muzak-fed counterparts, for elsewhere Manguel examines favorably psychologist James Hillman’s notion that readers of stories, especially those used to reading early in life, have better psychic armor and a better developed sense of the world than those who are introduced to stories late or not at all.

Manguel darts about from century to century and topic to topic, from the contents of Lady Murasaki’s pillow box to famous forgers of the Napoleonic era. But he returns often to several themes, foremost the idea that knowledge—bookish knowledge—is a form of power. Recalling his homeland, Manguel notes that it is for this very reason that most governments do not go out of their way to educate their citizens to be close, critical readers. “Demotic regimes demand that we forget,” he writes, “and therefore they brand books as superfluous luxuries; totalitarian regimes demand that we not think, and therefore they encourage the consumption of pap.” One has only to consider the current best-seller lists to recognize that Manguel’s point applies to the United States, as well as to Argentina.

Political power is ever present in Manguel’s discussion: he notes that ancient Alexandria owed its great library to the requirement that the ships passing through its port surrender any books on board, to be copied; considers the laws of ancient Rome—and of the antebellum American South—forbidding slaves to read or be taught to read; and notes that the Pinochet government, years after it came to power, banned Don Quixote from Chile in 1981 for the reason that this most bookish of novels sets the good of individuals over that of the state. Sometimes Manguel’s examples are captivating, as with an anecdote about the Grand Vizier of Persia, Abdel Kassem Ismael, who ordered that his library of 117,000 volumes accompany him while traveling, borne by a caravan of 400 camels, arranged in alphabetical order. Others are horrifying, like his account of the life of the martyr William Tyndale, a printer who at the order of Henry VIII in 1536 was strangled and burned at the stake (ostensibly for the heresy of printing a new translation of the Bible, but in fact for having criticized the king for divorcing Catherine of Aragon).

“Reading, almost as much as breathing, is our essential function,” Manguel ventures. Dispelling the claim that reading is a dying art in a time when the mass production of books continues to rise, his own rich book honors the magic of literacy. Every bibliophile will find much of worth in its pages.


[A History of Reading, by Alberto Manguel (New York: Viking) 372 pp., $26.95]