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VALLEY WEEKEND | WORDS & IMAGES

A History of Reading for Lovers of Books

September 05, 1996|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN

Book people like to get books as presents, which puts them in the same easy-to-buy-for category as collectors and golfers. The catch is that not any book will do.

For this holiday season, the problem is solved. It's hard to imagine the biblioholic who wouldn't love Alberto Manguel's "A History of Reading," newly published by Viking.

A novelist, essayist and translator, Manguel is, above all, a person who loves books so much he has been known to steal them. He understands that readers are members of the same tribe--people who became addicted as children to the solace of words and, as a result, go through life longing for Long John Silver in a Bob Dole world.

Manguel's book is many things that need to be qualified. It's a work of scholarship but, as he suggests, one in which the substance is not in the standard forced march from point A to point B but in the digressions. It is a series of personal essays but not cloyingly so. Just when you think you've read enough about young Alberto and his nurse and his nursery favorites, thank you, he comes through with a fascinating little history lesson.

An example: In the Jewish communities of the Middle Ages, learning to read was a recognized rite of passage. The boy who had mastered the holy art would be taken, in his prayer shawl, to his teacher. The teacher had a slate on which the Hebrew alphabet, a Bible verse and the words "May the Torah be your occupation" were written. First the teacher, then the child, read each word. Then the slate was covered with honey and the child licked it off, consuming the holy words and making them a part of him. Sometimes the Bible verses were written on hard-boiled eggs.

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Born in Argentina, Manguel had the extraordinary experience of serving as one of the many people who read to the great blind writer Jorge Luis Borges. Borges would suggest a text and would often interrupt Manguel's reading to show how the passage being read connected with something Borges had encountered before. Borges once took delight in finding bad lines in the works of great writers. Playwright John Webster won his place in Borges' dubious pantheon with a real clunker from "The Duchess of Malfi": "We are merely the stars' tennis-balls."

Manguel is sometimes sentimental about books (what reader is not?), but he also understands their power. He was in high school when the Generals took over the government of Argentina, and a person could be arrested for the crime of carrying a copy of "The Catcher in the Rye." His book is full of glimpses of people who loved books enough to die for them, from medieval martyrs to slaves in the American South.

The book is full of wonderful writing about reading. Manguel cites Kafka, denouncing, in a letter to a friend, books that make people happy. Kafka insists on a sterner literature. "I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn't shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? . . . What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we have been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us."

Manguel is not so smitten with words that he eschews pictures (we read them, too, Manguel points out, in the sense that we try to plumb their meaning). Thus, he reproduces a painting called "A Reader of Dostoevsky" by Czech Expressionist Emil Filla. The reader in the picture sprawls in his chair, apparently pole-axed by his perusal of "The Idiot" or some other Dostoevsky work that has obviously lived up to Kafka's harsh standard.

"The History of Reading" is salted with irresistible factoids. Did you know that Cuban cigar makers paid people to read to them as they rolled? A group that had settled in Key West so loved "The Count of Monte Cristo" that it got Alexandre Dumas' permission to name a cigar after the character.

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As a bonus, the inside of the dust jacket includes a timeline summarizing 6,000 years of reading history. A personal favorite: the Grand Vizier of Persia who so treasured his enormous book collection that he carried it with him while traveling. The task, circa AD 1000, required 400 camels trained to carry the books in alphabetical order.

Manguel ends his book with something astonishing that makes it clear that this is as much a work of art as scholarship. It is the outline, in narrative form, of a work called "The History of Writing." It sounds like a terrific book--Manguel admits he would like to read it--but it is another, only-dreamt-of book, not the wonderful one he has actually written.

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