Author views reading in its many guises Enjoyment: In his book, "A History of Reading," Alberto Manguel addresses "the luxurious sensation of being carried away by words."

August 16, 1998|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

TODAY, LET'S leave the reading wars to the children throwing stones at each other in the academic playground.

For now, enough of process. Let's consider reading as cultural phenomenon, as mystery, as "wonderful art," as initiation, as history brought to life, as joy and sorrow transferred magically to page or computer screen. (Yes, enterprises such as Project Gutenberg can bring us Shakespeare's complete works at the pressing of a couple of keys.)

A marvelous book, "A History of Reading" by Alberto Manguel (Viking, 1996), is the vehicle for this journey. The book is a merger of scholarship and personal essay. Manguel is enchanted by reading, but he's done a magnificent job, too, as reading's historian.

You're now reading a newspaper that was produced in the past few days by several hundred people. You've shut out the outside world for the moment. You're admitted again to the society we have in common. Like you, your ancestors were initiated when they "learned to read," an accomplishment that many readers consider an epiphany. They remember clearly the day, the hour, the teacher, the word.

In medieval Jewish society, Manguel relates, the ritual of learning to read was celebrated. But reading was not practiced commonly until at least the late Renaissance. Before that, learning to read and write -- outside the church -- was the almost exclusive privilege of the aristocracy and (after the 13th century) the upper bourgeoisie.

Manguel discusses reading in all of its intriguing guises: being read to, for example, "enjoying the luxurious sensation of being carried away by words." Manguel is right. Gone from many schoolrooms, and from too many homes, is the wonderful exercise of reading aloud. (From time to time, Manguel notes, public reading has become a political problem. On May 14, 1866, the political governor of Cuba banned the reading of political features, science, poems and short stories to workers in cigar factories.)

Then there's the shape of reading. The Assyrian Code of Laws, dating from the 12th century B.C., measured 67 square feet and carried text on both sides. Not exactly the book you'd want to curl up in bed with, but Manguel discusses private reading, as well.

Omar Khayyam, the pleasure-loving astronomer and poet, recommended reading verse outdoors under a bough. "My custom," wrote the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, "is to undress and sit on the rocks, reading Herodotus, until the perspiration has subsided."

Then there's "forbidden reading," reading of the kind that empowered Frederick Douglass. In one of the most inspirational chapters in U.S. history, slaves learned to read against huge odds. Learning to read remains an empowering accomplishment that puts the poor and downtrodden on the same level as the rich and powerful.

"The frequent hearing of my mistress reading the Bible aloud," Douglass wrote in his autobiography, " awakened my curiosity in respect to this mystery of reading, and roused in me the desire to learn. Up to this time I had known nothing whatever of this wonderful art."

When his Baltimore master forbade instruction in reading, Douglass became even more determined. "I am not sure that I do not owe quite as much to the opposition of my master as to the kindly assistance of my amiable mistress," he wrote.

Accompanying the chapter on forbidden reading is a rare photograph of a slave reading in Aiken, S.C., about 1856. This is one of many excellent photographs and illustrations in "A History of Reading," but it's not the most inspirational.

That honor goes to a two-page photograph that Manguel calls the "image" for his book. The photo shows the remains of a London library shattered by German bombs in 1940. Three men stand amid the rubble. One is reading the titles on the books that cling to shelves. One, wearing glasses, is reaching for a book. The third is reading, holding an open book in his hands.

Among the ruins of war, Manguel writes, is the "astonished recognition that reading sometimes grants -- an understanding." LTC Why do we read? Manguel says it's to find the end, "for the story's sake."

"We read not to reach it, for the sake of the reading itself," he says. "We read searchingly, like trackers, oblivious of our surroundings. We read distractedly, skipping pages. We read in gusts of sudden pleasure, without knowing what brought the pleasure along.

" We read ignorantly. We read full of prejudice, malignantly. We read generously, making excuses for the text, filling gaps, mending faults.

"And sometimes, when the stars are kind, we read with an intake of breath, with a shudder, as if a memory had suddenly been rescued from a place deep within us -- the recognition of something we never knew was there, or of something which we vaguely felt as a flicker or a shadow, whose ghostly form rises and passes back into us before we can see what it is."

Pub Date: 8/16/98

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