A story of reading

by Andrea Strobl

What could be more fitting for a cultural platform like the “Leiermann” than to think about reading?

No matter whether we want to deal with history, art history, archaeology, architecture, philosophy, literature or even music here, whether professionally or as so-called interested laypeople – reading is the basic prerequisite for obtaining cultural knowledge and information. Of course, nowadays we have many other media besides books that can provide us with this knowledge, but it was actually not so long ago that people depended solely on the written word and the ability to read.

We all read ourselves and the world around us to understand who we are and where we are. We read to understand or to work towards understanding. We can’t help it: reading, like breathing, is an essential function of life.

One person who has spent his life thinking about books and reading, and who has explored the history of reading in some of his books, is the Argentinian author Alberto Manguel (*1948).

Born in Buenos Aires, as a schoolboy he had the honour of serving as a reader from time to time for Jorge Luis Borges, who was already almost blind at the time, for four years, an encounter that was to leave its mark on him:

Reading to the blind old man was a strange experience, because although it seemed to me that I determined the tone and tempo of the reading myself with some effort, he, the listener, made himself master of the text. I was his chauffeur, but the space that unfolded before us belonged to him, the passenger, who had nothing to do but absorb the landscape. Borges chose the book, Borges commanded me to stop or invited me to read on, Borges interrupted me to make a comment. Borges let the words come to him. I was invisible.

Manguel worked as an editor, translator and publisher in various countries. But above all, he began writing himself at a young age. He and his books have received many prizes and awards. From 2016 to 2018, he was director of the National Library of Argentina, thus occupying, albeit briefly, the very post held decades earlier by Jorge Luis Borges, whom he so admired. In 2020, Manguel donated his private library – some 40,000 books – to the city of Lisbon, where a study centre on the history of reading is now to be built.

The book “A History of Reading” is probably Manguel’s best-known book. In this book, he asks and answers fundamental questions concerning the history of the book, but also, for example, questions about how, where and what was read in the course of the history of the written word. Here are just a few examples:

There is the long history from the tablet to the scroll to the codex and from the first printed book to the handy paperback; the history of why people read aloud (and sometimes still do), but why silent reading only allowed the reader the time to “savour the meaning of the words and listen to their sound, which he knew inside”.

And if one is already pursuing the history of reading, the questions of where reading took place, what role the writing rooms of the monasteries or the libraries played, on which furniture, in which posture reading was preferred (on the cockfighting chair, lying in bed or even, like Henry Miller, on the toilet) naturally also play a role.

Meanwhile, this cosmos of books has expanded immensely in the still young 21st century. What a lot is not being published, increasingly also in self-publishing. And so we are left with a pleasant realisation: despite all the prophecies of doom from time to time, the desire to read does not seem to be diminishing, be it with the good old printed book in hand, be it via e-reader or on the PC.

Scriptorium, a writing room located in a monastery; © roxxer

But of course it is also about the role of the reader, indeed the power of the reader, because […] in every case it is the reader who reads the meaning into the signs, who extracts the legibility from an object, place or event.

How does a person become a bibliophile or even a bibliomaniac and why can many readers not part with some books, even though they will probably never pick them up again? Why and according to what criteria were women assigned and allowed to read only certain books for a long time? What about the long history of book bans or even book burnings?

It is precisely here that the certainty around the power of the reader mentioned above becomes apparent, for each reader creates his or her own reading, which deviates from the original intention of the text, but does not necessarily represent a distortion. But every reader can deliberately falsify the text by putting it in the service of a particular doctrine, misusing it to justify arbitrariness, injustice and violence – be it only to preserve personal advantages or to legitimise dictatorship and slavery.

Questions upon questions, which the author has meticulously investigated. And so, in this reading, one not only encounters countless authors, but also learns many new, sometimes curious things about the infinite cosmos of books and reading. As a reader of this captivating book, one is often left a little beaten down. And so this short article here can only be a suggestion to read, because with the best will in the world it is impossible to adequately summarise the wealth of information given in the book in just a few words.

The book ends with the famous photograph from 1940, which shows three men reading and searching in front of the bookshelves amidst the rubble of a half-bombed London library. Manguel comments on this photograph with the words: “None of them turns their backs on the war or overlooks the destruction. They do not prefer books to life. They only try to resist the obvious chaos; they insist on their usual right to ask questions; they try – in the midst of the ruins, with the amazed recognition that reading sometimes grants – to understand the world again.

Not without reason, the “New Yorker” judged after Manguel’s book appeared: “A love letter to reading”, and Manguel writes the beautiful sentence in the book’s postscript: “The story of reading has no end.” – so hopefully it will!

(Besides this book, Manguel’s no less interesting titles “The Library by Night” and “A City of Words” should also be mentioned).

Post Scriptum

Other recommended reading about books and reading would be “Lector in Fabula” (Umberto Eco); “My Versatile Lovers” (Jacques Bonnet); “The Most Beautiful Place in the World. Of People and Bookshops” (ed. Martha Schoknecht); “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read” (Pierre Bayard); “Shakespeare & Company” (Sylvia Beach); “The Paper House” (Carlos María Domínguez), to name but a few here. This list is also almost endless …


All quotations are taken from the edition Alberto Manguel, Eine Geschichte des Lesens, Rowohlt, December 2000.

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