Literary Madeleine: A History of Reading

by Mar­sha Qualey

A History of Reading coverOne of the great good for­tunes of my life is that I’ve man­aged to cre­ate a pro­fes­sion­al life that requires I read a lot. Read­ing is a pas­sion; the old bumper stick­er says it all: I’d rather be reading.

But I also think read­ing is an inter­est­ing top­ic. How and why do we read? Who were the first read­ers? How has read­ing been used to oppress and lib­er­ate? How and why does read­ing — the phys­i­cal act of read­ing — vary from cul­ture to cul­ture? Why — unlike so many out­spo­ken pro­po­nents of one tech­nol­o­gy or the oth­er — does my cat not care whether I read a hard copy book or use my Kin­dle? (He’s hap­py to paw or plop on either when he wants my attention.)

Alber­to Manguel’s A His­to­ry of Read­ing has answers to most of those ques­tions, and it pos­es and answers a great many more. Though won­der­ful­ly illus­trat­ed, the book is text-heavy, and it’s writ­ten for read­ers with some knowl­edge of world his­to­ry. In oth­er words, tough going for young readers.

How­ev­er, the his­to­ry Manguel weaves is chock full of gems that could enter­tain and intrigue read­ers of any age if care­ful­ly culled and presented.

Fore­most among them, a cen­ter­fold: A Read­er’s Time­line. Here are just a few of the items on Manguel’s timeline:

  • c. 2300 BC: The first record­ed author, the Sumer­ian high priest­ess Enhed­u­an­na, address­es a “dear read­er” in her songs
  • c. 200 BC: Aristo­phanes of Byzan­tium invents punctuation
  • c. 1010: At a time when “seri­ous read­ing” in Japan is restrict­ed to men, Lady Murasa­ki writes the first nov­el, The Book of Gen­ji, to pro­vide read­ing mate­r­i­al for her­self and the oth­er women of the Heian Court
Eleanor of Aquitaine, reading for eternity
Eleanor of Aquitaine’s tomb lid; read­ing for eternity

Also of imme­di­ate val­ue are the exam­ples of the many depic­tions of read­ing in visu­al art through the ages, a list of which could pro­vide a good start for a moti­vat­ed young researcher.

The evo­lu­tion of read­ing and its influ­ence on indi­vid­u­als and soci­eties pro­vides a won­der­ful angle for study­ing his­to­ry. But if that doesn’t work for your young read­ers, there’s always Manguel’s ear­li­er book: The Dic­tio­nary of Imag­i­nary Places, a com­pre­hen­sive and cel­e­bra­to­ry cat­a­logue of fan­ta­sy set­tings from world literature.

A native of Argenti­na, Alber­to Manguel now lives in Canada. 


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Norma Gaffron
Norma Gaffron
9 years ago

We are so lucky in Min­neso­ta to have so many resources for read­ers and writ­ers. Thank you for your part in Bookol­o­gy. I enjoy the articles.
Where can I get a bumper stick­er that says I’D RATHER BE READING ?

Marsha QUaley
Marsha QUaley
Reply to  Norma Gaffron
9 years ago

Thanks for your kind words about Bookol­o­gy, Nor­ma. As for the bumper­stick­ers, I’ve seen them about but nev­er actu­al­ly got­ten my hand on a new one.