History of Literacy
BOOK REVIEW: A History of Reading

History of Reading News. Vol.XXI No.1 (1997:Fall)

A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel. New York: Viking, 1996. Pp. 372. Photographs, drawings, and woodcuts. $26.95.

To write a history of reading is a mammoth task. To use one's personal history as a reader to govern the telling of the larger history makes the task even more complex. Alberto Manguel ambitiously takes on this greater task in A History of Reading.

The book is a personal journey of a literary writer, insatiable reader, and history enthusiast--Manguel himself. He uses his personal history to write about the collective history of reading. The shifting focus from personal to collective history directs this book toward an audience like Manguel himself, someone who is consumed with books and belongs to a fraternity of readers that obsesses over the joys, secrets, struggles, and vices of leisurely promiscuous "high" reading.

But how does such a deeply personal rendering read to those in the academic and practical world of reading? Just how "good" is his history of reading? Will it play in the academy where the measures of academic "goodness" that matter most are grounded in the traditions of historical scholarship--which value rigor in one's method, context for one's ideas, and order to one's writing?

The scene for applying these measures was a doctoral seminar on the history of reading at the University of Pittsburgh during the summer of 1997, where his book was read with other works on the history of reading. Several questions motivated our weighing of Manguel's work, beginning with the general issue: How does the book read? It rambles over space and time, examining things that interest Manguel. It makes no attempt to present a chronological or rational order to 6,000 years of book-reading history--from Sumerian pictographic tablets to contemporary neurolinguistic research. Rather, each chapter is animated by the author's own history as a reader.

The 20 chapters in the book are organized into two sections. In the first, "Acts of Reading," Manguel focuses on such varied aspects as ancient Greek reading clubs; picture reading in the art, architecture, and stained glass of the early Christian Church; the public reading of stories to Cuban cigar-rollers as they worked; and how the shape of the book as we know it came to be. In the second section, "Powers of the Reader," Manguel shifts from writers reading their own works aloud to audiences; to books composed for and by women of the 11th-century Japanese court; to efforts by slaveowners, Nazis and the Roman Catholic Church to interdict books; and the categorization process used by libraries to organize reading materials. While the anecdotes are interesting (and a couple even contain new information), the overall effect is textual vertigo.

There is also a prelude in which Manguel explains his resistance to presenting a sequential narrative account of the history of reading, and a postlude that apologizes for the non-sequential presentation and for his own laziness in not having used a more chronological and logical way to present his ideas. Taken as a whole, the book is a veritable MTV-esque museum of literacy. It is mind candy for a lay audience with a sweet tooth for historical tidbits.

What are Manguel's credentials for writing a history of reading? The jacket describes him as a writer, translator, and editor of international repute, who has written literature that ranges from coverage of war atrocities in Argentina to the award-winning novel News from a Foreign Country Came.And judging from the book's contents, he is a voracious reader--Borges, Whitman, Keats, and Kafka are but a few of the authors he discusses.

Given this resume, does he have the background to engage in the practice of history? In other words, does he have the scholarly dexterity to represent the complexity of reading's past while placing the people, practices, local events, and facts of his and others' personal histories in the larger context? After reading his book, we think not.

Manguel's scholarly capacity is brought into question by his disregard for order and context. While a chronological order would have been most suitable--after all, time is the defining feature of any historical inquiry--any number of other orderings would have been fine. But to let whim and fancy shape his history is to be negligent of the consequences of his account. Readers with an interest in the history of reading, but who lack background in the field, will walk away from Manguel's history with misper-ceptions. For example, his chapter on "Learning to Read" is not the whole story on how reading has been taught in the last 4,000 years. It is not even a small part. Disconnected anecdotes are not a proxy for insight. The danger is not that Manguel's information is inaccurate, but that there is no context for the CNN-like factoids he associates with his personal history of reading. The overall effect is akin to the history textbooks used in American schools today--a smattering of everything that says nothing at all.

At the level of detail, there are problems with footnotes; in the chapter titled "Reading Shadows," for example, his footnotes are misnumbered and out of alignment with the text. There are also problems with sources: he overwhelmingly relies on secondary and tertiary sources, rarely making use of primary, original materials. (Our analysis of 20 percent of his text found that 85% of the sources are secondary and tertiary.) While the use of secondary and tertiary sources is not necessarily a reflection of questionable scholarship, an over-reliance indicates that Manguel is saying what has been merely said elsewhere and that originality is minimal or missing. To be fair, there are a few occasions where he does strong work with primary materials: his description of 15th-century reading instruction in France for Beatus and Guillaume, two young school boys, shows Manguel's personal and collective historical work at its best. But it is too little to alleviate questions about his handling of material in the rest of the book.

Ironically, in the chapter, "The Book Fool," Manguel quotes Socrates' concern that once a thing is put into writing, potential for misreading is great. If a book provides no context for itself, it is at the mercy of those who read it. A History of Reading is a book in search of a context.

How can the shortcomings of Manguel's highly personal, postmodern account be remedied? By reading it in the context of other histories of reading, such as Mathews' (1966) account of how reading has been taught, Balmuth's (1982) version of phonics teaching and learning, Huey's (1908) synthesis of early research on reading, Smith's (1974) and Neitz's (1961) analysis of books used to teach reading, Bolter's (1991) and Gelb's (1963) histories of writing, Shannon's (1989, 1990) versions of technologized and progressive reading practices, and hundreds of other scholarly articles by Moore (1986), Monaghan (1987), Venezky (1984), and so on. In the company of these other works, some semblance of order and contextualized understanding can be brought to Manguel.

Ironically, Manguel's reading-memoir approach is reminiscent of the introspective method used by reading researchers in the late 19th-century (which he doesn't discuss). By prompting people to think and talk about the strategies, practices, objects, settings, and mediators of their own reading, scholars conducted the first formally documented personal histories of what readers do inside their heads when they read, and the forces that shape their reading. But these century-old personal histories of reading offer more insight than Manguel's contemporary one.

In the end, the values of historical inquiry that matter most are generally missing in this book. To toss rigor aside and write as if no prior work has been done on the subject, and then apologize for doing so at the end is not enough. We expected more from his book. But given that Manguel's expertise lies elsewhere, in the end, he does justice to himself, but no one else.

DOUGLAS K. HARTMAN is an Associate Professor of Language & Literacy in the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh. His research interests are the history of reading, sociocultural dimensions of literate activity, and pedagogical practices in classroom contexts.

TARIQ M. ABDULAZIZ is a doctoral student in Special Education in the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh. His research interests are in the history of literacy, neurobiological bases for reading, and alternative frameworks for teaching science concepts.


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