Roving thoughts and provocations

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Conversations with the Dead

Oskar Reinhart Collection, Winterthur, Switzerland
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot: La Petite Liseuse, circa 1855-1861

Reading has always been for me a sort of practical cartography. Like other readers, I have an absolute trust in the capability that reading has to map my world. I know that on a page somewhere on my shelves, staring down at me now, is the question I’m struggling with today, put into words long ago, perhaps, by someone who could not have known of my existence. The relationship between a reader and a book is one that eliminates the barriers of time and space and allows for what Francisco de Quevedo, in the sixteenth century, called “conversations with the dead.” In those conversations I’m revealed. They shape me and lend me a certain magical power.

Only a few centuries after the invention of writing, some six thousand years ago, in a forgotten corner of Mesopotamia, the few who possessed the ability to decipher written words were known as scribes, not as readers. Perhaps the reason for this was to lend less emphasis to the greatest of their gifts: having access to the archives of human memory and rescuing from the past the voice of our experience. Since those distant beginnings, the power of readers has produced in their societies all manner of fears: for having the craft of bringing back to life a message from the past, for creating secret spaces which no one else can enter while the reading takes place, for being able to redefine the universe and rebel against unfairness, all by means of a certain page. Of these miracles we are capable, we the readers, and these may perhaps help rescue us from the abjection and stupidity to which we seem so often condemned.

And yet, banality is tempting. To dissuade us from reading, we invent strategies of distraction that transform us into bulimic consumers for whom novelty and not memory is essential. We reward triviality and monetary ambition while stripping the intellectual act of its prestige, we replace ethical and aesthetic notions with purely financial values and we propose entertainments that offer immediate gratification and the illusion of universal chatting instead of the pleasurable challenge and amiable slow pace of reading. We oppose the printing press to the electronic screen, and we substitute libraries of paper, rooted in time and space, with almost infinite webs whose most notorious qualities are instantaneity and immoderation.

Such oppositions are not new. Toward the end of the fifteenth century, in Paris, high up in the tall bell towers where Quasimodo hides, in a monk’s cell that serves both as study and alchemist’s laboratory, the archdeacon Claude Frollo stretches one hand toward the printed volume on his desk, and with the other points toward the Gothic contours of Notre Dame which he can see below him, through his window. “This,” says the unhappy clergyman, “will kill that.” According to Frollo, a contemporary of Gutenberg, the printed book will destroy the book-edifice; the printing press will put an end to the literate medieval architecture in which every column, every architrave, every portal is a text that can and must be read.

Then, as today, this prophecy was of course a false one. Five centuries later, and thanks to the printed book, we have access to the knowledge of the medieval architects, commented on by Viollet-le-Duc and John Ruskin, and re-imagined by Le Corbusier and Frank Gehry. Frollo fears that the new technology will annihilate the preceding one; he forgets that our creative capacities are prodigious and that we can always find use for yet another instrument. We don’t lack ambition.

Those who set up oppositions between the electronic technology and that of the printing press perpetuate Frollo’s fallacy. They want us to believe that the book—an instrument as perfect as the wheel or the knife, capable of holding memory and experience, an instrument that is truly interactive, allowing us to begin and end a text wherever we choose, to annotate in the margins, to give its reading a rhythm at will—should be discarded in favor of a newer tool. Such intransigent choices result in technocratic extremism. In an intelligent world, electronic devices and printed books share the space of our work desks and offer each of us different qualities and reading possibilities. Context, whether intellectual or material, matters, as most readers know.

Sometime in the early centuries of the Common Era, there appeared a curious text purporting to be a biography of Adam and Eve. Readers have always liked to imagine a prehistory or a sequel to their favorite stories, and the stories of the Bible are no exception. Taking as its starting-point the few pages of the Book of Genesis that refer to our legendary ancestors, an anonymous scribe composed a Life of Adam and Eve recounting their adventures and (mostly) misadventures after the banishment from Eden. At the end of the book, in one of those postmodernist twists so common in our earliest literatures, Eve asks her son Seth to write down a true account of his parents’ lives: the book the reader holds in his hands is that account. What Eve says to Seth is this: “But listen to me, my children! Make tablets of stone and others of clay, and write on them, all my life and your father’s and all that you have heard and seen from us. If by water the Lord judge our race, the tablets of clay will be dissolved and the tablets of stone will remain; but if by fire, the tablets of stone will be broken up and the tablets of clay will be baked [hard].” Eve wisely does not choose between tablets of stone and tablets of clay: the text may be the same, but each substance lends it a different quality, and she wants both.

Almost twenty years have elapsed since I finished (or abandoned) A History of Reading. At the time, I thought I was exploring the act of reading, the perceived characteristics of the craft and how these came into being. I didn’t know I was in fact affirming our right as readers to pursue our vocation (or passion) beyond economic, political, and technological concerns, in a boundless, imaginative realm where the reader is not forced to choose and, like Eve, can have it all. Literature is not dogma: it offers questions, not conclusive answers. Libraries are essentially places of intellectual freedom: any constraints imposed upon them are our own. Reading is, or can be, the open-ended means by which we come to know a little more about the world and about ourselves, not through opposition but through recognition of words addressed to us individually, far away, and long ago.


Adapted from the introduction to a new edition A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel, to be published on August 24. Published by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), LLC. Copyright © 1996, 2014 by Alberto Manguel.

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