Reviews

A History of Reading

Norbert Ruebsaat

Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading taught me to read. Until then, I had thought of reading as an activity that was partly pleasurable, partly instructive and partly dangerous, because books, as well as being informative and entertaining, always had secret persuasive agendas. Even fiction did. Especially genre fiction did. Manguel’s book changed my mind: it showed me that while reading, I could choose who I wanted to be, or to put it another way, I could be any reader that I wanted to be while reading—I didn’t have to choose the author’s reader. He writes that the only purpose of reading is to experience pleasure; reading is conversation, not instruction. So I’m less scared of books now. I enjoyed almost every page of this book and I’ve enjoyed every book I’ve read since, because I have permission to put a book down when I stop enjoying it. It’s a strange freedom to experience for the first time in middle age, and it’s embarrassing not to have experienced it before. One of my students recently told me that he couldn’t study because he thought books were mind control, the ancestors of television and the Internet. I recommended he read Manguel’s book, which proposes that readers are the freest people in the world. A friend told me that if, like Don Quixote, you mistake what you read in books for what takes place in the world, your perception gets warped because you are always measuring your experiences against those described in books. I told her to stop worrying and read Manguel’s book, which is not a description or a prescription or even a representation of the world; it is a different world, and when you enter it you hear three voices: your own, the writer’s and the reader’s. Even when Manguel explains, in a not too postmodern way, that when the reader is “born” the writer “dies,” I told my friend, I don’t get scared.

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Norbert Ruebsaat

Norbert Ruebsaat has written many articles for Geist. He lived in Vancouver and taught at Simon Fraser University.


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