At one magical instant in your early childhood, the page of a book - that string of confused, alien ciphers - shivered into meaning. Words spoke to you, gave up their secrets; at that moment, whole universes opened. You became, irrevocably, a reader. Noted essayist Alberto Manguel moves from this essential moment to explore the 6000-year-old conversation between words and that magician without whom the book would be a lifeless object: the reader. Manguel lingers over reading as seduction, as rebellion, as obsession, and goes on to trace the never-before-told story of the reader's progress from clay tablet to scroll, codex to CD-ROM.
Reading, Manguel asserts in this encyclopedic and self-indulgent exploration, has such "a particular quality of privacy" that one "can transform a place by reading in it." An erudite yet entertaining conversation with the reader, Manguel's History ranges over languages and literatures from prebook ages to the present. The Argentine-born author, a translator and editor (The Dictionary of Imaginary Places), explains how, why and what we read. A book is not a mere object, he contends; whether read or listened to, a book may move emotions or change minds, a temptation that may prompt a translator not to be, in Dr. Johnson's phrase, "like his author" but to attempt "to excel him." Although there is a logic in the telling, and Manguel proceeds from the biology and psychology of reading and listening to a quirky history of books from the incised tablet to the computer screen, the narrative, like gossip, can be accessed anywhere. Manguel seemingly covers 6000 years of book-reading history, assisted by 140 woodcuts, drawings and photos. His history is not for every reader's palate, yet every reader who regrets the omission of a favorite story about reading will attest thereby to the book's many delights. (Sept.)