And after that, Kafka said . . .

5th July 1996 at 01:00
A History of Reading, By Alberto Manguel, HarperCollins Pounds 25

Victoria Neumark negotiates the history of the written word, taking in the Babylonian Talmud and Oscar Wilde en route.

A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe. " opined Franz Kafka in 1904, writing to his friend Oskar Pollak. "Read in order to live", advised Gustave Flaubert in a letter to a female friend. Socrates described written books as a recipe not for memory but reminder. Two clay tablets from the dawn of Mesopotamian civilisation show tally marks for livestock. And for the Talmudic scholars, reading was an activity which could never be completed, symbolised in the fact that the Babylonian Talmud is printed without its first page.

Wonderful stuff, and I could go on, as Alberto Manguel does for 310 pages,concluding, as he does, that the history of reading has no end, but taking in the neuro-linguistics of reading, the histories of bookmaking, punctuation, ways in which children learned to read, being read to, translation, banned books and book stealing and more besides along the way.

Season it all liberally with anecdotes about a fascinating life spent moving from Israel to Buenos Aires and Europe, with cultural inputs from Jewish, Spanish and English literary traditions, together with huge dollops of classical learning, and you have the rich and savoury casserole of learning which is A History of Reading. But is it actually a history of reading?

Alberto Manguel once had a holiday job reading to Borges and the master's influence is all-pervasive in the literate, tricky, riddling style in which he conveys much of his information.

Manguel delights in juxtaposing snippets of information and laying out suggestive patterns. Thus: Kafka was forced to go to a German-speaking school under a Germanisation edict but always hated it. He never felt easy reading, yet read compulsively. The kind of cramming such schools offered left students with no real feeling for the classical literature with which they were force-fed and which remained mysterious to them. Kafka's parables remain mysterious and susceptible to many interpretations. Perhaps his famously disobeyed injunction to Max Brod to destroy his writings was not the agonising of a perfectionist but the expression of a lust for a deeper kind of immortality granted to never-known works, like the volumes of the library at Alexandria, or the lost plays of Aeschylus. His work above all invites readers to make their own version and equivocally erases the writer. Great stuff, but where does it get you?

It all depends, as Bob Dylan remarked, where you wanna go. If, like Thomas a Kempis, your idea of happiness is "in a little corner with a little book", Manguel is an intriguing companion. Erudite, sparkling with recherche quotations, modestly appealing in his personal literography, he is an ideal dining companion, to extend the prime image in his chapter on metaphors of reading. If, in this age of fast-fading print, you are a secret bookaholic, reading Manguel is like Paula Hamilton for neurotic, bulimic alcoholics: you know you're not alone, and furthermore, there is even someone more addicted than you. But - and it feels churlish to add this caveat - if you hope for books not just to dazzle you, but also like Kafka, to cut through the frozen sea of your soul, this is not the one.

So far from biting, stinging and "shaking us awake like a blow on the skull" as Kafka recommended, Manguel's book at first refreshes and soothes the jaded palate and ends by simply overloading it with delicious titbits from the lives and works of great authors.

Such a titbit tells how Oscar Wilde, when being examined at Oxford, was asked to translate from the Greek Testament the account of the Passion, which he did with fluency. The examiners asked him twice to stop, but each time he continued. "Oh, do let me go on," said Wilde. "I want to see how it ends. " A History of Reading, with its postmodern last chapter explaining how its author never actually wrote "a history of reading", lacks essential narrative bite.

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