Bookman's Holiday

Saint Ambrose, the reputed author of the Athanasian Creed, did not move his lips when he read. Neither did Ambrose's pupil and colleague Saint Augustine. The Roman chroniclers who witnessed this feat thought it only a curiosity, and the provincial missionaries' example took generations to become the ruling style of reading in the West.

Regardless of how it is done, reading is a social act, involving a history of formal and informal accords establishing that written words have certain meanings and shapes, that they are to be used in certain ways. Reading is also, of course, an intensely individual act: each reader approaches a text differently, bringing to bear experience and personality on another's words. It is a complex mental activity, involving several areas of the brain at once. Reading is physiologically complex as well, demanding that the eyes dart around the page hundreds of times each second to take in bits and pieces of visual information.

All of these matters are of profound interest to Alberto Manguel, a multilingual Argentine now living in Canada, who ranges comfortably along the thousands of years that make up the history of literacy to spin a narrative that runs from cave paintings to CD-ROM, from ancient Chinese "bone-shell scripts" carved on turtle carapaces to technologies not yet in place. His History of Reading spans vast territories of the mind, dropping names and tantalizing...

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