Saturday, February 19, 2011

a history of reading: reflections for a faith linked to a book

I’ve been enjoying Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading over recent days (airflights to be precise). It’s beautifully written, captivating chapter introductions that open up a wealth of reflection on how people read, and how people have read, over time. I never knew that it wasn’t until the 3rd century that people started reading silently!

It’s an important book, given the importance of a book – the Bible – for Christianity and given that one of the gifts that mission work gave to many indigenous cultures was the ability to read and write. (Yep, there are some very real curses that mission gave, but honesty means we need to face the both the good and bad of our past.)

Here are some of the best quotes. First, a concluding comment on the complexity of reading, specifically the relationship between the book, the moment of reading that book, and how we remember that moment of reading.

A text read and remembered becomes, in that redemptive rereading, like the frozen lake in the poem I memorized so long ago – as solid as land and capable of supporting the reader’s crossing, and yet, at the same time, its only existence is the mind, as precarious and fleeting as if its letters were written on water. (65)

Second, a gem on how even in postmodern thought, not all readings need be treated as equally valid.

If, in reading, there is no such thing as “the last word”, then no authority could impose a correct reading on us. With time we realized that some readings were better than others – more informed, more lucid, more challenging, more plausible, more disturbing. (86).

I love that last word – more disturbing. It’s one of reasons I keep reading the Bible – it’s a most profoundly disturbing book, that has the ability to keep blindsiding my simple attitudes to life.

And here is one of the relationship between writer and reader.

The primordial relationship between writer and reader presents a wonderful paradox: in creating the role of the reader, the writer also decrees the writer’s death, since in order for a text to be finished the writer must withdraw, cease to exist. While the writer remains present, the text remains incomplete. Only when the writer relinquishes the text, does the text come into existence. (179)

As I read it, I couldn’t help but think of Galatians 2:20, and the fact that life only comes through death. Someone asked me last night why I had yet written a second book. Part of the answer lies in the slow process by which things need to die in me, the writer, before life becomes possible in the reader.

Posted by steve at 07:08 PM


  1. Robert Alter “The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age” is a useful, in my opinion, addition to the whole question of “reading” today.

    Comment by Bruce Grindlay — February 22, 2011 @ 4:04 pm

  2. thanks for the tip Bruce.

    Comment by steve — February 22, 2011 @ 4:42 pm

  3. very nice. i read a chapter of this in my USQ study, along with some great stuff on writing in history, Gutenberg etc. you’ve prompted my to order the book, and to finally find and read Stanley Fish’s book “is there a text in this class”.

    gosh i’m looking forward to time to read. thanks.

    Comment by craig mitchell — February 23, 2011 @ 10:22 pm

  4. yes reading, your Phd will certainly give you that opportunity


    Comment by steve — February 24, 2011 @ 8:25 pm

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