Limitless or not, the power of the reader cannot be inherited; it must be learned. Even though we come into the world as creatures intent on seeking meaning in everything, in reading meanings in gestures, sounds, colors, and shapes, the deciphering of society’s common code of communication is a skill that must be acquired. Vocabulary and syntax, levels of meaning, summary and comparison of texts, all these are techniques that must be taught to those who enter society’s commonwealth in order to grant them the full power of reading. And yet the last step in the process must be learned all alone: discovering in a book the record of one’s own experience.
Rarely, however, is the acquisition of this power encouraged. From the elite schools of scribes in Mesopotamia to the monasteries and universities of the Middle Ages, and later, with the wider distribution of texts after Gutenberg and in the age of the Web, reading at its fullest has always been the privilege of a few. True, in our time, most people in the world are superficially literate, able to read an ad and sign their name on a contract, but that alone does not make them readers. Reading is the ability to enter a text and explore it to one’s fullest individual capacities, repossessing it in the act of reinvention. But a myriad of obstacles…are placed in the way of its accomplishment. Precisely because of the power that reading grants the reader, the various political, economic, and religious systems that govern us fear such imaginative freedom. Reading at its best may lead to reflection and questioning, and reflection and questioning may lead to objection and change. That, in any society, is a dangerous enterprise.
Yes, I love Alberto Manguel.