Tag Archives: Alberto Manguel

Inventing Literary Classics

Attention quiz-masters! Can you name the innovative book designer and printer who was the very first to publish a series of portable classics? Clue: he died exactly half a millennium ago.

In my recent post What is a Literary Classic? I mentioned several influential sets of books re-issued with a “classic” publication branding – Penguin Classics, Signet Classics, Virago Modern Classics, Classic Comics and so on. This kind of designation gives books a certain status – not an unquestionable status, but one that does carry some weight with most readers, at least subliminally.


Aldine publishing device, from the Great Hall ceiling, Library of Congress

Well, the idea of producing a publication series that makes classic texts available in a convenient format is far from new. It goes back to a period only a few decades after Gutenberg’s introduction  of movable type to Europe. The process of inventing literary classics followed closely on the invention of the printing press.

The entrepreneurial Renaissance humanist who deserves the credit for inventing literary classics was Aldus Manutius (1449-1515), whose Aldine Press in Venice not only devised various innovations in typography (e.g. italics and semi-colons) but also created for the first time a series of inexpensive pocket editions of texts from Greek and Roman antiquity (Aristotle, Plato, Sophocles, Herodotus, Virgil, Ovid, Cicero…) along with Italian poetic masterpieces by writers such as Dante and Petrarch. An extraordinary accomplishment!

Portable, fairly compact – but those Aldine Press books didn’t look cheap. A great deal of care and professional expertise went into their design and production.


From Rylands Library copy of the Aldine Virgil (1501)

Fonts were selected for their aesthetic appeal, and sometimes created in-house. Several modern typefaces derive from those commissioned by Aldus and cut by his employee Francesco Griffo – among them  Bembo, named after one of his contemporaries, the Italian literary scholar Pietro Bembo, whose work Aldus published. (I was delighted to discover the origin of Bembo, an elegant font used for two of my novels – That Untravelled World and the one forthcoming soon, The Mind’s Own Place.)

What’s more, elaborate and colourful illustrations often accompanied the printed text, as in this pictured example: a page from the Aldine Press edition of Virgil’s works. It was the first publication to use italic type, and the first in octavo format.

The significance of Aldus Manutius’s place in cultural history goes beyond his enterprising and skilful work as a book designer and printer. He was an admirable scholarly teacher, epitomising the Renaissance spirit – and in fact his reason for setting up a printing house was that he saw a need for students to have access to classic texts in a convenient format.

Alberto Manguel remarks in his book A History of Reading that Aldus’s home in Venice became a gathering point for eminent humanists from all over Europe, such as the Dutch luminary Erasmus. Together these men would discuss what classic titles should be printed and which manuscripts were the most reliable sources. Manguel records this moving final tribute:

When Aldus died in 1515, the humanists who attended his funeral erected all around his coffin, like erudite sentinels, the books he had so lovingly chosen to print.

Giving voice to print



Tennyson reading aloud – painting by George Howard (Ashmolean)

Imagine a bus full of commuters all reading aloud from their newspapers or books or smartphone email messages. Fortunately we’re spared such a horrible hubbub because people know how to make sense of words without needing to vocalise them.

Yet silent reading, though advantageous in many situations, doesn’t allow some elements of a well-written text to emerge fully.

In the distant past, almost everybody who could read did their reading aloud. In the fourth century AD the bishop of Milan, Ambrose, caused great wonderment because (as Augustine records in his Confessions) ‘when he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning but his voice was silent and his tongue was still.’


Not until the tenth century did this feat of soundless perusal become the norm, according to Alberto Manguel’s idiosyncratic but fascinating survey A History of Reading. (There’s a critical review of Manguel’s book here.)

Before the advent of printed publications, the usual method of producing a book was that a monk would work arduously in a scriptorium, copying out by hand what was dictated to him or recited by him from the prior text – so, either way, enunciation was part of the transcribing process.

An 8th-century scribe described the physical effort that this required: ‘Three fingers write, two eyes see, one tongue speaks, the entire body labours.’

As Manguel remarks, voicing the written words with someone else present implied a shared reading experience, whereas silent comprehension made it possible for a reader to have a directly private relationship with the text. This change has involved both gain and loss.

Nowadays, it seems, hardly anyone reads aloud unless it’s to young children at bedtime or occasionally – if they’re lucky – in the classroom. I still remember gratefully the Friday afternoon ritual during my last year in primary school , when our teacher would read to us an instalment from some novel. I recall one of them particularly, because the story embeds the same kind of experience: it’s The Otterbury Incident by Cecil Day-Lewis, illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, in which the actions of the main characters (a gang of young boys) are influenced by the one-for-all-and-all-for-one ethical code of a novel that their schoolmaster reads to them – The Three Musketeers. That shared sensation of entering a story-shaped world as the printed word acquired oral form had a powerful effect on me. It inspired me and one of my mates to hand-write together (and bind and illustrate) our own mini-novels, a couple of which the teacher generously read to the class, confirming our sense of literary vocation. Thank you, Mr Callaghan!

I now read aloud every day, usually a few pages from whatever novel is currently in train. I do this partly for the benefit of a particular auditor with eye problems, but I also get a lot out of it myself because the process of giving voice to print requires a slower pace than for silent consumption so that the rhythms can become audible. It means listening attentively to the way in which the sentences are constructed. My remarks in a recent post on the language of Jim Crace’s Harvest mightn’t have occurred to me if I hadn’t been reading that novel aloud.

So it’s a good thing that audio recordings of many books have become widely available in recent years. They are a great boon. of course, to people with impaired vision. More than that, an increasing number of readers choose to listen to spoken texts when they are travelling or just relaxing at home with eyes closed.

I’m delighted that my own novels have been turned into talking books. The ‘VisAbility’ organisation, previously called the WA Association for the Blind, has recorded both The End of Longing and That Untravelled World for people unable to access the printed versions. They aren’t available in that form for general sale through bookshops, but can be purchased (exclusively) from my publisher: see the Audiobook section of the UWAP website.

There’s a special pleasure in the sound of one’s own text when someone else narrates it eloquently. I’ve yet to listen to That Untravelled World, but hearing The End of Longing read aloud by Elizabeth Oats on CDs has made me aware of the distinctive tonal quality that a female voice can bring to the experience of storytelling. Elizabeth speaks with beautiful clarity, and her limpid expression is particularly apt for the passages that convey the point of view of Frances, the main female character.

Perhaps when I’ve finished drafting my next novel or short story I’ll see whether I can arrange for someone suitably skilled to read it aloud to me. That could be a means of detecting phrases that aren’t quite right, rhythms that need adjusting. I wonder whether some other writers already do this?