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Reading Notes 5.3.18 (The Traveler, The Tower, & The Worm)

Resource: The Traveler, the Tower, and the Worm by Alberto Manguel
Section covered: Chapter 1 (Pages 6-11)
Theme(s): The power, magic, versatility, and revolutionary nature of the book.


On the manifold nature of the book:

“The book is many things. As a repository of memory, a means of overcoming the constraints of time and space, a site for reflection and creativity, an archive of the experience or ourselves and others, a source of illumination, happiness, and sometimes consolation, a chronicle of events past, present, and future, a mirror, a companion, a teacher, a conjuring-up of the dead, an amusement, the book in its many incarnations, from clay tablet to electronic page, has long served as a metaphor for many of our essential concepts and undertakings.”

The power of the written word to represent reality and concretize the abstract:

“Almost since the invention of writing, more than five thousand years ago, the signs that stood for words that expressed (or attempted to express) our thinking appeared to its users as models or images for things as intricate and aimless, as concrete or as abstract as the world in which we live and even life itself.”

The magical and miraculous power of the written word:

“Very quickly, the first scribes must have realized the magical properties of their new craft. For those who had mastered its code, the art of writing allowed the faithful transmission of lengthy texts so that the messenger had no longer to rely solely on his or her memory; it lent authority to the text set down, perhaps for no other reason than that its material existence now offered the spoken word a tangible reality—and, at the same time, by manipulating that assumption, allowed for this authority to be distorted or undermined; it helped organize and render coherent intricacies of reasoning that often became lost in speech, whether in convolutions of monologues or in the ramifications of dialogue. Perhaps we cannot imagine today what it must have felt like for people accustomed to requiring the bodily presence of a live speaker to suddenly receive, in a clump of clay, the voice of a distance friend or a long dead king. It is not surprising that such a miraculous instrument should appear in the mind of these early readers as the metaphorical manifestation of other miracles, of the inconceivable universe, and of their unintelligible lives.”


Perhaps more than any other tool, books are capable of playing an indefinite number of roles in our experience. They comfort us, inform us, inspire us, distract us, intimidate us, empower us, remind us, orient us, and so much more. Because of this impact they lend themselves easily to being a rich source of metaphor for other aspects of life.

Writing is a magical act. It captures, crystallizes, and confers authority upon thoughts. Through the written word, the dead are resurrected to life and the living can achieve eternity. These are things we take for granted today, but appeared miraculous in the eyes of the first scribes ad readers.

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