TVO series tells the story of reading

November 23, 2009

Speaking with Alberto Manguel, it's clear he's hugely proud of the new television series he narrates. Just don't get him started on the title: Empire of the Word.

"I'd like them to take the title away and burn it. The title is not mine," he growls in an interview from his home in Mondion, France. "Literature is not an empire. It doesn't conquer by blood or violence. It is exactly the opposite of that. It's like calling a series on classical music Concentration Camp of the Mind."

This outburst, which included a few choice words for the higher-ups who insisted on the title, seems out of character for the soft-spoken, thoughtful writer, who also calls St. Thomas, Ont., home. But he is correct that, like a good book, the series has no interest in conquering the hearts and minds of viewers. Rather, it invites dialogue at a moment in history when technology (including last week's long-awaited release of Kindle in Canada) may well be precipitating a tectonic shift in how and why we read.

Eight years in the making, Empire of the Word is a four-part series airing over the next four Wednesdays on TVO (in Ontario) that looks at the history of the reader across five millennia. The brainchild of documentary producer Mark Johnston, it traces the wonders and perils of our attempts to learn to read the world for ourselves.

Twenty-seven years ago, Manguel taught Johnston at York University and the two became fast friends. In 1997, Johnston read Manguel's The History of Reading and decided it was perfect for a "big, ambitious" series in the mould of Carl Sagan's Cosmos, long a source of inspiration to him.

To create Empire of the Word, Johnston's crew visited 15 countries, conducting dozens of interviews. Their budget was big, but "less than the BBC would spend" because it was shot by a team of just three (with help from local fixers). And what couldn't be filmed is reconstructed with computer animations, such as cartoon silhouettes acting out the Epic of Gilgamesh. After the series has premiered in Ontario, it will screen in Quebec, as well as in Australia, Ireland and France. It will also be available to the rest of the world online, along with a series of interactive features.

Empire of the Word tracks the evolution of reading, from Mesopotamia through ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt. Johnston says his team's visit to the modern Library of Alexandria, where the "Yoda-like" Dr. Mustafa El-Abadi is trying to rebuild the first universal library, was one of his most memorable experiences.

But the series doesn't just chart the upward progress of the word, it also explores darker issues such as illiteracy (one in six adults in Canada can't read this article) and violent censorship against writers and publishers. And it introduces viewers to those fighting for freedom of the word, including hunted Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, author of the notorious 2005 cartoons satirizing the Prophet Mohammed, who speaks from his latest stop on a carousel of safe houses.

Casting ahead to the future of reading, in the final episode of the series Manguel cautions that we must look before we leap into the digital world.

Many of the democratizing and preservative powers of digitization are "wonderful" - we can copy a book in seconds, where it once took monks a lifetime to copy a text. And Manguel marvels at the ability to "travel to the North Pole without having to lug a heavy bag of books" thanks to e-readers like the Kindle.

But he also warns that an increasingly industrial bookselling culture means that "we are threatened with stupidity." He highlights the widespread profit model of the sort we see in supermarkets that peddle mass-appeal bestsellers, exercising only the most threadbare literary judgment. Focusing so intently on the bottom line, on getting books that sell to a large market quickly and cheaply - a major factor behind the rise of digital texts - degrades the choices readers have in Manguel's eyes.

"The notion of the slow and difficult as being meritorious has been transformed into the value of the quick and easy. And that is not an intellectual judgment," Manguel says.

As his narrative for the series leaps back and forth between present and past, it serves as a reminder that developments in reading technologies and tastes have not always been progressive - nor have changes proven irrevocable.

"The history of reading is not a history that progresses in quality. It is more of a circular history. We invent forms of reading and devices for reading, then we abandon them, and then we go back to them," Manguel says.

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