Empire of the Word DVD Review - www.impulsegamer.com -

Feature 8.0
Video 8.0
Audio 7.0
Special Features   N/A
Total 7.7
Distributor: Madman
Running Time: 208 minutes
Classification: M15+
Reviewer: Felix Staica

7.7


Empire of the Word

Narrator Alberto Manguel tells us, in his flowing, sonorous South American accent, that he has been a lifelong reader. He happily lives in France, surrounded by his books. His love of reading—past, present, future—is quite infectious; but then again, I already have the bug.

Though four 50 minute episodes (“The Magic of Reading”, “Learning to Read”, “Forbidden Reading” and “The Future of Reading”), we travel with Manguel from Canada to France, Egypt to Tokyo, Mesopotamia, Ireland and the US, and sometimes back into dramatised time, searching for answers to some very interesting questions.

I found the first episode a little stale and the least informative. This is partly because it was a sketch of the history of writing, all the way back to clay tablets in the Middle East millennia ago and those of us with an interest in this sort of thing (the ones likely to buy Empire of the Word) would have some vague idea about it. The Reformation segment was also far from fascinating but did feature a pressing of the Gutenberg Bible, which was thrilling!

However, there are other parts which were truly informative and unknown to me, like the inside access to the four-building Bibliothèque nationale de France and its elite team of restorers. Did you know there’s a critical race against time to de-acidify paper manufactured from the 1850s to the 1940s because it is destroying itself? The process is costly but we get to see! It’s almost like porn for bibliophiles.

The series takes a very liberal view of ideas and publishing, arguing stridently against censorship and limitations on knowledge, as well the much-sought-after universal library all the way back in the day of Alexander the Great and the controversies arising in the present day from Google’s digitisation of the world’s written corpus. It even bravely raises the issue of artistic expression in the realm of pornography, even child pornography. There is also a (too brief) exposé of online reading, mobile phone reading but specific reading devices (like Amazon’s Kindle) are quickly glossed over and not even show: I found this curious and disappointing.

Manguel makes much of his childhood links in Argentina with the blind author Jorge Luis Borges, for whom he read. It is endearing, if a tad indulgent. The documentary is quite a mixed salad of very good and not so good. It takes a bit of getting used to the structure of the presentation, because I had, like most people I guess, assumed that a four-part documentary about reading would be chronological; but this is not the case. Rather, it is topical and makes its connections based on common themes. By the end of Empire of the Word, this unexpected approach is quite rewarding.

Manguel is a clear speaker with a genuine attachment to his subject. This makes him a good on- and off-screen narrator. The footage is easy to watch and attractive all-round. It doesn’t quite have the authority, sheen or funding of a BBC or American series (it is Canadian) but still fulfils its function. The documentary originally aired on SBS and would appeal to the general viewer if channel-surfing. It would not make a good buy, however, except for people who like books, reading and writing and are curious about their fate. 

Felix Staica

 






 
 



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