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
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
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.