For many people, their first encounter with the history of the book is reading Alberto Manguel’s narratives that effectively combine historical detail, beautiful descriptions and personal anecdotes that give a unique spiritual element to the author’s encounters with books. These qualities that we have come to associate with Manguel in the written word were strongly felt in the engaging and thought-provoking lecture the author gave on ‘Adam’s Task: A Dictionary Story’.
The prevailing image of the dictionary as a functional book listing words with their definitions was immediately challenged by Manguel’s perception of it as a magical object with mysterious powers containing the modern language in its entirety: past forgotten languages and future words not yet known to name new experiences. At one time the dictionary held a place of importance, regarded as an essential possession along with a copy of the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare, but is increasingly unlikely to be found on today’s bookshelves. Whilst electronic versions offer a viable alternative, one feels they are even more functional than their paper counterpart as they do not offer the serendipity of discovering new words as you flick through the pages. During the course of the lecture, Manguel elevated the dictionary from a mere book of words with definitions laying forgotten on bookshelves, to a book that defines humanity itself, an essential volume containing our past, present and future. Instead of casually standing by and allowing this important book to become obsolete, Manguel forces us to consider the significance of loosing such a book, that it would be like losing our memory and losing our ‘guardian angel’ of the library.