Archive for August, 2008


André Kertész: On Reading

Via Classical Bookworm, via Book Patrol: André Kertész‘s On Reading, a photo essay depicting readers.

The man in this picture is browsing in front of a used bookstore on 4th Avenue, the fabled “Book Row” of New York. From Amazon:

Indeed, one of the greatest satisfactions Book Row offered was the joy of the chase. You’d decide you wanted such and such a title, and then spend weeks, or months, or years, searching for it. Every store you entered held out the hope that at last it would be there, and when it wasn’t your disappointment was tempered by the knowledge that right next door, or maybe a couple of storefronts away, was yet another store holding out the same hope, and then another, and then another.

Reading through the reviews, it is fascinating to observe the various reactions book lovers and book browsers exhibit towards the internet and the era of online book trading.


Language and the Reading Brain

Language is innate. Reading isn’t. That’s the hypothesis of Maryanne Wolf in Proust and the Squid:

[…] reading and other cultural inventions differ from other processes; they do not come “naturally” to children, unlike language or vision […] Across all written languages, reading development involves: a rearrangement of older structures to make new learning circuits; a capacity for specialization in working groups of neurons within these structures for representing information; and automaticity — the capacity of these neuronal groups and learning circuits to retrieve and connect this information at nearly automatic rates. (169-170)

An important piece of evidence supporting the idea that we do not possess a reading centre in the brain comes from brain scans of readers of different languages. The scans reveal that readers of English, a language with an alphabet system, activate different parts of the brain than readers of Chinese, a syllabary. The Chinese reading brain does not display any activity in the temporal-parietal region; and although both English and Chinese readers use the occipital-temporal region, the English do so using only the region of the left hemisphere, whereas Chinese readers work across both hemispheres.

So is language in the brain and reading isn’t? No. Because as we learn how to read — or learn any other skill, for that matter — the brain rewires or strengthens certain circuits, allowing us step-by-step to automatize certain processes and thus enabling us to take reading to the next level, comprehension. Language, on the other hand, is in the brain from the start. At least that’s the claim of linguists supporting the innateness hypothesis, prominent proponents of which include Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker. The argument for language being innate draws on diverse areas of language processing and acquisition: the learning rate of language in children; language among deaf children; sophisticated language among primitive tribes; the inability of animals to acquire language; specific and inherited language disabilities.

Wolf comments on the latter area at length in her chapters on dyslexia. In a significant number of cases, dyslexia appears to be linked to regions of the brain that are crucial to language processing, such as Broca’s area or Wernicke’s area. Wolf mentions an experiment by Isabelle Libermann and Don Shankweiler whose results suggest that deaf children struggle with reading not so much because of their lack of auditory perception but because they do not have the necessary phonological representations of sounds within words. Libermann and Shankweiler concluded that when it comes to reading cognitive awareness of the sounds in a language is more important than being able to actually hear the sounds. Despite the importance of phoneme awareness (alongside the ability to decode graphemes) and the role of language regions, Wolf maintains that a failure to read can have various sources in the brain, ranging from visual to auditory to speech impediments. Her conclusion: “Voilà: the sum of these hypotheses [about the roots of dyslexia] looks like a decent approximation of the major parts of the universal reading system.” (177) A reader’s brain, in other words, functions like a computer in that it wires different sections of the brain together so as to produce the miracle we call reading.


The Shelf and the Spine

Henry Petroski in The Book on the Bookshelf explains why shelving books vertically with their spine pointing outward was much less common in the olden days:

The spines of early books had been modest features indeed compared to the front and back covers. […] In many cases, the metal and jewel treatments of the front were nailed or otherwise fastened directly over leather or other binding material, emphasizing the plainness and subservient position of the spine. There was little that could be done otherwise, for the spine was in effect the hinge of the book, something that had to bend and flex if the book were to open properly, and so it was not suitable for heavy ornamentation. Indeed, the spine was to the cover as the downstairs would be to the upstairs in a Victorian mansion. (121)

Petroski illustrates his point with a series of woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer. They culminate in Saint Jerome in his Study (1514), one of Dürer’s four master cuts.

We see Saint Jerome poring over his translation of the Bible into vulgar Latin (the Vulgate). Conspicuously missing from the book pile next to the sleeping dog is a vertical spine. Books are lying either on their face or are propped against the wall, spine facing upwards. Some seventy years after Dürer, the Renaissance engineer Agostino Ramelli decided to feature vertical shelving in a picture showing his book wheel, one of the most famous contraptions in book gadget history:

The picture dates back to 1588; notice the shelf in the background. According to Petroski, the way the books are shelved — spine out — was a rare sight at the time. We may attest their appearance to Ramelli’s flair for innovative design, but Petroski points out that Ramelli had been an engineer at the French court and might have come across spine-shelving there, the French being pioneers in that respect. Only toward the end of the 16th century, as books became more and more numerous, did book collectors and librarians start spine-shelving and spine-labelling in earnest. Meanwhile, the growing popularity of leather-bindings encouraged spine-decoration. By the 17th century, the spine had conquered the bookshelf.

As far as contemplating a “book thing” such as a shelf is concerned: may the wise men sneer! Yes, perhaps we should be reading our books instead of obsessing over their appearance, or their history, or their shelving. But I believe that the physical realm — a book touched, felt, shelved — is an essential part of the reading experience and too often neglected in its study. Let the wise men therefore be engrossed in their tomes. In the meantime, I shall be happy checking out some delicious book gadgets.

Petroski, Henry. The Book on the Bookshelf. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.


How to Read a Book

I picked up How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren (of Quiz Show fame)  at the Capital Hill used bookstore the other day. The five-star Amazon reviews are well deserved: Adler and van Doren’s instructions are clear, succinct and inspiring. They promote what they call “active reading” with a fervor and zeal reminiscent of Socrates, and the goal of active reading comes very close to fixing what Socrates saw lacking in reading: they want the reader to enter a conversation with the text.

Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher. He even has to be willing to argue with the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences and your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him. (49)

Adler and van Doren break this conversation down into four subsequent questions: (I) What is the book about as a whole? (II) What is being said in detail, and how? (III) Is the book true, in whole or part? (IV) What of it? The last question ponders the book’s significance, in particular with respect to other books the reader has read, a process that Adler and van Doren dub “syntopical reading”.

Every now and then, Adler illustrates his point with a metaphor. He compares learning how to read to learning how to ski: both can be awkard and frustrating at the beginning while the novice learns the separate stages; later on, once each stage has been mastered, the reader can “put them together into a smoothly running whole” (55). I especially enjoyed the comparison between active reading and baseball:

The mistake here is to suppose that receiving communication is like receiving a blow or a legacy or a judgment from the court. On the contrary, the reader or listener is much more like the catcher in a game of baseball. Catching the ball is just as much of an activity as pitching or hitting it. The pitcher or batter is the sender in the sense that his activity initiates the motion of the ball. The catcher or fielder is the receiver in the sense that his activity terminates it. Both are active, though the activities are different. If anything is passive, it is the ball. It is the inert thing that is put in motion or stopped, whereas the players are active, moving to pitch, hit, or catch. The analogy with writing and reading is almost perfect. The thing that is written and read, like the ball, is the passive object common to the two activities that begin and terminate the process. (5)

The analogy goes even deeper, but the point is well made: reading for understanding must be active; you cannot learn things passively.

Adler, Mortimer J. and Charles van Doren. How to Read a Book. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.


The Digital Library

I may have mentioned Robert Darnton’s article “The Library in the New Age” before on this blog, but it is well worth citing again alongside recent responses by Jean-Claude Guédon and Boudewijn Walraven. I must say I haven’t dabbled much in digital books despite their importance for the future of our book culture. Most definitely an area that merits further studying.


Definitions of the Common Reader

Some scattered thoughts on the notion of the common reader. We can approach the definition of “the reader” — common or otherwise — from various angles, basing it upon, for example, what kind of person the reader is, or what his or her reading are, or what he or she reads. Richard Altick (see previous post) employs the first approach. He explains his use of the term as follows:

The reading public studied in this book is the one composed of what the Victorians were fond of calling “the million.” It is not the relatively small, intellectually and socially superior audience for which most of the great nineteenth-century authors–the readers of the quarterly reviews, the people whom writers like Macaulay, the Brontës, Meredith, George Eliot, and John Stuart Mill had in mind. Here we are concerned primarily with the experience of that overwhelmingly more numerous portion of the English people who became day-by-day readers for the first time in this period, as literacy spread and printed matter became cheaper. The “common reader” studied in these pages may be a member of the working class, or he may belong to the ever expanding bourgeoisie. In preceding centuries […] some hand-workers and some members of the lower-middle class had been readers; but not until the nineteenth century did the appetite for print permeate both classes to the extent that it became a major social phenomenon. (Altick, 6-7)

Altick defines the common reader quantitatively (common=numerous) and qualitatively (common=lower class). The common reader is therefore defined by his or her social stratum. Virginia Woolf in “The Common Reader” takes the second route. She defines the common reader with regards to his or her reading habits:

The common reader, as Dr. Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of a whole […] He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter, and argument. Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure, his deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out […] (Woolf, 2-3)

Woolf’s definition says little about the social status of the reader or his character, but it tells us quite a bit about the way he reads. I am not sure what to make of the “instinct to create for himself …” passage, although I believe what Woolf is getting as is the seeming lack of purpose or direction in the reading of the common reader, as contrasted by the critic, who reads for evaluation and edification, and the scholar, who reads for knowledge.

We could also tackle the definition of the “common reader” based on features of the text that’s being read. The search for a definition and elucidation of the reader based on texts are perhaps the most complex but also, at least from the point of view of literary criticism and theory, the most rewarding of the three approaches, and I shall devote a separate post to that at some stage.

Woolf, Virginia. “The Common Reader”. The Common Reader. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1953.


A History of Cheap Books, Part II: The Poets of John Bell

In an earlier post I sketched some of the milestones in cheap book publishing. Another cheap-book breakthrough was made in 1774 in England when the copyright law of 1709 finally came into force (earlier, the book traders and the courts had simply ignored the law and enforced their own copyright claims) in the momentous court decision Donaldson v. Beckett:

Among the chief offenders [of book piracy] was Alexander Donaldson, the “bold Robin Hood” to whom Boswell’s uncle drank a genial health in 1763. In 1774 Donaldson appealed to the House of Lords a Chancery decision forbidding him to publish or sell Thomson’s Seasons, a book which, under the law, had moved into the public domain. In one of the most momentous decisions in book-trade history (Donaldson v. Beckett) the concept of perpetual copyright was finally killed; copyright, the Lords held, ended when the Act of 1709 said it did. [i.e. 21 years in case of books already published and 28 years in future books] Now, for the first time, any book whose copyright had expired could be reprinted as cheaply as a publisher was able, without fear of legal complications. The consequences to the mass reading public are almost incalculable. (Altick, 53-54)

Among the beneficiaries of the case were 18th century book entrepreneurs such as John Bell, Alexander Hogg and John Cooke. According to Thomas Bonnell, Bell’s The Poets of Great Britain Complete from Chaucer to Churchill not only made English poetry available to a wider audience, but also helped shape a canon of English poetry:

“The Plan of this undertaking,” Bell announced, was “to furnish the public with the most beautiful, the correctest, the cheapest, and the only complete uniform edition of the British Poets.” The projected one hundred volumes were to represent “all the British Poets from the time of Chaucer to Churchill” (MC, April 14, 1777). The new edition would, according to Bell, fill an obvious void. Booksellers, he explained, had long vied for distinction in publishing the Greek and Latin classics; consequently it was rather easy to obtain a set of the ancient classics. To collect the English poets was, by contrast, a “business of time, difficulty, and vast expense,” even for residents of London, and to collect them “uniformly printed, so as to appear in a library as one and the same book,” was out of the question. Italy and France, Bell claimed, had already “rewarded the memories of their illustrious countrymen” by publishing uniform editions of their works. Unaccountably negli- gent by comparison, Great Britain had yet to honor her own worthies, to recognize them in “a general and uniform publication” as “English classics.” Bell’s Poets, the prospectus assured, would answer this need.8 If one considers Bell’s explicit design, the great size of his undertaking, and his pointed and persistent advertising, then the significance of the Poets becomes clear: it was the first serious attempt to publish a comprehensive English literary canon. (Bonnell, 130)

Bell’s business model for the Poets took its inspiration from the House of Elzevier, who had pioneered the publication of cheap classics:

Before we proceed, two aspects of Bell’s plan are worth pausing over. First, Bell alludes to the Elseviers, the seventeenth-century Dutch booksellers renowned for printing, with high typographical standards, reliable yet inexpensive classical texts in a small format. Without claiming more than a likeness in size, Bell associates his enterprise with these famous imprints. Was this an illegitimate advertising ploy? Without pushing the comparison, we may grant the young bookseller a place in the tradition he invokes, that of promoting a “classical” literature through small and relatively inexpensive volumes. Among the obvious differences between the Elseviers and Bell is the market each served: whereas the Dutch with their Latin classics largely served university needs, Bell took his English classics to a broader public. (Bonnell, 139)

Altick, Richard D. The English Common Reader. A Social History of the Mass Reading Public 1800-1900. [1957] Chicago and London: Phoenix Books, 1963.

Bonnell, Thomas F. “John Bell’s ‘Poets of Great Britain:’ The ‘Little Trifling’ Edition Revisited.” Modern Philology 85.2 (1987): 128-152.


The English Common Reader from 1500 to 1800

I have started reading The English Common Reader by the late Richard D. Altick, a landmark study in its field. A chapter-by-chapter summary is available here. Altick outlined his project thus:

This volume is an attempt to study, from the historian’s viewpoint, the place of reading in an industrial and increasingly democratic society. It is the story of how, through numberless tribulations, and against what sometimes appeared to be hopeless odds, there took root and eventually flourished in nineteenth-century England a revolutionary social concept: that of the democracy of print. (1)

In my next post, I hope to comment briefly on  the ideology underlying the notion of the “common reader”, but for now I would simply like to recapitulate Altick’s account of English common readers from Tudor England to the beginning of the 19th century.

To make a long story short: except for a brief decline following the Commonwealth (1649-1660), the English reading public, though always a minority, steadily increased, but its rise was by no means as easy and smooth as one would think.

The obstacles were both material and ideological. Chief among the material difficulties were the lack of printing presses and the prices for books. The spread of printing presses and published material were hold in check by the Star Chamber, who in 1586 prohibited the founding of new presses and limited new editions to 1,500 copies. Despite the Chamber’s abolition in 1641, which ended the regulation of the number of presses, book prices remained high. During the 16th and 17th century, the price of a book amounted to a decent monthly salary. By the end of the 18th century, little had changed:

Books […] except for pirated works and, especially after 1774, reprints of standard authors, could seldom be purchased except by the relatively well-to-do. If a man in the lower bracket of white-neckcloth class–an usher at a school, for instance, or a merchant’s clerk–had a taste for owning books, he would have had to choose between buying a newly published quarto volume and a good pair of breeches (each cost from 10s. to 12s.), or between a volume of essays and a month’s supply of tea and sugar for his family of six (2s.6d.). (Altick, 52-53)

This excluded books that were considered useful (Bibles, religious books, grammar books, and so on), which could be published in greater number and sold much cheaper. The “reprints of standard authors” refers to, amongst others, John Bell‘s 109-volume editions of Poets of Great Britain Complete from Chaucer to Churchill, begun in 1776, at the bargain price of 1s. 6d. per volume. Similar endeavours were launched by John Harrison and John Cooke. Leigh Hunt wrote about Cooke’s editions: “When the master tormented me, when I used to hate and loathe the sight of Homer, and Demosthenes, and Cicero, I would comfort myself with thinking of the sixpence in my pocket, with which I should go out to Paternoster-row, when the school was over, and buy another number of an English poet.” (qtd. in Altick, 54-55).

Surprisingly, lack of education was far less of a problem than getting your hands on a book. The 15th and 16th centuries saw a significant number of new schools as the teaching of reading and writing was steadily removed from the monopoly of the Church and laid in the hands of laymen. Spoils from the dissolution of the monasteries (1536-1541) were used to endow grammar schools, allowing men from all strata of society to achieve literacy (famous examples of lower-class readers of the time are Marlowe, son to a cobbler, Donne, son to an ironmonger, and Herrick, son to a goldsmith). Younger children earned an elementary knowledge of reading and writing from the petty schools (probably from French “petit”). These schools fostered the use of the written vernacular and contributed to the demise of Latin.

Reading received another boost from the Reformation. Protestants, and in England especially the Puritans, promoted the individual study of the Bible. For the Puritans, religious reading went hand in hand with practical, business-oriented reading:

Reading was inextricably associated with ‘improvement,’ with cultivation of the prudential virtues and the more easily acquired amenities of conduct. The books most in request were those which either showed the way to a morality acceptable in the eyes both of God and of Mammon or brought the ideals of humanistic conduct down to the level of the common man. (Altick, 26)

At the same time, the Puritans denounced books of a lascivious and idle nature such as chivalric tales or ballads (these genres nonetheless thrived in chapbooks, and sometimes, as in the case of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, under the pretense of moral instruction).

All in all, learning how to read, whether you were a nobleman, member of the clergy or of a more humble origin, was less of a problem than getting your hands on a book. The pamphlets of the Civil War remedied this lack of reading material to some extent. The writing of the Civil war period also drew attention to the role of reading in politics and government (arguably the most famous of the polemics on reading is Milton’s Areopagitica (1644), a powerful rebuke of censorship). But after the Commonwealth, positive attitudes to the teaching of reading came under attack:

During the Tudor period educational opportunity had been reasonably democratic, for the medieval belief persisted that all men, regardless of worldly station, were bound together in one society under God. Its social status bulwarked by feudal privileges, the upper class could afford to tolerate a certain amount of ambition on the part of the inferior. But with altering economic conditions, with the rise of the mercantile middle class, which forced the extremes of society farther apart, and with the gradual weakening of feudal privileges, the upper class urgently needed to shore up its own position. The essential tolerance that had eased its relations with the lower class gave way to condescension and even contempt. […] Soame Jenyns spoke for many men of his century when he maintained in 1757 that ignorance was “the appointed lot of all born to poverty and the drudgeries of life, … the only opiate capable of infusing that sensibility, which can enable them to endure their miseries of the one and the fatigues of the other .. a cordial, administered by the gracious hand of providence, of which they ought never to be deprived by an ill-judged and improper education.” (Altick, 30-32)

As a result, the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in 1699 established schools for the masses that kept the syllabus to a minimum, teaching the pupils nothing beyond what were considered proper Christian principles and duties. Fortunately, the reactionaries of the Restoration period were not able to slow down the rise of reading for long. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, argued that “Reading Christians […] will be knowing Christians” and established a thriving book trade among his followers that did a great deal towards popularising literature.

Another important step was the rise of a newspaper and coffeehouse culture. Just as books, newspapers were too expensive for most readers, but they enjoyed great popularity in the coffeehouses, even among members of the lower classes. The bulk of public reading remained in the hands of the upper and middle classes, however. The Spectator by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, whose aim was “bringing philosophy out of the closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and in coffee-houses” (qtd. in Altick, 46), diffused the interest in periodicals and books and thus paved the way for establishing a solid middle class readership.

James Lackingtons Temple of Muses

A breakthrough in book publishing as well as the reading of fiction, which up to this point was looked upon with disdain, occurred with the publication of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. First published in 1740, Pamela sold five editions (ca. 20,000 copies) in a year, a bestseller in an age when buying books was still an exception. The success of early novels such as Richardson’s revealed the potential of the book market (in particular, the potential of the female readership) and consequently helped to expand the book and library trade, which up to that point had been confined to stationaries and books sold ‘on the side’. James Lackington (1746-1815) revolutionized the book trade when he set up the “Temple of the Muses” in London. “Over the main entrance appeared the sign, whose proud claim no one evidently challenged, CHEAPEST BOOKSELLERS IN THE WORLD” (Altick, 58). Besides Lackington’s temple and the stalls of secondhand booksellers, the demand for cheap books was met by circulating libraries, the first of which is attributed to Allan Rasmay in 1725.

The rising amount of reading material reached its apex in the publication of Thomas Paine’s (1737-1809) The Rights of Man in 1791, following the aftermath of the French Revolution. Similarly successful were the publications trying to countervail the impact of Paine’s writings, notably the Cheap Repository Tracts by Hannah More (1745-1833). They taught publishers how to produce and distribute reading matter on a mass scale, ushering in the age of commercial cheap publishing. But likewise, they renewed the upper classes’  concern over the common reader and the reading public. Although the success of Paine’s and More’s publications was tied to the years of the revolution, their “astounding circulation figures […] had enabled the ruling class of England for the first time to grasp in concrete terms the size of the existing public” (Altick, 76):

Thus, in the turbulence of the 1790’s, the emergence of a reading public among the humble brought England face to face with a major social problem, a problem destined to be shadowed for several decades by the threat, real or imaginary, of a revived Jacobinism. Tom Paine and Hannah More between them had opened the book to the common English reader. But was it merely a book — or a Pandora’s box of infinite trouble? (Altick, 77)

Altick, Richard D. The English Common Reader. A Social History of the Mass Reading Public 1800-1900. [1957] Chicago and London: Phoenix Books, 1963.


Learning How To Read

More from Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid. She devotes a chapter to how the brain learns to read, which reminded me of the old argument amongst linguists as to whether language is innate or not. Children learn languages at a phenomal pace and with such effortlessness that linguists like Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker (in his The Language Instinct) have concluded that the capacity for language must be an integral part of our genetic makeup. Geoffrey Sampson argued against such a position that the learning prowess of children may derive from a general (rather than a language-specific) learning ability and that, in any case, children show equally impressive progress in other areas of learning. However, I find Pinker’s account more convincing, not the least because of the second “trump” in his argument besides infant learning, namely language disabilities. Pinker lists many speech impairments whose specific nature (affecting only certain grammatical structures or vocabulary areas) suggests that certain parts of the brain are almost exclusively dedicated to language processing. This is a fascinating area of language research and I’m curious about what Wolf will have to say on it.

Irrespective of whether or not children are already equipped with language skills at birth, they still need to learn how to speak, read and write. Up to the age of three, children truly are linguistic geniuses and no matter what you throw at them (even a second language!), they will likely profit from it in some way or other. From age 3-4, things get trickier because you now have to take into consideration the child’s existing knowledge and self-awareness, and thus move within the zone of proximal development to produce efficient and effective learning.

Adorableness beats fear of copyright infringement!

Maryanne Wolf offers some advice on how to go about this. She cautions parents who worry about their child’s reading progress not to try and hurry the child’s development by forcing it to write and read correctly. Research indicates that preschooling your child’s development in such a manner may in fact hamper it later. Wolf recommends that parents (a) read to their children — this enriches the passive semantic and syntactic knowledge of the child (alongside, of course, a knowledge of concepts, social skills, empathy, and so on), which at a later stage will make reading easier and more pleasurable — and (b) offer opportunities to experiment with the sounds of language — playing around with letters, pronunciation, spelling, and listening to nursery rhymes, poems and songs. This will enhance the child’s ability to grasp the underyling phonemic and semiotic principles of a language. In other words, a child has to become familiar with the idea behind naming things and the nature of letters first, only then can it successfully tackle a more complex idea such as character-phoneme correspendece; therefore, it is better to foster an understanding of these ideas and wait with the actual reading and writing until age 6-7.


Reading and Conversation

In Proust and the Squid, Maryanne Wolf points out that the genius behind the invention of the Greek alphabet* was to figure out the correspondence between words, sounds and characters. Unlike a syllabary, which links characters to syllables (e.g. Sumerian or Chinese), the alphabet links characters to the discrete speech sounds of a given language (also known as phonemes). Because such a character set is much smaller than that of a syllabary, alphabets are much easier and more efficient to master. This may at least partly explain the influx of original thought in Greek civilisation as opposed to earlier civilisations.

Wolf reminds us that not all Greeks were in favour of the rise of writing. In Plato’s Phaedrus, the invention’s most prominent detractor, Socrates, lectures Phaedrus on the “propriety and impropriety of writing”, citing a tale from ancient Egypt to hammer down his point that writing is a bane to society.

At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality. (From Plato, Phaedrus, translated by Benjamin Jowett and available at the Online Library of Liberty)

Socrates cautions us that writing comes at a price, namely the individual’s growing dependence on an external medium, and Wolf rightly points out that Socrates’ concerns are nowadways more pressing than ever.

On another occasion, Socrates complains that writing acts as though it were intelligent although it is in fact dead: it does not respond to our questions and inquiries, and resists our attempts to probe further to get at the “essence” of the words’ meaning. Oral language is superior, Socrates holds, because it is dynamic, allowing us engage with our partner, defining, shaping, reconsidering and reshaping words and ideas as we converse. Socrates’ argument doesn’t carry quite as much weight now as it did back in Athens; after all, soon after Socrates, writing became so widespread that it developed into a mode of dialogue in its own right.

Nonetheless, we should be wary not to neglect the skill of conversation when teaching new readers how to read. I, for one, being a lonesome wolf and not much of a conversationalist, find that I too willingly let the text control the conversation. I absorb or consume the text rather than engage in a conversation with it, and I would readily attribute that lack of engagement to my lack of conversational skills.

*The Greek alphabet was conceived around 800-700 BCE, the era of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The Greeks based their characters on Phoenician and Canaaite scripts, which explains why the Greek alpha corresponds to the Hebrew aleph. In addition, the Greeks introduced vowels and thus made the full leap to a written language based on phonemic representation.