Archive for October, 2008


Delights of Reading

From Otto Bergmann’s The Delights of Reading: a delightful drawing of William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898) sitting on his reading rug in his library. Gladstone was a statesman and a scholar. Among classicist, he is remembered for his fascinating treatise on the colour-sense of the Greeks; Gladstone claimed that Homer spoke about the “wine-dark sea” because he and his fellow Greeks were partially colour-blind. The following sketch was done by Sydney Prior Hall and is courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

William Ewart Gladstone in his library


Writing History

The Education of Henry Adams is a part autobiographical, part historical, part philosophical narrative by and about the American historian Henry Adams. Set in the years 1838-1905, Adams’s autobiography devotes three chapters to the period of the Civil War — for me, this presented as good an opportunity as any to read more on the subject. Perusing a chronicle of the war, I soon came across mention of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Upon meeting Stowe, Lincoln famously called her “the little lady who started this great war”. Her story about the ordeal of African American slaves had such a tremendous impact on the course of American history that many regard Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the most influential book ever written.

I assume nobody would contest that books wield the power to shape our history. As Benjamin Disraeli once said:

An author may influence the fortunes of the world to as great an extent as a statesman or a warrior. A book may be as great a thing as a battle, and there are systems of Philosophy which have produced as great revolutions as any that have disturbed the social and political existence of our centuries. (qtd. in Otto Bergmann’s The Delights of Reading, 13)

Writing history, however, is like most human endeavours an exercise in simplification, and when we make a book a catalyst of historical narrative, we omit a thousand unseen threads and a million unheard readers. Nonetheless, the impact of books may help us invest our history, the history of humankind, with a purpose and a sense of progress: as authors we can startle and stir our readers; as readers we can turn the next page and, who knows, learn and remember from what has passed. This belief in a history that makes sense, a history striving towards something better, something greater, is vital if as a civilization we do not want to despair. Henry Adams, I believe, was seeking something very similar when, witnessing the Spanish-American war at the dawn of the 20th century, he wrote:

This was history, not education, yet it taught something exceedingly serious, if not ultimate, could one trust the lesson. For the first time in his life, he felt a sense of possible purpose working itself out in history. […] Never before had Adams been able to discern the working of law in history, which was the reason his failure in teaching it, for chaos cannot be taught; but he thought he had a personal property by inheritance in this proof of sequence and intelligence in the affairs of man […] (The Education of Henry Adams, 363)


þū scealt rædan, or, The Etymology of Reading

Steven Roger Fischer writes on the etymology of the verb to read in his A History of Reading:

Many early mediæval Angles, Saxons and Jutes read in runes, though some of them also commanded the Latin tongue and script. The Old English word rædan (originally meaning ‘consider, interpret, discern’ and so forth) came to mean not only ‘read’, but also ‘advise, plan, contrive, explain’. When still on the Continent these German tribes had encountered Roman writing, which, they perceived, required ‘discerning’. So, through transference and figuration, rædan came to mean also ‘interpret signs or marks’, then eventually ‘peruse and utter in speech’. (145)

Besides the Old English rædan, a lot of words related to reading have their root in the Latin verb legere ‘to read’: lector, lecture, legend, lexicon. The Roman languages and German also go back to the Latin: German lesen, French lire, Spanish leer and Italian leggere.

What’s interesting is that the Old English rædan emphasises the deciphering of symbols, whereas the Latin derives from the Greek legein ‘to say’, stressing the fact that reading represents speech. I have had an opportunity to notice this difference recently when I read Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader, whose German title Der Vorleser translates as “the person reading aloud to someone else”.

Schlink’s book broaches the problem of reading and interpretation, in this case concerning the experience of the Holocaust. The novel’s female protagonist, Hannah Schmitz, delights in her lover’s reading aloud to her from plays and novels. A former warden at Auschwitz, Hannah remains (both willfully and involuntarily) ignorant of her past crimes. Only when she starts reading herself about the the atrocities of Holocaust does she begin to question and interpret her actions. Reading for herself helps Hannah make sense of her own life and, ironically, speaks louder than the stories she listened to.

Fischer, Steven Roger. A History of Reading. London: Reaktion Books, 2003. The picture is from Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading.


The Old Deal

This is no time for the collector to quit his books. He may have to quit his house, abandon his trip to Europe and give away his car; but his books are patiently waiting to yield their comfort and provoke him to mirth. They will tell him that banks and civilizations have smashed before; governments have been on the rocks, and men have been fools in all ages. But it is all very funny. The gods laugh to see such sport, and why should we not join them?

Paul Jordan-Smith, bibliophile, in 1933, “when America was mired in Great Depression”. Taken from Nicholas A. Basbanes’ A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books, 221-222.

Which reminded me of a statement by president Franklin D. Roosevelt from May 6, 1942, addressing the need of booksellers in time of crisis and despair:

I have been a reader and buyer and borrower and collector of books all my life. It is more important that your work should go on now than it has ever been at any other time in our history: in a very literal sense you carry upon your bookshelves the light that guides civilization … books never die. No man and no force can abolish memory. No man and no force can put thought in a concentration camp forever. No man and no force can take from the world the books that embody man’s eternal fight against tyranny of every kind. In this war, we know, books are weapons. And it is part of your dedication always to make them weapons for man’s freedom.

From Marvin Mondlin and Roy Meador’s Book Row, xiv.


Reading in Ancient Rome

If you read Latin, you may have noticed that the title of my blog is derived from the Latin phrase “Legendum est” — you have to read. I am by no means a Latin scholar, but I do enjoy the odd trip to the past, and so I thought, why not post on reading in ancient Rome? Placete, lectores!

Trajan's Column

Incidentally, Rome’s legacy to reading happens to be quite substantial. One very visible remnant of this legacy today is the Times New Roman typeface, the serif-counterpart to Helvetica in terms of ubiquity. (I find the topic of typefaces rather sexy and must indulge in this quick digression.) Roman typefaces get their name from the marks left by the chisel in Roman inscriptions, a classic model of which is Trajan’s column, erected in Rome about 114 AD to commemorate the emperor’s military victories. Warren Chappell comments on the column’s roman typeface thus:

There are several ways of reaching a general understanding of the basic nature of roman. One logical and rewarding way is to think of the forms as a series of geometrical variations on a theme of square, circle, and triangle, which, when set together, will become a frieze of contracting and expanding spatial interruptions. This breathing quality is the very essence of the inscriptional concept, and is responsible for the liveliness as well as the nobility of the great classic carvings. (A Short History of the Printed Word, 22-23)

End of digression. To keep a permanent record of their history and ideas, Romans had, in addition to marble and stone, their trusted scrolls. (For quick notes, they depended on wax tablets.) In the 2nd century AD, the scroll was replaced by the codex, which was more enduring and made pages much more accessible. (That’s slightly unfair, perhaps, because technically the scroll didn’t have pages, but you get the point.) One can speculate about the influence that scrolling and the codex exerted on reading habits, but it seems likely that the inconvenience of scrolls forced readers to read much more attentively and memorize passages so as to avoid having to unwind the scroll again to find a certain passage.

Of course, Rome’s impact on reading culture goes beyond appearances and reading technology. Rome contributed significantly to the spread of literacy in the ancient world. Peter Watson credits Roman education as “the basis of modern educational system, and [it] was one of the elements leading to the birth of the West” (A History of Ideas, 212). Roman textbooks such as Quintilian’s book on rhetoric, Donatus’ grammar books, Marcellus’ lexicon or Martianus Capella’s treatise on the liberal arts were the ropes with which medieval Europe dragged itself out of the Dark Ages. And this is not to mention yet the Roman legacy to law and literature.

According to Watson, Rome managed to boost its literacy rate to 10%. The Athenians, a couple of centuries earlier, could boast only half as many literate citizens. “Probably,” Watson suggests, “tens of thousands of people could read in Rome, where there was, for the first time, such a thing as a literate culture” (ibid., 209). This culture was not just made up of lawyers and poets. Readers could be found everywhere, as evidenced by Trajan’s column, but also by more mundane reading matter such as domestic letters in Vinolanda, graffiti on the walls of Pompeji or treatises about farming, accounting or letter-writing. Such literature reflected Roman society’s concern for utilitas — usefulness. To Romans, reading was useful, and Watson quotes Echion from the Satyricon, who said habet haec res panem — this [reading, that is] has bread in it. Utilitas was so ingrained in Rome’s culture of reading that it even extended to such a seemingly otiose genre as poetry: good poetry, the poet Horace declared, ought to be both “dulce” (sweet) and “utile” (useful).

Rome also cultivated critical reading skills and scholarship. The Romans’ obsession with Greek literature led Roman scribes to publish carefully edited versions of Greek plays and poems. Of course, Rome created its own great classics, too, notably during the Golden Age of Latin, roughly situated in the period 100 BC-100 AD. Caesar and Cicero wrote magnificent Latin prose in the first century BC. Later, under the emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero (the so-called Julio-Claudian dynasty), Virgil, Horace and Ovid composed some of the greatest poetry of the Western Canon. What do these works tell us about reading habits? Comparing Virgil’s Aeneid to Homer’s Ilias and Odyssey, for instance, we might surmise that Roman reading culture made significant steps towards literature for reading as opposed to literature for listening: Homer’s epics seem much more dramatic, visceral and formulaic than Virgil’s; in other words, they were composed for performance, not for contemplated reading. The Ilias celebrates the immortality of fame, and while I am convinced that Homer was aware that he, too, became immortalized in his verse, I cannot help the impression that Virgil and his fellow Romans were much more self-conscious about the potential immortality of the written word. Latin expresses this idea tersely in the motto “vox audita perit, littera scripta manet” — the spoken word perishes, the written word lasts.

However, such musings might suffer from misguided retrospection. As readers of the classics, we might overestimate the importance of poetry and literature in ancient Rome, for the meat and bone of Roman reading was law and rhetoric.*  The importance of rhetoric, nurtured by the importance of Roman law, was the reason many Romans were taught to read to begin with. Consequently, much training in reading was geared towards public speaking. Amongst other things, readers had to learn how to separate words in the unpunctuated scripta continua (unbroken writing). But future lawyers had to practice writing as well; a written rebuttal of a judge’s decision was not uncommon. Cicero was the greatest orator and rhetorician of all, and in his writing he often speaks keenly about the role of books, libraries (of which Rome had many) and education, and I mention him here because his tragic death stands as a reminder of Rome’s love for reading: he was assassinated while perusing Euripides’ Medea.

*We have to keep in mind, though, that Romans did not necessarily distinguish, the way we do, between poetry or fiction on the one hand and non-fiction on the other. Poetry, as mentioned earlier, had to be useful in order to be considered good. And orators were not faulted for making stuff up and be dramatic and subjective as long as it served the useful purpose of convincing and persuading others.


Delights of Reading

I have borrowed David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery’s The Book History Reader and An Introduction to Book History and I am looking forward to posting on the subject anon. In the meantime, I shall entertain you with excerpts from Otto Bettmann’s The Delights of Reading, a jovial collection of “quotes, notes & anecdotes” about writing and reading. Bettmann was a renowned bibliophile, but he was better known as the “Picture Man”, named so because he assembled one of the most impressive picture archives in history. One of the first quotes Bettmann cites is from Richard de Bury, book-crazy bishop and author of the Philobiblion, a treatise that ranks amongst the first and most famous “books on books”.

All the glory of the world would be buried in oblivion, unless God had provided mortals the remedy of books. — Richard de Bury