Archive for November, 2008


Medieval Reading, Islam and the Qur’an

By the end of the 8th century, the Islamic world stretched from Kabul and Samarkand in the East to Cordova and Marrakesh in the West. Naturally, the moniker “Islamic” does not do justice to the diversity of culture, language, ethnicity, or even religion among people living in these regions, particularly in the nascent days when the Arab tongue was young and Muhammad’s revelation mingled with Jewish, Christian and pagan beliefs. The same, of course, can be said of Christian Europe, and in the end “Christian” and “Islamic” are merely convenient labels to describe two heterogeneous cultural spheres. Be that as it may, in both cultures, reading played an essential role.

Both Christianity and Islam are book religions, and as such their impact on reading has been tremendous. “Qur’an” — the name of the holy book of Islam — derives “from the Arabic stem Qara’a , ‘to read’, ‘to recite'” and means “the ‘Reading’, the ‘Recitation’, i.e. the ‘Book’, par excellence” (Koran in the Catholic Encyclopedia). Biblia, the Books, and Qur’an, the Reading: these names, of course, carry ideological implications, but they also testify to the veneration of the written word and a thriving culture of reading and writing that might otherwise have been lost after the fall of Rome.

The Qur’an was not written from scratch, but underwent a complicated and nowadays hard to trace genesis until an authorized version was established around 930, more than 300 years after Allah’s words had been revealed to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel in 610. The revelation of the Qur’an to the Prophet is the core of Islamic belief. As Peter Watson writes in Ideas:

After the idea of God as a unity, and submission, the next-most important idea in Islam is that Muhammad was the true messenger of God “whose only miracle was the Qur’an”. This solitary miracle reflects the essentially simple nature of the new faith — it had no theological complexities, like the Resurrection, the Trinity or Transubstantiation. (262)

Unlike Christians, who were eager translators of the Bible and today can seldom be bothered to learn Hebrew or Greek, the fact that the original Qur’an was recited in Arabic was and still is of crucial importance to Muslims:

The fact that the Qur’an is written in Arabic is all-important for pious Muslims, who believe that Arabic is the language of God and is the tongue spoken in Paradise. They believe that Adam originally spoke Arabic but forgot it and was punished by being made to learn other — inferior — languages. (263)

Consequently, Islam cultivated a tradition of religious reading centred around the recital and memorisation of the Qur’an and the hadith, acts or sayings attributed to Muhammad. “A divine presence is believed to descend during the act of reading the Qur’an” writes Steven Fischer in his A History of Reading:

[I]ts very calligraphy [is] a part of the supernatural conveyance: message and form are thus believed to be wedded in harmonious inspiration. None the less, Muslisms allow as well that the Qur’an’s true essence lies in the oral performance, in its reading aloud […] (152)

This emphasis on oral recital has a long tradition in Islam (the roots date back to Pre-Islamic times), which is evidenced among else by a deep love of rhetoric and poetry, as for example the famous Mu’allaqat, the seven “suspended” poems that once hung on the curtains of the Ka’ba, the most sacred site of Islam. Belief in the Qur’an reinvigorated this oral tradition and gave rise to innovations in writing throughout the 8th to the 10th century. These include introducing punctuation,  word spaces, pronunciation symbols, and the emergence of an elegant cursive script. (Incidentally, word spaces, ligatures and punctuation were at the same time developed in Constantinople — exciting times for grammarians!)

The innovations from the realm of religious reading were soon adopted for secular works. Similar to Christianity, Islam viewed secular literature with both curiosity and suspicion. Valens, the fourth century Roman-Christian emperor, is said to have persecuted “heretic” bookkeepers so fiercely that “throughout the Oriental provinces, owners of books, through fear of a like fate, burned their entire libraries, so great was the terror that had seized upon all” (qtd. in Watson, 245). And when in 640 Arabs conquered Alexandria, city of antiquity’s most legendary library, the caliph gave the order to destroy all the books that were not in accordance with Qur’an: “The burning scrolls heated the bath waters of Alexandria for six months. Only the works of Aristotle escaped the flames” (Watson, 245).

And yet, under the auspice of the wardens of the Qur’an, reading still thrived. The Caliphs built magnificent libraries in Baghdad, Cairo and Cordova; manuscripts were gathered and copied; scholars wrote commentaries and translations. Notable among the latter are the Aristotle translations of Ibn Sina (Avicenna, 980-1037) and Ibn Rushd (Averroës, 1126-88), without whom Aristotle may have vanished from Western thought.

Islam also advanced the science of reading. The eleventh century scientist al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham (c.965-c.1039), known in the West as Alhazen “elaborated a sophisticated theory of optics to explain what might be taking place during the process [of reading]” (Fischer, 157). Alhazen worked at the famous “House of Science” or “House of Wisdom“, founded by al-Ma’mun in 833 as Baghdad’s centre of learning. According to Alhazen’s theory , “the qualities of what we see enter the eye via the air” (Fischer, 157). He also introduced the important distinction between the involuntary act of sensation and the voluntary act of recognition, thus distinguishing “seeing” from “reading”. Alhazen died in Cairo in 1038. His theories were studied and revered by Roger Bacon, among others, and they opened a new vista on reading as an act uniting skills such as perception, “inference, judgement, memory, recognition, knowledge, experience, practice […] But how it all took place, what intricate and formidable connections these elements established among themselves, was a question that, for al-Haytham and for his readers, remained unanswered” (Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading, 34-35).

السلام عليكم

(continued from Reading in the Early Middle Ages)


Appreciating Fiction

Dan Green critizes Nigel Beale’s seeming stance on the role of fiction, manifest in Nigel’s suggestion that “the essential question to ask” of fictional characters is “is this fictitious entity relevant to me and my life?” A lot of Nigel’s statements in his post and his follow-up commentary have my eye-brows raised, too, but I think his comment on “lifeness” as a function of literature harbours an important point. He writes:

So, ‘lifeness’ I think is a function of the degree to which readers can relate their lives to the lives of those depicted in fiction.

“Lifeness” is in fact a crucial step in the reader’s development towards appreciating fiction. Generally, the first stage of reading apprecation concerns “unconscious delight” — suspense, beauty, heroism, action, what have you. Next follows, you guessed it, “lifeness”:

Toward the beginning of adolescence and moving through adolescence, readers are concerned with having vicarious experiences along with seeing themselves in the literature they read […] At this point readers seek situations that parallel their own life situations and issues. Readers also identify with characters in the story; they can test new roles, new feelings and new responses to challenges through reading experiences. (Bushman and Haas, Using Young Adult Literature in the English Classroom, 22)

In the final stages of appreciation, the reader widens the perspective to philosophical and social problems, and finally, at the last stage, shifts attention to the level of aesthetic delight and matters such as style, structure, subtlety, harmony, etc.

What is crucial, though, is the fact that higher stages of appreciation do not replace lower ones. Rather, each new stage incorporates the preceding one, which results in a “birthday cake” of reading appreciation:

Birthday Cake

This means that Nigel’s emphasis on “lifeness” and Dan’s emphasis on the novel “as a form of literary art” are both part and parcel of a reader’s appreciation, even though one tends to be developed later than the other. Therefore, in our evaluation, discussion and appreciaton of fiction, lifeness can and should play as much a part as aesthetic delight. Or in other words: You can have your cake and eat it, too.


Reading in the Early Middle Ages

Nama min is mære, / hæleþum gifre ond halig sylf.

“Say who I am–glorious, useful to men, / Holy and helpful from beginning to end.” — thus asks the book riddle of the Exeter Book, a splendid repository of Old English poetry. The codex contains, among else, “The Seafarer”, and if you are not familiar with the sound of Old English poetry, I recommend you take a look at Ezra Pound’s marvellous modern translation of the poem.

Books were venerated in the Middle Ages. By their very nature, they were symbols of lasting wisdom, an antidote to the fragile life and fleeting thought of medieval man. The scrolls and wax tablets of ancient Rome were mere tools; the codices of medieval monasteries were sacred treasures, often clad in jewelled cases, chained to their shelves to protect them from thieves.

The Book of Kells, a magnificent testimony to the veneration of the book in the early Middle Ages

Nonetheless, reading in the early Middle Ages owed a lot to Roman culture. The Roman conquest introduced reading to Europe — inspiring Celtic and Germanic tribes to create runes, for example — and the Latin tongue was to become the backbone of literate Christian culture in the first millennium.

Reading in the Middle Ages effectively began with Christianity’s appropriation of the codex. Invented in the third century BCE, the codex succumbed to the popularity of the scroll, but reemerged when Christians in the 2nd century AD used it to collect and promote scripture. From a practical point of view, the codex fitted the needs of the young religion much better than the scroll: they needed instant access to the gospel and had to move back and forth between the words of Jesus Christ and the words of the Old Testament. They were missionaries who wanted to spread the word, and gather in churches to study the gospel of Christ, not pore over a dozen scrolls like a rabbi in his study. Further, the unity of the codex may have been seen as a symbol and promise of the unity of the Christian church. It certainly assumed this role once Church leaders began to address the question of the canon.

Quite naturally, the Christians in early Roman society were pariah. Every now and then, their people were abused as convenient scapegoats, officially persecuted for their “ludicrous” belief that a Jewish carpenter who lets himself be whipped like a slave and killed on a cross like a criminal could match the might of Jupiter. The world changed when emperor Constantine the Great defeated Maxentius at the battle of the Milvian bridge. On the eve of the battle, Constantine was told in a vision that he would emerge victorious only if he fought under the sign of the true God — in hoc signo vinces. It was the dawn of Western Christian civilisation, and arguably the dawn of early medieval reading.

In Constantine’s realm, the Byzantine Empire, reading and writing, science and the arts, flourished, and fathered a book culture that would survive the decline of Rome in the abbeys and monasteries of 5th century. However, after Rome’s fall, the culture of reading became muted — not literally, because silent reading was still the exception, but because it became the business of monks and religion, of veneration of the holy book and the thoughts of the church fathers. It moved from the mundane to the divine: Reading became sacred.

The “barbaric” cultures of Europe — who were not so barbaric, after all — made some noble efforts to preserve Rome and Byzantium’s legacy of reading. But in the end it was Latin, the tongue of the Church, that carried reading into the new millennium. Chief among those who devoted themselves to safeguard the wisdom of books was Charlemagne, King of the Franks from768 to 814, who ushered in the Carolingian renaissance, perhaps the single most important cultural renewal of medieval civilisation. As Steven Roger Fischer notes:

[…] in his Admonitio generalis of 789 Charlemagne directed improvements aimed specifically at education, reading and writing. For example, each church and monastery in the realm was now to house only correct copies of books and to ensure that scribes, when copying or reading aloud, avoided corrupting a text. […] Almost overnight, Frankland’s libraries swelled with more trustworthy volumes, inspiring succeeding generations to emulation. Not only the Church Fathers but also Rome’s illustrious and their shadows were hand-transcribed in minuscule editions now permitting hardly a letter to vary from copy to copy. […] Carolingian scribes were the unsung saviours of Western written culture. (A History of Reading, 147-148)

Thus began the history of reading in the Christian Middle Ages.


More (Doubts) on Speed Reading

My previous post on speed reading is by far the most popular on my blog, and so I decided to throw in another 2 cents. The promise of breath-taking reading speeds still draws huge crowds despite the lack of credible evidence that speed-reading can be learned by anyone. Let me briefly define what I understand by speed-reading: reading at a speed exceeding 500 words/minute with decent comprehension and recall. Not skimming, not scanning, but actual faster reading.

For starters: speed-reading does exist. In my experience, passionate readers — e.g. life-long, voracious, obsessive-compulsive or very intelligent readers — reach 500+ w/m speeds quite naturally. Then there are prodigious readers such as Harold Bloom, and savants such as Kim Peek (and perhaps Daniel Tammet?). As far as the latter are concerned, my assumption is that their brains are wired differently, giving them special mnemonic abilities, sometimes at the expense of social skills.

The question is whether normal readers can re-wire their brains in order to read faster. Reading a lot does that. If you read the phrase “once upon a time” a thousand times, you won’t process it as four words but as one. This is “reading in chunks”, which is simply a matter of acquiring and strengthening knowledge, not training your brain to do anything different. It’s like learning vocabulary, only that the vocabulary considers of phrases rather than words.

By contrast, a lot of speed-reading courses claim that they can teach you to “read in chunks” not by means of learning vocabulary, but by breaking “bad” reading habits or acquiring “good” reading habits, respectively, e.g. getting rid of subvocalization or improving eye-movement. The Wikipedia article on subvocalization is a good example of speed-reading claims clashing with anti-speed-reading claims. The article suggests that speed-reading advocates misrepresent the role and effect of subvocalization  in that they overestimate its negative impact on reading and reading comprehension; the author instead highlights the positive effect of subvocalization. From a practical point of view, I am wondering if anyone reading at speeds faster than 200 w/m — i.e. speeds at which lip-movement or movement of the larynx cannot be observed by the naked eye —  should bother with anti-subvocalization exercises or whether such exercises are really only meant to help those readers who are still caught up in actually reading out aloud at speeds of 100 w/m.

As far as eye-movement is concerned, speed-reading supporters say that we can train our reading brain to absorb information faster by accelerating our eye-movement. They frequently argue that our brain is capable of retrieving information as fast as our eyes can see, as evidenced in our ability to look at pictures and see everything at once, and that therefore we should be able to read a page as though we were looking at a picture. On first glance, the picture analogy might make sense. When looking at pictures, we do seem to retrieve a lot of information at once, unlike when we read and take information in one word at a time. However, the analogy seems dubious once you consider the amount of information contained in a picture as opposed to a page. After all, a picture does not consist of symbols, but of things. When you see a house, you see a house, when you see a tree, you see a tree. When you see the word “tree”, on the other hand, you see black shapes, and only once you have deciphered them you realise that their meaning is “tree”. (The philosopher Paul Grice captured this difference in his distinction of natural meaning — “the spots on your skin mean measles” — versus non-natural meaning — “those three rings on the bell mean that the bus is full“.) Take a look at this picture and tell me how much of it you understood at one glance. I suspect that to decipher the picture completely it would take you about 4 minutes provided you know all the flags and countries of the world and don’t spend more than one second on each flag. Furthermore, when we look at a picture, we by no means absorb all the information at once. We only absorb the information we can chunk. If I look out of my window, for example, I roughly see this: bush, bush, bush, house, windows, door, tree, tree, lake, mountain, village, wall, fence, waves, clouds, boat, boat, car, etc. That’s certainly a lot of information and it includes visual and spatial information to boot, but I have by no means exhausted the information of what I’ve glimpsed. I cannot tell you how many tiles are on the roof of the house, or how many leaves are on the tree; heck, I cannot even tell you how many windows there are or how many bushes or boats exactly unless I take a second look and start counting. Add to that the fact that I looked out of my window hundreds of times, my picture-reading abilities no longer seem quite as impressive.

The fact remains that reading and seeing are not the same. Reading usually requires roughly three cognitive steps to get at the information you want — you see the black shape “tree”, you realise it’s a word, and you grasp the meaning of the word, evoking associations, images, what have you — whereas looking requires only two such steps, namely seeing the tree and realising it’s a tree. Some pictures, however, require three steps as well, which turns the page-as-picture theory upside down. Take a look at this image, for instance:

Melancholia by Albrecht Dürer

Has the fact that this is a picture and not a page accelerated your understanding of it? Have you grasped all the information contained in the picture at one glance? No, of course you haven’t, because this picture, like a page of writing, is a symbolic representation. We have to decipher it to get at its meaning.

Some speed-reading programmes claim — and this is the claim I find most titillating — that if you practise rapid eye-movement for a month or two, you will experience a “bicycle”-effect. That is to say, your comprehension will decrease more or less to zero at the beginning, just as someone who can’t yet ride a bicycle moves faster walking than trying to ride the bike, but if you keep at it, all of a sudden, your brain adapts to your eye-movement, and — snap! — you understand and are able to recall what your eyes have seen on the page, just as you can suddenly ride a bike because your brain’s finally “got it”.

As a didgeridoo player I made the same experience with circular breathing. You start practising and you get no results; you sit there for a month trying to make water bubble with a straw; then you experience tiny moments of success and all of a sudden, you’re able to do it, just like that. This is the kind of neural re-wiring speed-reading, as I understand it, promises.

I have grave doubts about the truths of such assertions, however, not only because of the nature of reading — reading being much more complex than bicycle riding or circular breathing since it involves the whole gamut of information, symbols, world knowledge, imagination, and so on — but because there is a surprising lack of speed-reading demonstrations. Where’s the Youtube video showing speed-readers in action? Why is the only speed-reader daring to demonstrate his skill the (awesome) illusionist Derren Brown?*

I would love to believe in speed-reading as a skill that can be taught and acquired, but the burden of proof is on the speed-readers (or on those selling speed-reading products, rather). From what I gather, they have tried surprisingly little to dispel the scepticism surrounding their claims. Why not consider the following test: get your camera, go to a local library, let one of the staffers pick a book at random, have you speed-read it and ask you a couple of questions. Such a demonstration, I believe would really help you gain the trust of many ordinary readers and boost sales at that. I am not saying that speed-reading is a hoax, but a smidgen of tangible proof would be most welcome.

* I think Derren’s using a mirror (or the camera reflection) to read from the book. I doubt there’s real photo-reading involved, although I won’t question that Derren’s a really clever guy. ;)