Archive for the 'the history of reading' Category


Orlando’s Bookshop

Orlando by Virginia Woolf is a fictional biography of a young Elizabethan nobleman who one day wakes up a woman and in that guise lives through another four centuries. At one point, Orlando finds herself in a 20th century bookshop:

And so, leaving the post office, she turned to beguile herself into the next shop, which was a shop so common in our day that it needs no description, yet, to her eyes, strange in the extreme; a shop where they sold books. All her life long Orlando had known manuscripts; she had held in her hands the rough brown sheets on which Spenser had written in his little crabbed hand; she had seen Shakespeare’s script and Milton’s. She owned, indeed, a fair number of quartos and folios, often with a sonnet in her praise in them and sometimes a lock of hair. But these innumerable little volumes, bright, identical, ephemeral, for they seemed bound in cardboard and printed on tissue paper, surprised her infinitely. The whole works of Shakespeare cost half a crown and could be put in your pocket. One could hardly read them, indeed, the print was so small, but it was a marvel, none the less. ‘Works’ — the works of every writer she had known or heard of and many more stretched from end to end of the long shelves. (216)

The passage is set in the year 1927, and I am led to wonder how much research went into it. For starters, I am not convinced that Orlando would have been that astonished by being surrounded by cheap books; after all, published manuscripts had more or less disappeared by the end of the 16th century, and since she experienced the days of Dryden, Pope, Addison and Johnson, she would have witnessed the rise of newspapers, Drury Lane and other cheap book venues.  And rather than complaining about the small unreadable script, she ought to be surprised at the quality of these new shiny cardboard books compared to Elizabethan chapbooks with their small print and messy typefaces. Nevertheless, the scene’s a delightful thought-experiment; throwing a 16th century reader into Barnes & Noble, or even sit the poor chap down in front of a computer screen — how fascinating!


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)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


The Library in the New Age

We are living in the Age of Information, and Nicholas Carr, among others, has made the case that the new IT technology has had a revolutionary impact on the ways we read and absorb information. In “The Library in the New Age” (discovered via Novel Readings), Robert Darnton questions the alleged “newness” of the information age. Although he grants that technology has changed the landscape of reading (availability in particular), he is sceptical of the extent to which the nature of conveying information has been revolutionised. He argues that news, for example, has always been subject to selection and distortion, and concludes that “[i]nformation has never been stable”. He adds:

That may be a truism, but it bears pondering. It could serve as a corrective to the belief that the speedup in technological change has catapulted us into a new age, in which information has spun completely out of control. I would argue that the new information technology should force us to rethink the notion of information itself. It should not be understood as if it took the form of hard facts or nuggets of reality ready to be quarried out of newspapers, archives, and libraries, but rather as messages that are constantly being reshaped in the process of transmission. Instead of firmly fixed documents, we must deal with multiple, mutable texts. By studying them skeptically on our computer screens, we can learn how to read our daily newspaper more effectively—and even how to appreciate old books.

The crucial difference between Darnton’s and Carr’s discussions, it seems to me, is their focus on the medium and the processing of the medium, respectively. I doubt Carr would question the notion that texts have always been distorted, limited, etc., but what interests him is the way in which the medium (and the technology behind it) dictates our perception and processing of the medium.

One of my history professors once warned me not to indulge in “technological determinisms”. This is true as far as it goes. We should never forget that we have the power to control our use of technology; we may be technology slaves to an extent, but only so far as we are willing to let ourselves depend on it. The internet, of course, is no exception. What we do with the internet and how we process the information it offers rests in our hands — as long we are conscious of our own actions and behaviours.

So I agree with Darnton that we tend to overestimate the “revolution” in technological revolutions. Such revolutions are often revolutions in degree rather than kind, in quantity rather than quality. I came to a similar conclusion while researching the consequences of Gutenberg’s printing press on medieval book culture. Surprisingly, during the incunabula period (1450-1500), the impact of the “invention of the millenium” turned out to be remarkably unrevolutionary. Existing book trends were intensified and books became more wide-spread, cheaper (at least after a while) and more readily available, but subjects and use remained more or less the same as they had been a century earlier. The actual revolution followed half a century later (or, depending on whom you ask, a century or two earlier).

On the other hand, I delight in explanations based on technological determinisms and the idea that our behaviour is driven by what we invent, mostly because they provide a neat fundament on which more detailed and differentiated models can build upon. The truth about how we read, I suspect, lurks somewhere in between the reader and the medium.