Posts Tagged ‘reading


We Read No More That Day

According to a new survey, nearly half of all men and a third of all women lie about what they are reading to impress potential partners, and some even let themselves be “caught” reading on purpose while waiting for their date. I feel compelled to usher a warning to all book lovers (or pretenders) intending to fall in love over the act of reading: chances are that you end up swirling in the first circle of hell for eternity — with compliments from Paolo and Francesca.

One day we read for pastime how in thrall
Lord Lancelot lay to love, who loved the Queen;
We were alone — we thought no harm at all.
As we read on, our eyes met now and then,
And to our cheeks the changing colour started,
But just one moment overcame us — when
We read of smile, desired of lips long-thwarted,
Such smile, by such a lover kissed away,
He that may never more from me be parted
Trembling all over, kissed my mouth. I say
The book was Galleot, Galleot the complying
Ribald who wrote; we read no more that day.

Marcel Proust, “Sur la lecture”

Passionate readers fascinate me to no end, and I was lucky enough to meet such a reader recently when by chance I stumbled upon a tiny volume with the title “On Reading” by a Frenchman named Marcel Proust.

I found out later that Monsieur Proust wrote “Sur la lecture” (1905) as a preface to his translation of John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies. The first part is devoted to Proust’s childhood days, his room, a stroll in the park, and the pleasure and intimacy of reading. Young Marcel read voraciously, and old Marcel painfully remembers the interruptions he had to endure as a kid while reading his beloved novels, be that a playmate who was looking for him, a buzzing bee or the glistening sunrays, or his father’s “fatal call” for breakfast — “la parole fatale: ‘Allons, ferme ton livre, on va déjeuner.” Many readers, Proust fans especially I’d imagine, will cherish these passages, and the beauty and profound thought of descriptions such as this:

… la pendule et le feu qui parlent sans demander qu’on leur réponde et dont les doux propos vides de sense ne viennent pas, comme les paroles des hommes, en substituter un différent à celui des mots que vous lisez. (10)

But theory-minded me was more interested in the second part, in which Proust talks about Ruskin and reading in general. Unfortunately, my French wasn’t quite up to the task of deciphering the nuances of Proust’s thoughts on the matter, but there was one bit that caught my attention nevertheless. Commenting on the role of reading in our spiritual life, Proust writes that to the reader the book, once read, ought not to be a “conclusion”, but an “incitation”:

Nous sentons très bien que notre sagesse commence où celle de l’auteur finit, et nous voudrions qu’il nous donnât des réponses, quand tout ce qu’il peut faire est de nous donner des désirs. Et ces désirs, il ne peut les éveiller en nous qu’en nous faisant contempler la beauté suprême à laquelle le dernier effort de son art lui a permis d’atteindre. Mais par une loi singulière et d’ailleurs prodiventielle de l’optique des esprits (loi qui signifie peut-être que nous ne pouvons recevoir la vérité de personne, et que nous devons la créer nous-même), ce qui est le terme de leur sagesse ne nous apparaît que comme le commencement de la nôtre, de sorte que c’est au moment où ils nous ont dit tout ce qu’ils pouvaient nous dire qu’ils font naître en nous le sentiment qu’ils ne nous ont encore rien dit. (32)

In other words, books cannot give us wisdom, they cannot give us answers, but they can inspire us and waken our desire to become wise, to find answers for ourselves. “Reading is the beginning of our spiritual life; it introduces us to it: it does not constitute it” —  “La lecture est au seuil de la vie spirituelle; elle peut nous y introduire: elle ne la constitute pas.” (34)

Proust does not elaborate on the notion of the “spiritual life”, but we gain an inkling of what he means from the role he attributes to art and the artist:

Le suprême effort de l’écrivain comme de l’artiste n’aboutit qu’à soulever partiellement pour nous le voile de laideur et d’insignifiance qui nous laisse incurieux devant l’univers. (34)

Reading as a means to throw off a “veil of disgust and insignificance that leaves us incurious about the universe”? Seen like this, Proust’s fond memory of childhood days makes perfect sense. The child, after all, is a symbol of uninhibited curiosity, always on a quest for beauty and poetry for their own sake, even though, on second glance, a child’s curiosity is superficial, a mere game where answers matter little.

Nonetheless, it is true that our youthful curiosity and our enthusiasm for questions tends to fade. Sometimes, we no longer have time to get at the bottom of things, or we get complacent. We might even stop asking questions altogether because we think we have all the answers, or because every time we dare ask a profound question, we are confronted with the hard truth that good answers aren’t easy to come by, and that to satisfy true curiosity takes hard work and endurance. Or perhaps we despair when we come to know that we don’t know.

For despite Proust’s suggestion to the contrary, a book can only do so much to rouse your interest and incite your curiosity. In the end, it is you, the reader, who has to ask the questions, probe the book’s answers, and let your mind be animated once the book returns to the bookshelf. Active reading must be done by the reader; the book cannot do it for you. And thus there lurks the danger that lazy readers will try to seek both answers and their questions from books, effectively reducing reading to consumption — a danger Proust was well aware of:

Tant que la lecture est pour nous l’initriatrice dont les clefs magiques nous ouvrent au fond de nous-mêmes la porte des demeures où nous n’aurions pas su pénétrer, son rôle dans notre vie est salutaire. Il devient dangereux au contraire quand, au lieu de nous éveiller à la vie personelle de l’esprit, la lecture tend à se substituter à elle, quand la vérité ne nous apparaît plus comme un idéal que nous ne pouvons réaliser que par le progrès intime de notre pensée et par l’effort de notre coeur, mais comme une chose matérielle, déposée entre les feuillets des livres comme un miel tout préparé par les autres et que nous n’avons qu’à prendre la peine d’atteindre sur les rayons des bibliothèques et de déguster ensuite passivement dans un parfait repos de corps et d’esprit. (37-38)

But what’s the cure for readers longing merely to escape, to divert themselves, or for readers without questions? How to help the bookfool, who lusts after books and pages, who might seek beauty and wisdom and poetry, but is distracted by the gentle caress of the binding? Is he condemned to read “How to read”-books forever? Or is there hope, in books and love, that for each fool there’s the one out there who can truly get at him, who transcends appearance and penetrates his inner-most self, a book that is able to lift the fool’s cap, the veil of material reading to open the gate to “la lecture spirituelle”? As Cicero said: Dum spiro, spero.

Proust, Marcel. Sur la lecture. Arles: Actes Sud, 1988.


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. ;)


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.


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.