Secret Library

A Highly Readable History of What It Means to Read

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews a new short history of literacy and reading by Belinda Jack

For Rene Descartes, ‘Reading all the great books is like a conversation with the most honourable people of earlier centuries who were their authors’, while for John Ruskin, ‘Reading is precisely a conversation with men who are both wiser and more interesting than those we might have occasion to meet ourselves.’ These two opinions are quoted in Belinda Jack’s Reading: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions), one of the latest titles in the Very Short Introductions series produced by Oxford University Press. And Jack does a superb job of summarising the history of reading in this slim volume.

Jack organises her exploration of the history and main aspects of reading and literacy into seven short, readable chapters: ‘What is reading?’, ‘Ancient worlds’, ‘Reading manuscripts, reading print’, ‘Modern reading’, ‘Forbidden reading’, ‘Making sense of reading’, and ‘Pluralities’. Each chapter offers some wonderful insights into the way reading has altered and developed over the centuries and millennia. Among the gems I especially relished was Jack’s short history of the invention of the printing press: contrary to widely held belief, Johann Gutenberg was no lone worker but was instead part of a team, working in Mainz in Germany in the 1440s. Many people viewed the printing press as a ‘temporary fad’: an abbot at Sponheim named Johannes Trithemius wrote in his 1492 work In Praise of Scribes: ‘How long will printing something on paper last? … At most a paper book could last two hundred years … Writing on parchment … can last for a thousand years.’ Trithemius may have been right about the shelf-life of notoriously biodegradable paper versus the hardier vellum (calfskin, the material of choice for most manuscripts), but he couldn’t have been more wrong about the longevity of the printed book as an invention or concept.

One of the strengths to this Very Short Introduction in particular is Belinda Jack’s ability, within such a relatively brief book, to drill down into the specifics of the subject, debunking misconceptions and adding extra detail. So, for instance, she’s right to remind us that the printing press of Gutenberg wasn’t an entirely novel invention, since a key part of it, movable metal type, had been used in Korea in the thirteenth century. It was the press that was Gutenberg’s great addition to the existing invention of movable type.

Of course, reading shouldn’t be viewed as an untrammelled force for good: as the old jest has it, reading for a few minutes a day may reduce stress by 68%, but it very much depends on what you read. Some newspapers or Twitter feeds are likely to have the opposite of a salubrious effect. And Jack offers some curious anecdotes from the world of history, such as the case of the Italian miller, Domenico Scandella (1532-99), also known as Menocchio, who read both the Bible and some other books in the Italian vernacular, with the result that he came up with his own cosmology of the world, which included his fervent belief ‘that the world was made out of excrement’. It really is true, as Edmund Wilson once observed, that no two persons ever read the same book.

One of the most insightful sections of Reading: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) is on the development of silent reading. Jack is good here on the myth that St Ambrose was the very first person to practise silent reading (as is sometimes claimed): St Augustine, in his Confessions, was the source of the misinformation. As Jack points out, Augustine’s surprise at finding St Ambrose reading a book without moving his lips ‘was interpreted as evidence that silent reading was very rare at the time and that the common practice must have been reading aloud’. However, Jack cites earlier, classical sources, including Plutarch’s writings and Euripides’ Hippolyta, which show that silent reading was practised long before Ambrose made it popular. The idea certainly took off in the later Middle Ages. A Cistercian prior in thirteenth-century Germany claimed that demons had once forced him to read aloud. (Many students in English classes will have undoubtedly faced a similarly horrific experience.) The monk in question, Richalm von Schöntal, thought that this experience had ‘robbed him of proper spiritual insight and spiritual sustenance.’ The heart was the locus of the mind, and silent reading was one of the most powerful acts of spiritual enlightenment. Even for modern-day unbelievers, reading a book to oneself, silently within the theatre of one’s mind, comes close to a religious and even an epiphanic experience.

As these examples suggest – and I’ve barely scratched the surface here – Reading: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) is an engaging and surprisingly detailed introduction to the history and concept of reading. In just 136 pages written in lucid prose, Belinda Jack provides a valuable way in to understanding how our attitudes to reading developed, and how the practices we take for granted came about.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

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