A History of Reading

The Last Page

If you expand the definition of reading beyond purely text-based things it’s truly everywhere. We read book, ocean currents, dreams, faces, and more.

We all read ourselves and the world around us in order to glimpse what and where we are. We read to understand, or to begin to understand. We cannot do but read. Reading, almost as much as breathing, is our essential function.

Growing up Manguel used reading to create a familiar zone amidst his family’s travels. There’s a privacy in reading that’s not available through other means. It’s just you and a book. There’s also a latent social distrust of the individualism this encourages:

The image of an individual curled up in a corner, seemingly oblivious of the grumbling of the world, suggests impenetrable privacy and a selfish eye and singular secretive action.

A history of reading is a non-linear one. The ideas within books do not lend themselves to a tidy timeline. Instead they arise in various forms of clarity throughout the years.

Reading Shadows

Al-Haytham, writing from an 11th-century academy in Cairo, had the insight that vision is a two-step process of sensation and perception. There’s what our eyes see and there’s the meaning our brains construct.

The importance of al-Haytham’s argument was that it identified for the first time, in the act of perceiving, a graduation of conscious action that proceeds from “seeing” to “deciphering” or “reading.”

The mental abilities required for reading were present long before humans began to read. Our eyes and brains were already ready for it. In the course of reading a book our eyes will jump about the page 3-4 times per second, so fast as to interfere with perception.

It is only during the brief pause between movements that we actually “read.”

In the act of reading we are actually generating meaning. We relate our experiences, knowledge, and more to the text itself. It’s a generative process that works within the rules of language.

The Silent Readers

Silently reading to oneself was sufficiently unique in the 4th century that Augustine felt the need to remark on it in his writings of meeting Ambrose. It’s open to debate just how uncommon this practice was.

We tend to view the written word as ever-lasting and consider the spoken word to be more ephemeral. This is somewhat counter to classical perception. Speaking aloud was viewed as giving words wings to fly while written texts were viewed as motionless and dead. “Reading” in this sense was often seen as much as an aural skill as a visual one. Manguel hypothesizes that there may be echoes of this in our own English idioms (e.g. “I’ve heard from…” or “This text doesn’t sound right…”).

Silent reading, and the punctuation that made it easier, was more common by the 9th and 10th centuries.

But with silent reading the reader was at last able to establish an unrestricted relationship with the book and the words. The words no longer needed to occupy the time required to pronounce them…Silent reading allows unwitnessed communication between the book and the reader.

With the dominance of the Church at this time this practice was a dangerous one. It removed the influence of priests and religious authority, who’d otherwise be able to correct what they perceived to be a misinterpretation or misreading of the text. It enabled individuals to form their own relationship with a book and its ideas, generating meaning and understanding perhaps contrary to what the Church desired. This is fascinating to think about in the context of misinformation on the web.

The Book of Memory

The ability for an individual to read a book and make its ideas a part of themselves was not always seen as a blessing. One person’s memory aid is another person (especially Socrates’) corruption of knowledge and understanding.

Interpretation, exegesis, gloss, commentary, association, refutation, symbolic and allegorical senses, all rose not from the text itself but from the reader.

Learning to Read

Reading is our entry point into a communal past and shared history. With each reading we renew and build upon this. The scholastic method was the common for. Of instruction in the Middle Ages.

Essentially the scholastic method consisted in little more than training the students to consider a text according to certain pre-established, officially approved criteria which were painstakingly and painfully drilled into them.

This approach carried well into the 1500s across universities and religious schools. It furthered a sense that through reading one acquired knowledge, but actual understanding was not relevant.

The merit of such a reading lay not in discovering a private significance in the text but in being able to recite and compare the interpretations of acknowledged authorities, and thus become “a better man.”

There was no room for the individual mind and its private relationship with a book. This gradually began to change in humanist schools of the mid-1400s. People were asked to read for themselves and, sometimes, even encouraged to find meaning on their own. Part of this was a result of the shifting hierarchical social structures which underlay the scholastic method.

You should make it a habit, when reading books, to attend more to the sense than to the words, to concentrate on the fruit rather than the foliage. — Anonymous scribe of the 13th century

The Missing First Page

The shift away from the notion of one “correct” reading also meant that our own individual readings of a book could change. No reading is final and any rereading can bring new or different understanding. Some authors (e.g. Kafka) and traditions (e.g. the Talmud) have played with this idea in the way they leave out first or last pages (this no reading can ever be complete).

Something revealing about the creative nature of the act of reading lies in the fact that one reader can despair and another can laugh at exactly the same page.

The Shape of the Book

The introduction of parchment code was brought margins, which provided a more intimate place for the reader’s interactions with a book. Parchment itself arose around the 3rd or 2nd century BC. Within 5-600 years it had fully supplanted papyrus.

A core benefit was that it enabled books to be produced in a variety of sizes and for a variety of purposes. As mass printing spread it also, oddly enough, reinvigorated interest in great manuals of handwriting.

It is interesting to note how often a technological development—such as Gutenberg’s—promotes rather than eliminates that which it is supposed to supersede, making us aware of old-fashioned virtues we might otherwise have overlooked or dismissed as of negligible importance.

Private Reading

Our environment, and more than just its privacy, impacts our reading. The comfort, tone, and purpose of a space all influence our reading experience. There are some books which almost demand to be read in certain circumstances. While bedrooms have long been used for reading they also have often not been private spaces (e.g. during monarchical times all manner of people would enter).

Books and beds…unlike most property, could be owned by individual members of the family. At a time when women were allowed to possess very few private goods, they owned books, and passed them on to their daughters more frequently than to their sons.

Metaphors of Reading

The prevalence of book-based metaphors (e.g. to devour a story) increased as the book became more of an everyday item. Much of the early influence on these metaphors came through the rhetoric of the Catholic Church.


Writing likely arose out of a commercial concern. It was a more resilient way of recording transactions. To write, though, inherently required a reader.

While the writer remains present, the text remains incomplete. Only when the writer relinquishes the text, does the text come into existence.

Remainder of the book

From here things became less information dense (at least in terms of what I was wanting to note down for reference). A few assorted quotes:

Every library is a library of preferences, and every chosen category implies an exclusion…Categories are exclusive; reading is not—or should not be. Whatever classifications have been chosen, every library tyrannizes the act of reading, and forces the reader—the curious reader, the alert reader—to rescue the book from the category to which it has been condemned.

This is usually the case for segregated readers: the literature they require is confessional, autobiographical, even didactic, because readers whose identities are denied have no other place to find their stories except in the literature they themselves produce.