Book Review: A History of Reading

Few people think to distinguish reading from writing. Most generally assume that these two skills are one and the same. Stephen Roger Fischer’s A History of Reading disabuses us of that notion. Fischer’s book is the third in a trilogy, the first two volumes addressing language and writing. This third volume focuses on reading, the various types of reading, how we do it, and the social significance of it.

First, the mental process of reading is quite different from speech or writing. We do not normally read individual phonemes or letters and accomplished readers may not even read individual words. Instead we take in entire phrases with a glance and use pattern recognition to render it comprehensible. Children learning to read do sound out individual phonemes, as do adults when they encounter unfamiliar and complex words, but once reading has been ingrained as a skill, most of us do not.

We also have different modes of reading. How we read aloud differs from how we read silently. We read differently when we read for pleasure than how we do when we read for precise and detailed understanding. Proofreading differs from scanning. Most literate adults use a variety of reading modes depending on their purpose and circumstances.

One of the concepts that Fischer discusses is that of voice. The earliest writings, those of Sumerian scribes, were written in the voice of the scribe. A clay tablet when read was considered to be the voice of the person who wrote it—not the person who dictated it, but of the scribe who actually wrote it down. There were severe penalties for scribes who wrote down falsehoods or inaccuracies. Over time, the idea of an author’s voice developed. The words when read were considered to be whoever uttered them, not who wrote them down. Later, the voices of individual characters could be read.

For most of history, reading has been a public activity. Words were read aloud and to an audience. The medieval monastic scriptoriums were noisy places. When transcribing works, the monks would read them aloud. Silent reading has been common for less a millennium. St. Augustine, for example, records his surprise in A.D. 384 when he discovers his teacher St. Ambrose reading silently to himself. Silent reading did not become common until the ninth century.

Why we read has also changed and grown. There are many more purposes for reading today than in past centuries. The original purpose for reading was commerce. The earliest writings are almost exclusively contracts and inventories of goods. Historical inscriptions came next and then texts for instruction. Finally, literature developed. The first literature consisted of tablets containing queues to jog the memories of those readers who knew the story.

Fischer also discusses the concept of literacy. What constitutes literacy has changed over the centuries as well. In medieval Europe, one was not literate unless one could read Latin. The ability to read the vernacular was not socially significant. Similarly, in the Arab world, literacy was defined as the ability to read the classical Arabic of the Koran, not the vernacular Arabic dialects used in everyday life. Growth of literacy rates has also changed. Universal literacy was not achieved by any society until the 19th century.

Fischer’s organization is chronological. The first two chapters deal with reading in the ancient world. The next two address reading around the world in the pre-modern era. The fifth and sixth chapters are on printing and universal distribution of the written word and how that changed the way and what we read. The final chapter looks to the future and attempts to explain how the internet is changing reading patterns.

Fischer writes in an accessible style. He does not fall into the stiff and unreadable style of many academic texts, but it still is not an easy read. The reason is that A History of Reading is information dense, with so much information in it that it does not make easy reading. The wealth of data in the book is worth taking the time to wade through it all, but casual readers should be warned, this is not for them.

The one negative criticism of the book is that the chronological organization does not make it easy to reference the development in trends in reading. When did silent reading, for example, become arise in different cultures? To find the answer one must visit several different chapters and sections of the book. Appendices that provided timelines or otherwise tied together the various thematic elements in the book would have been helpful. Still, this is a rather minor point.

A History of Reading, by Stephen Roger Fischer, Reaktion Books, June 2003, ISBN 1-86189-160-1, Hardcover, $29.95.

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