Thursday, June 9, 2011

A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel

A group of academics in a sixteenth-century Islamic school discuss the laws of optics. Saint Augustine is at his lectern, in a rough eleventh-century drawing. An ancient Greek woman reads her scroll by unrolling with one hand and simultaneously rolling up the other end with the other. A fifteenth-century illustration shows a stern teacher with a briar, ready to discipline the student who is reciting before him. And there is an edition of the complete works of William Shakespeare in CD-ROM form, from the 1990s.

These are all illustrations from just one short section of Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading. These illustrations are not gratuitous. Every one of them is referenced naturally in the text, and is described with Manguel's intelligent and perceptive eye.

Manguel has filled his book with fascinating historical anecdotes and insights. Which is not to say that he has merely slapped together a collection of factoids and tidbits. On the contrary. Manguel, more erudite and better-read than I will ever be, has composed chapters with themes ranging from the evolution of the physical shape of the book, to individuals who have valued books to the extent that they have become compulsive book thieves, to the challenges of translating poetry.

Future generations will be able to precisely date Manguel's book by the references to technology. Mention is made of books being stored on CD-ROM, and there is a short bit on hypertext, but there is no discussion of how the Internet has impacted people's reading habits. One would correctly estimate the year of publication to be around 1996.

One way in which the Internet may have a long-term impact that no one (except perhaps for Marshall McLuhan's ghost) could have predicted in 1996 came to mind when I came across the chapter on reading out loud. Pliny the Younger lived during a time when poets were expected to give readings before flocks of their adoring public; far more people knew these writers' works through having them read to them, in fact, than through reading them on their own. In the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens gave hugely popular performances in which he read from his novels. From our vantage point, we see these performances as publicity stunts meant to promote his main product: the novels themselves, in printed book form. But Dickens was by all accounts a masterful public showman, and it's likely that for many of the attendees, his readings were his main product, and if you could buy printed text versions to take home with you, they were primarily expensive souvenirs.

This form of entertainment has largely died out. I can't think of anything quite similar in today's live performances. And with the advent of television in the latter half of the 20th century, it was widely assumed that texts being read aloud was dead as a form of mass entertainment.

Then, in the fifteen years that have passed since Manguel's book was published, the Internet exploded and things changed. I didn't even know the word "podcast" until 2006, but now we're at the point where no individual human being has the time to keep up with every audio fiction podcast that caters to people with an appetite for SF/fantasy/horror/weird fiction, just to name one of several possible genre examples. These exist because there is a demand for them. This isn't a bubble -- I predict the market will continue to grow.

It seems all it took was the smashing of the barriers of distance and geography, and people's instinctive desire to have stories read to them was re-awakened.

Some other assorted tidbits that stuck in my mind, in no particular order:

- In the fourth century, St. Augustine wrote of watching St. Ambrose read, and thought it quite notable that Ambrose read silently -- his eyes took in the text and he understood every word, but he did not make a sound. Reading out loud was the norm in the West, and would remain so for several centuries more.

- Late medieval schools in Europe were horrors that would make a modern critic of rote learning cry out in despair. Memorization was the order of the day, not learning. And while this might be somewhat justified as it was a society where books were rare and precious and an educated person was expected to have accumulated huge amounts of memorized knowledge, one prominent product of the system, Jakob Wimpfeling, said that his former classmates generally "could neither speak Latin nor compose a letter or a poem, nor even explain one of the prayers used at Mass".

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