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A Brief History of Reading in Four Acts with Interludes

A Brief History of Reading in Four Acts with Interludes
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Palina Dolia

Arguably, the history of reading is the most curious and non-standard element of book culture, because the process is so natural! We wonder about the origins of book spines, bookmarks, capital letters and archetypal plots, but what about reading itself? From clay tablets to libraries, from reading aloud to speed reading: a fascinating story was under our own very noses all this time. It's time to dig into it.

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Act One: A Very Practical Start

Let's outline the input: roughly Mesopotamia, one prosperous city, about 4000 BC, an unknown person makes a revolution in the history of humanity – he draws several squiggles on clay, symbolizing a bull. Writing blows up. Over time (by the 2600s BC), cuneiform finalizes, and reading inherently appears alongside writing. Clay tablets record lists of goods, laws and beer recipes in the form of religious chants. Easy and useful. Moreover, there is even an address to the reader in the texts – not "dear reader", of course, but still better than nothing. By the way, such an address first appeared in one of the texts of the first known author– Enheduanna, the Akkadian princess and high priestess. Yes, "The Instructions of Shuruppak" are older, but somehow no one put their name on it. In general, at this stage, reading is a sacred skill, not for everyone, and even members of royal families do not always master it. At the same time, birds come to be considered sacred: their footprints painfully resemble cuneiform.

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Act Two: Reading as a Performance

Early written texts were meant to be read aloud. All characters were written in a continuous stream: an experienced reader figures out all the details on the go, no need for punctuation. The first attempts to divide endless lines into sentences, of course, took place around the 2nd century. BC, but it turned out somehow unconvincing – the formation of commas is yet to come. So people are mostly illiterate, and reading continues to be a skill for the elite. However, the masses still have the opportunity to take part in high literature – at public readings.

The format is simple: a group of people gathers, at least one of them has the sacred skill of converting a text into coherent sounds, and reading aloud takes place. Such events were held at monasteries (yes, reading the Bible also counts), royal courts and squares on holidays. From Antiquity until the 19th century, reading aloud was considered quite an acceptable entertainment during dinner – even in families with more modest means. For example, reading books aloud was part of Jane Austen's daily schedule.

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But let’s go back to basics. In the 5th century B.C. Herodotus read his works on the podium of the Olympic Games. Imagine what an audience! In general, public readings were frequent in classical antiquity. In the pre-book era, texts were simply learned by heart and, accordingly, underwent constant changes: the reader retold them as he or she remembered. As a result, reading turned into a real performance: people demanded entertainment; acting skills, gestures and deep soft baritone were used.

Over time, the popularity of public readings either decreased or, on the contrary, returned with the same force, but the tradition has been preserved for centuries. In fact, over time, the publicity of such events decreased somewhat: instead of reading in squares and stadiums, people gathered in a narrow friendly circle in their homes around the book and the most artistic person in the company. After all, this is how the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau spread. The authorities of pre-revolutionary France were not delighted with his writings, that’s why people had to deliver the idea to the masses secretly and in portions. It’s the last way to find a loyal audience.

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Act Three: Say No More!

So, it was already mentioned earlier: the texts were intended to be read aloud, and not for simple viewing. Therefore, it is not surprising that any silent reading was perceived as almost a curiosity and a supernatural ability. Now, of course, it sounds ridiculous, but there is a story that in 330 BC. Alexander the Great publicly read a letter from his mother – and did not utter a word! The troops froze silently in awe. Much later, in the 4th century A.D. Aurelius Augustine writes in his "Confession" another stunning news: his mentor, Ambrose "read, his eyes ran through the pages, his heart was searching for meaning, and his voice and tongue were silent." How shocking.

Silent reading, by the way, also appeared in monasteries first – more precisely, in their libraries, because it was there that a simple rule was fixed already in the 9th century: you had to work in silence. Actually, this is how libraries became a place of continuous silence. What was before the 9th century? Noise, hubbub, expressive discussions. Next time, dreaming of visiting the Library of Alexandria, try to imagine not only an incredible storehouse of knowledge, but also readers arguing over it.

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So, the literacy of the population gradually grew, punctuation spread, the language became simpler, and pictures appeared in books, so reading became more and more easy. If reading in general is easier why not do it silently, then? You no longer need intermediaries, you can comprehend all the stories yourself. Reading becomes much more personal. Chaucer, for example, recommended reading in bed, Omar Khayyam and Mary Shelley encouraged getting out into the open air, and Henry Miller and Marcel Proust often leafed through books in the bathroom. In general, you couldn't surprise anyone else by silent reading.

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Interlude: Newspapers Count as Well

Now, a separate stage in the history of reading is the distribution of periodicals. At the beginning of the 17th century, newspapers began to be actively printed, and if multivolume, serious books still did not captivate everyone, literally everyone was interested in periodicals. You had to somehow keep up with the news. People read – yes, short articles, but with enviable regularity. In addition, a little later, the newspapers began to publish novels – in parts, of course. For example, Charles Dickens's "The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club" gradually appeared in magazines from 1836 to 1837. As a result, such a simple form helped popularize reading, and at the same time fueled the interest of readers in the writings.

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Another Interlude: Libraries

One can talk about the history of libraries for a long time (and we, of course, will certainly do so one day), but today we are interested in a slightly different aspect. How have libraries change the process of reading? In large, the idea of organizing written texts and collecting them in one place is much older than first formal libraries. But libraries acquired their modern format much later. In the 18th century, libraries finally became more public and allowed borrowing books. You didn't have to hang out for hours in the library room, because you could do exactly the same thing in your own room and not pay money for the book itself. Convenient. Moreover, now that the book of interest became easier to obtain, the popularity of book clubs also increased.

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Act Four: Reading Today

So, there are libraries, books are available, everyone is literate. It would seem that here it is, an idyll. But then digital technologies have cut in. Surely, you have often heard reproaches towards the younger generation: they do not read at all, they have buried their noses in their computers and are actively degrading. Maybe you have noticed for yourself that reading voluminous texts is becoming more and more difficult, you want to quickly run your eyes across the page, eagerly absorb information and run on, for a new story. Actually, the reason for this is quite obvious: reading is adapting to modern conditions – including digital media. Now we open paper editions much less often, and we get most of the information from the screens of phones and computers. Actually, such media are fast, convenient and much more multitasking, therefore, information with their help is assimilated in a matter of seconds. Less time is spent on reading in general and critical analysis in particular. Is that bad? No, just different. Reading, like a living organism, changes, adapts, but it does not get worse – after all, the speed of content uptake does not mean a loss of interest in the reading process itself.

Whether you are reading aloud or silently, in libraries or in your own room, opening a paper or e-book, imagine how much your favorite hobby has changed over hundreds and thousands of years. Imagine - and keep reading.

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