A History of Reading Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In his Confessions, Augustine expresses surprise at the silent reading of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. Throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages, reading meant reading aloud; such reading was probably the most common form of ancient publication. The phrase scripta manet, verba volat—the written word remains stationary, the spoken word travels—implied that only when the word was given a voice could it serve as a means of communication. Manguel notes that the Hebrew and Aramaic word for reading also means to call, again expressing this view that one should not read silently. In the twelfth century, Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali devised rules for studying the Koran. The ninth rule required reading the text aloud. Manguel suggests that the absence of spaces between words in classical and early medieval manuscripts reflects this practice of reciting; the ear would separate what the eye could not. Yet the eye must separate the words before the mouth can utter them. The lack of spaces more likely resulted from a desire to conserve papyrus or parchment. Further, those likely to own a manuscript probably knew the text pretty well by heart; the written word served as a reminder. Anyone familiar with a language will fairly readily separate words even without spaces (as evidenced in poems by E. E. Cummings or the prose of John Dos Passos). The introduction of spaces between words reflects not a moving away from reading aloud but rather a decline in familiarity with the language, particularly Latin, already a foreign language to most by the sixth century c.e.

In the classical and medieval world, literacy was uncommon; no more than twenty percent of those living in the Roman Empire could read. Reading aloud served to make texts available to the illiterate, though even the literate enjoyed these performances. Pliny the Younger wrote that he liked to hear a book being read while he ate, and this practice of reading at meals was required by the Rule of St. Benedict. Jongleurs from the eleventh century onward imitated the ancient rhapsodes, reciting poetry they and their master troubadours had composed. The jongleurs performed rather than read, but their texts were written down. In 1309, Jean de Joinville addressed his Life of St. Louis to those who would hear the book. The fourteenth century historian Jean Froissart read his romance Méliador to the Count du Blois, and Geoffrey Chaucer almost certainly read his Troilus and Criseyde to the Ricardian court.

Family members also read aloud to each other for pleasure and instruction. Manguel quotes the Tuscan notary Ser Lapo Mazzei asking a friend for a copy of The Little Flowers of St. Francis to read aloud to his sons. An innkeeper in Don Quixote tells a priest how much the laborers enjoy hearing a chivalric romance. In the nineteenth century, the Scottish publisher William Chambers recalled a boy who traveled from house to house reading his copy of Josephus as if the Jewish historian were the latest news. Later in the 1800’s cigar makers in Cuba and then in Florida hired a reader to entertain and instruct them while they worked. The nineteenth century was the golden age of public reading, with stars such as Charles Dickens and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Dickens’ reading texts included elaborate stage directions: “Beckon down . . . Point . . . Shudder . . . Look Round in Terror.” The continuing popularity of public reading and the proliferation of books on tape reflect the power of the written word to please when spoken.

For others, being alone with the page is the greatest pleasure. As Thomas à Kempis remarked, “In omnibus requiem quaesivi, et nunquam inveni, nisi in angulo cum libro,”—I have sought peace everywhere and found it nowhere except in a corner with a book. Marcel Proust would sneak into the dining room to read when the rest of his family was away; for him the cook always appeared too early to set the table and so disturbed his isolation.

Manguel looks at how reading was taught in the Middle Ages. Among Jews the traditional time to begin this instruction was Shavuot, fifty days after Passover. On this holiday, which celebrates God’s giving the Ten Commandments to Moses, Jewish children would be taken to their teacher, who showed them the alphabet written on a slate, together with a passage from the Torah and the inscription, “May the Torah be your occupation.” After the teacher read the slate to the child and the child repeated the lesson, the slates were covered in honey, and each child licked his, so that he would learn how sweet learning is. Nurses and mothers often bore the responsibility for teaching the rudiments of reading to the young. Manguel reproduces two sculptures showing Mary teaching Jesus and St. Anne teaching Mary to read.

The Church used illustrations to reach those who could not read. As Pope Gregory the...

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