Saturday, July 14, 2012

History of Reading

We can learn about the past not just through what was written but how it was read. Leah Price tells us about reading aloud in Roman times, Gutenberg-era marginalia, and Middle Age solutions to information overload.

From an interview on the Browser...

What exactly do you mean by the history of reading?
This is a growing field that encompasses very different kinds of questions. When did human beings first become literate? Who was able to read in different societies – men or women, adults or children, masters or slaves? Who could read, who did read, and did they read Bibles or novels or newspapers or train schedules? The more interesting question, and the one that's harder to answer, is what people made of what they read.

People who write leave evidence. People who read don't. When a historian of reading gets very lucky, once in a lifetime, she manages to unearth a diary or a letter in which someone describes whether they loved or hated the book they were reading, and what they loved or hated about it. But most of the time you have to make do with a patchwork of contradictory clues.

For example, Ernest Hemingway had this to say about James Joyce: "I like him very much as a friend and think no one can write better, technically. I learned much from him." But if you look at Hemingway's copy of Ulysses, which is kept today in a library in Boston, you see that the first and last pages are the only ones that have been cut. So you can't always trust people to tell the truth about their own reading. What makes it fascinating and also frustrating to study is that reading is one of the most private things we do.

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