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A History of Reading

“Writing freezes the moment. Reading is forever.”

“A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic,” Carl Sagan poignantly observed. And while the writer-storyteller puts in place the pieces necessary for that magic to manifest, “the catalyst is the reader’s imagination.” But how, exactly, did we cultivate the skill of reading, which is so central to our intellectual identity? In A History of Reading (public library), Steven Roger Fischer traces how we went from the dawn of symbols to electronic text, and in the process deconstructs what it actually means to read.

He offers a poetic frame in the introduction:

What music is to the spirit, reading is to the mind. Reading challenges, empowers, bewitches, enriches. We perceive little black marks on white paper or a PC screen and they move us to tears, open up our lives to new insights and understandings, inspire us, organize our existences and connect us with all creation.

Surely there can be no greater wonder.

He then explores the yin-yang of reading and writing:

Though reading and writing go hand in hand, reading is actually writing’s antithesis — indeed, even activating separate regions of the brain. Writing is a skill, reading is a faculty. Writing was originally elaborated and thereafter deliberately adapted; reading has evolved in tandem with humanity’s deeper understanding of the written word’s latent capabilities. Writing’s history has followed series of borrowings and refinements, reading’s history has involved successive stages of social maturation. Writing is expression, reading impression. Writing is public, reading personal. Writing is limited, reading open-ended. Writing freezes the moment. Reading is forever.


Reading has always been different from writing. Writing prioritizes sound, as the spoken word must be transformed or deconstructed into representative sign(s). Reading, however, prioritizes meaning. The faculty of reading has, in fact, very little to do with the skill of writing.

What is reading, then? The answer is not simple, as the act of reading is variable, not absolute. In its most general modern definition, reading is of course the ability to make sense of written or printed symbols. The reader ‘uses the symbols to guide the recovery of information from his or her memory and subsequently uses this information to construct a plausible interpretation of the writer’s message’. But reading has not always been this. Initially it was the simple faculty of extracting visual information from any encoded system and comprehending the respective meaning. Later it came to signify almost exclusively the comprehending of a continuous text of written signs on an inscribed surface. More recently it has included the extracting of encoded information from an electronic screen. And reading’s definition will doubtless continue to expand in future for, as with any faculty, it is also a measure of humanity’s own advancement.


Reading is not merely the attaching of sound to grapheme, which occurs only at an elementary level. Meaning is involved, and in a fundamental way. At a higher level of perception reading can even convey meaning alone, without any recourse to sound.

Therein lies reading’s sense-like magic.

He goes on to explore the five phases of information exchange — production, transmission, reception, storage, and repetition — pointing out that with writing, they occur either aurally or visually, but reading is a synesthetic process that often combines the two sense of hearing and sight.

He then offers a brief history of how shapes became sounds:

Sign became sound — free from its system-external referent — in Mesopotamia between 6,000 and 5,7000 years ago. The idea soon spread, west to the Nile and east to the Iranian Plateau and even to the Indus, where different languages and different social needs demanded other graphic expressions. Everywhere, writing was recognized to be an invaluable tool for accumulating and storing information: it facilitated accounting, material storage and transport, and it retained names, dates and places better than human memory ever could. All early ‘reading’ involved very simple code recognition, and was invariably task-oriented.

‘To read’ was Sumerian šita (šit, šid, šed), meaning also ‘to count, calculate, consider, memorize, recite, read aloud’. Very few in Mesopotamia could ever achieve this faculty. Around 2000 BC at Ur, the region’s greatest metropolis with a population of around 12,000, only a small proportion — perhaps one out of a hundred, or about 120 people at most — could read and write. From 1850 to 1550 BC the Babylonian city-state of Sippar, with approximately 10,000 inhabitants, housed only 185 named ‘scribes’ (that is, official tablet writers), ten of whom were in fact women. It appears from this and similar statistics elsewhere that no more than at most a few score literates were alive in Mesopotamia’s city-states at any given time.


From this near-universal failure of Mesopotamian scribes to elaborate a more user-friendly literature, one can deduce that reading was predominantly work. That is, it was not a solitary, agreeable, silent business* — but public, taxing and loud. The written word very often served simply to prompt the retrieval of a text earlier learnt by heart. For all Mesopotamian literature, even written literature, was public and oral. Writing was still a means to an end, the public performance, a tradition stretching back tens of thousands of years, and not yet an end in itself: the solitary confrontation with the written word.

Tablets ‘spoke’ for those whose seals were impressed on them. Judges in Babylon, for example, could speak of a tablet’s contents as its ‘mouth’, could publicly assert they had ‘heart’ the tablet (in a way very similar to how today’s judges read affidavits). There was no contesting, no challenge by witnesses in attendance; denying one’s seal brought severe punishment. The written voice was the actual voice.

(* One has to wonder just how much we’ve regressed to that ancient user-unfriendliness in today’s age of atrocious pagination, endless slideshows, and loud, tragically ad-infested online publishing, which make the experience of reading anything but “agreeable” and “silent.”)

A History of Reading is part of Fischer’s fascinating Globalities trilogy, alongside A History of Writing and A History of Language.

Published October 26, 2012




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