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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.


100 Ideas That Changed Art

From cave paintings to the internet, or how art and cultural ideology shape one another.

On the heels of yesterday’s 100 Ideas That Changed Photography comes 100 Ideas That Changed Art (public library) — a succinct account of the most influential developments in the history of art, from cave paintings to the internet, compiled by art historian and broadcaster Michael Bird. From conceptual innovations like negative space (#98), color codes (#33), and street art (#94) to landmarks of communication like making books (#21), propaganda (#12), and handwriting (#24) to ideological developments like “less is more” (#30), protest (#79), and the body as surface (#9), each idea is contextualized in a 500-word essay with key visual examples.

Bird writes in the introduction:

What does it mean to ‘change art’? Art, in any definition, is so much a business of transformation that change is always and everywhere part of its nature, whether you think of it in physical terms (stone into statue) or in intellectual or spiritual ones (giving form to invisible things). No sooner has an idea changed art that art reformulates that idea, allowing it to recognize itself. Around the early fifth century BC, for example, Greek sculptors changed the way they represented naked figures, probably under the influence of certain intellectual attitudes to the human body. At the same time, their nude statues endowed fifth-century Greek ideas about what it means to be human with an extraordinarily long and fertile posterity. As so often where art is concerned, the transformation works both ways, more on the analogy of a chemical reaction than the introduction of a new material in engineering or a new process in politics.

On Trajan’s Column in Rome significant moments in the story of Trajan’s Dacian campaign are grouped to align vertically, so that they make sense from several standpoints when viewed from the ground. Like a mime show, Masaccio’s The Tribute Money fresco conveys the drama of emotionally charged confrontation and resolute action even to modern viewers unfamiliar with the biblical story.

Whereas stories are diachronic — they take time in the telling and involve the unfolding of events through time — visual images work synchronically, being interpreted almost instantaneously by the viewer. Visual artists have therefore developed a wide range of strategies for the task of storytelling.

Polykleitos was credited with ‘the idea that statues should stand firmly on one leg only.’ Greek artists were said to derive the rules of art from his Doryphoros ‘as if from a law.’
Renaissance artists put the newly perfected technique of linear perspective to light-hearted as well as serious uses. The trompe-l’oeil ceiling opening Andrea Mantegna painted for his patron Ludovico Gonzaga is a virtuoso demonstration of perspective.
In devising his great allegory Primavera (Spring, c.1478), Sandro Botticelli followed Alberti’s advice to painters, to take their themes from literary sources. In the center Venus and Cupid represent love, while Flora scatters flowers.
A detail from Courbet’s The Studio of the Painter (1855) shows the artist painting a landscape, observed by a nude female model and, to the right, people he called ‘shareholders’—friends and supporters from the art world.
John Constable’s studies of clouds over Hampstead Heath, London, in 1821-1822 are so accurate that they correlate with meteorological records. Art’s subject here is not the permanence of landscape but ‘the ungraspable, the fleeting.’
In George de la Tour’s Saint Joseph Carpenter (c.1640), the young Jesus holds a candle while his father drills a wooden beam, foreshadowing the Crucifixion. Candlelight intensifies the spiritual drama of this apparently everyday scene.
Defending Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863) from accusations of ‘obscene intent,’ the novelist Emile Zola took the scandalized public to task for being preoccupied with subject matter and ignoring the painting’s qualities as art.

100 Ideas That Changed Art comes from British publisher Laurence King, who previously brought us 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, 100 Ideas That Changed Film, and 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture.

Images and captions courtesy of Laurence King


Who Could It Be At This Hour? Lemony Snicket Asks All The Wrong Questions

An irreverent story of secrets in black, gray, and blue.

As a lover of Daniel Handler and his Lemony Snicket alias for young readers, I was thrilled for the much-anticipated release of his latest: “Who Could That Be at This Hour?” (public library) tells the story of a young Snicket, who begins his apprenticeship in a secret organization and soon finds himself in trouble after asking “four wrong questions, more or less.” The black-gray-and-blue illustrations by celebrated cartoonist Gregory Gallant, better-known as Seth, are the perfect complement to Snicket’s signature style — mischievous, sophisticated without taking itself too seriously, brimming with a playful love of language.

The story pulls you in by the collar from the very first paragraph and doesn’t let go until the very last page:

There was a town, and there was a girl, and there was a theft. I was living in the town, and I was hired to investigate the theft, and I thought the girl had nothing to do with it. I was almost thirteen and I was wrong. I was wrong about all of it.

“Who Could That Be at This Hour?” is the first installment in a four-book series titled All The Wrong Questions.


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