A History of Reading by Steven Roger

The joy of text through the ages
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The Independent Culture

Of the three volumes in Steven Roger Fischer's hugely ambitious and sedulously executed trilogy, the first two dealt with language and writing. This one, however, is the most suggestive and open, dedicated not only to the technicalities of his subject but to the everyday experience of communication.

A History of Reading unfolds a narrative of such richness that it is easy to forgive a certain conceptual restraint. There is an absence of the sort of speculative verve that meditations on reading seem always to have exhibited. Fischer lets his historical readers speak for themselves, ceaselessly seduced by textual magic.

Readers don't come more fascinated than St Augustine, who appears here transfixed by the notion of silent reading: the key innovation, Fischer argues, in the history of a hitherto noisy occupation. Augustine was obsessed by reading as a metaphor for our uneasy suspension in time and memory. In his Confessions, he finds himself stranded halfway through reading a psalm, unsure what the exercise amounts to. If his mind is half on what he's read and half on the words to come, what is going on in the instant of recitation? The answer is clear: God speaks in Augustine's tentative performance.

As Fischer insists, this was how most people experienced reading throughout its history. The words on the page only came to life when read aloud. The silent reading we now imagine as the sign of real concentration is a relatively modern arrival. It was cultivated in medieval scriptoria thanks to the revision of Latin manuscripts. The fixing of word order, the introduction of spaces between words, the advent of punctuation: all contribute to the pious hush essential to "proper" reading. Punctuation was invented by Irish scribes; Joyce and Beckett were turning the clock back when they stripped it all away.

Which is not to say that reading became easy. Fischer records numerous touching instances of aching, squinting readers battling with inconducive conditions. A 13th-century Florentine reader wrote: "It is a painful task. It extinguishes the light from the eyes, it bends the back, it crushes the viscera and the ribs, it brings forth pain to the kidneys and weariness to the whole body." For some, pleasure was no less pernicious: Jean-Baptiste de La Salle, an 18th-century pedagogue, fulminated against those who read in bed. (His institutional descendants, in the teaching order he founded, did their stultifying best to kill off this reader's lax adolescent reading habits).

Nowadays, says Fischer, the average white-collar worker spends between five and eight hours a day reading, mentally mouthing the fall-out from the last century's prodigious explosion of "real" and virtual text. For most contemporary readers, hunched labour has won out over supine pleasure. No wonder, then, that so many resort to the audiobook. Reading was first of all reading aloud and being read to: now, once more, the very image of readerly luxury, the languid pleasure of the text.