A History of Reading by Steven Tibor Fischer

To write is to read. An obvious truism yet they are different. Writing, particularly writing fiction, is to call into being something new. Even the most prosaic shopping list is pregnant with meals to be made. Any act of creation is set in its context (does my guest tonight like tomatoes?), but happens in the moment.

The act of reading makes that moment durable. If I write something no-one (else) reads it remains, but is transparent, ghostly. Only when someone else is haunted by my words does the writing become fixed. Of course, not all reading is the same. Pre-concerns about inky chips, it was said that today’s news is tomorrow’s fish wrapper. The shopping list is usually a one-time only message. Gilgamesh, the Mahabharata, Hamlet – these last longer.

Fischer is director of the Institute of Polynesian Languages and Literatures in Aukland. He has has written a trilogy, one each on writing and language (which I haven’t read) and in 2003 the History of Reading. He starts with this distinction, saying on p8 writing is public, reading personal. …. Writing freezes the moment. Reading is forever.

When we say we want out writing to live, we mean we want people to read it for a long time to come.

I immensely enjoyed this book. I could only find two comments on it online, both from other academics and slightly sniffy. As a layperson, albeit an avid writer and reader, I found it full of insight. He takes a huge canvas, from early Mesopotamia, some 6000 years since, to the position of e-reading when he was competing this work less than a decade ago. The pace of development accelerates wildly through this timespan, and the book is uneven in its management of the changes. For the lay person, though, it is useful to have the explication of the writing’s emergence, the journey from simple tallies to a pictorial, hieroglyphic strategy and finally to symbolic alphabets. This last step, characterised by Latin and Greek, was crucial in the growth of the hegemony of the west.

The second step in that cultural reach was the emergence of paper, a cheap, durable, portable surface. Papyrus, cloth and vellum could not come close to paper, and its spread across Europe was crucial to increasing literacy.

The third was of course the development of movable type and the printing press. The Chinese, with much earlier written language and its widespread use in government, did not codify their alphabet into a limited number of manipulable signs, manageable within type.

Because of these three technological innovations, the concepts which powered the Reformation and Enlightenment were not only developed and written down but widely read. And it is that reading which has propelled social change. Reading had become our union card to humanity (p301).

Fischer has numerous sub-plots, interwoven stories and warnings. He suggests that, as reading spreads amongst poorer countries, their cultures become more homogenised and westernised. He points to profound pockets of functional illiteracy even in the richest nations. He is fascinating about the origins and evolution of the publishing industry. All of these are in themselves specialist topics, and in one book he is necessarily superficial, but woven together into the story of the faculty to read, they are a powerful narrative.
His last chapter about the future of reading is, unsurprisingly, the weakest. It was only then I turned to the publication date. 2003. That explains why he’s so keen on epaper, barely mentions electronic distribution, and thinks that visual language (the pictographs that mark rest areas in airports and so on) will become more prominent. Yet other parts of this section are prescient. He talks about how modern marginalised readers … now freely read what mirrors their unique place and cites Edmund White talking about the specific role of the coming-narrative in the gay community. (This particularly interesting reference is on p315).

What might he be saying now, I wonder? (I can find remarkably little about him on line.). I suspect that some elements have moved much faster than he anticipated. Like telephony leapfrogging the fixed line, the spread of the written word available electronically will be faster than predicted in countries where books are expensive, fragile and rare. Less is yet translated, the hegemony of English therefore ever more entrenched. Yet a massive library of extraordinary writing is now readily available at near zero cost.

On the other hand, we have seen increasing religious fragmentation, a greater determination by some to control what can be read and by whom and a massive proliferation of gossip, nonsense and ungrammatical tosh masquerading as literature. The ordinary reader has never had more choice and has never stood in greater need of filters, guidance and recommendations. What was that about the future of publishing?

Inevitably, given the pace of change since the book was written, there is much more to say on the future of reading than he can give us. So often current debates take the model of the last 100 years as the whole story, the ‘normal’ for our relationship with the written word. The value of Fischer’s work lies in the contextual narrative, embedding the current revolution in the our millennial love affair with reading.

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About Sarah Tanburn

I'm a writer, a sailor and a strategic adviser to public organisations. Visit my websites to find out more.
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