August 20, 2010
The Shallows 2: A Brief History of Reading
In Phaedrus, Socrates muses on the merits of writing. Surprisingly to our minds, he is skeptical. Why? It is a recipe for forgetfulness. We won’t have to exercise our memories anymore. Knowledge of a subject, after all, is much more valuable than a written account of the same thing. The only virtue of writing was as a guard against the forgetfulness of old age.
So Nicholas Carr, in The Shallows, introduces us to the first Luddite in his book on how the Internet changes our brains. (See part one of my review here.) In chapter four he offers a fascinating overview of the history of the written word and how each change created changes in us and in society.
True to himself, Socrates never wrote. Plato, Socrates’ student, did it for him. Plato was an early adopter of the new technology of writing. About 750 B.C. the Greeks invented the first complete phonetic alphabet, which became the basis for most subsequent Western alphabets, including ours.
Storytellers of the ancient world had massive capacities for memory, reciting tales for hours on end. The world of the oral tradition was geared toward the ear, to diction, rhythm, repetition—and perhaps to emotion, which disembodied words on a page struggle to convey. Yet without writing, science, mathematics and philosophy could not develop. So in this shift, as with most shifts in “technology,” something is lost and something is gained.
Even so, writing initially carried on significant characteristics of oral communication. Most notably, just as there are no pauses between words when we speak but rather a continuous flow of sounds, so writing in the ancient world had no spaces between words. This made reading cumbersome as the brain struggled to decode what was written.
To help in the deciphering process, words were read aloud. Silent reading was so rare that Augustine was surprised when he saw Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, reading silently (pp. 60-61). Now since orality was still highly valued, readers were glad to be able to hear the rhythm and musicality of the written word which also sought to imitate speech. Even “writing” was often accomplished by dictating to a scribe.
It wasn’t till the Middle Ages that spaces between words and silent reading became standard. This created more changes. “Readers didn’t just become more efficient. They also became more attentive” (p. 61). In other words, readers chose to neglect their senses—sound, smell and touch, alerting them to changes in their environment—in order to give their attention fully to what they read. Reading became a meditative act by filling the mind, not emptying it.
Now that one could write and read privately without another hearing, writing could (and did at times) become more unconventional and even heretical. Arguments became longer and more complex. Paragraphs, chapters and tables of contents emerged to guide readers through more involved structures.
When Gutenberg’s invention exploded across Europe in the late 1400s, literature was liberated from the hands of the elite so that books and essays became more common, more democratic, one might say. And then people began a habit they have not shaken for hundreds of years—complaining about the mass of fluff being produced.
But as literary and scholarly style began taking full advantage of the possibilities writing and printing provided, longer and more linear works of fiction and nonfiction were produced—once again, changing the way we think. What effect would the new wave of media of the twentieth century have? In chapter five we find out that it is less than we thought and much more.
Next Installment: The Shallows 3: Driven to Distraction