10 Reading Revolutions Before E-Books


1. The phrase "reading revolution" was probably coined by German historian Rolf Engelsing. He certainly made it popular. Engelsing was trying to describe something he saw in the 18th century: a shift from "intensive" reading and re-reading of very few texts to "extensive" reading of many, often only once. Think of reading the Bible vs reading the newspaper. Engelsing called this shift a "Lesenrevolution," lesen being the German equivalent of reading. He thought he had found when modern reading emerged, as we'd recognize it today, and that it was this shift that effectively made us modern readers.

History, of course, is rarely so neat, and other historians quickly found counterexamples of extensive premodern reading (Cicero and his letters) and intensive reading today (the way the Romantics brooded over The Sorrows of Young Werther, or our contemporaries over that very different contemporary Werther, Harry Potter). The future has always been unevenly distributed. But the framework of a reading revolution had been established. All that remained was trying to determine what the "real" revolution was.

2. Outside of scholarly circles, the top candidate is usually the better-known Print Revolution, usually associated with Johannes Gutenberg, who helped introduce movable type to Europe. Now, as Andrew Pettegree's new history The Book in the Renaissance shows, the early years of print were much messier than advertised: no one knew quite what to do with this technology, especially how to make money off of it. (And that just goes for those who ever encountered a printed book in their section of Europe and would know how to read it if they had.)

But first, let's apply a clean explanatory schema or three to the print revolution to see how each one fits. In Elizabeth Eisenstein's account in The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, print changed readers' expectations of texts, especially their universality and fidelity, since everyone everywhere was (in theory) reading an exact copy of an identical text. This assumption proved particularly instrumental in the subsequent Scientific Revolution. Benedict Anderson thought print helped readers of a common language in a highly fragmented Europe think of themselves as an "imagined community," crucial to forming the modern nation-state. Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong thought print helped further reorient language from sound to vision, paving the way for our screen-fixated present. This is a reorientation that, as Ong argued extensively, begins with writing itself.


3. There are many crucial developments in the very early history of writing, but for the sake of time/space (writing being the primary technology that allows us to think of these interchangeably), let's cut to the emergence of the alphabet. From bureaucratic cuneiform to monumental hieroglyphs, early writing systems were mostly divorced from speech. Scripts where symbols matched consonants or syllables allowed you to exchange symbols for sounds. An abjad, like Phoenician, Hebrew, or Arabic, was a script for merchants, not scribes. This took on an additional order of magnitude with the emergence of the first proper alphabet, Greek. The Greeks took the Phoenician letters and 1) added symbols for vowels; 2) completely abstracted the names and images of the letters from words in the language. (In Phoenician as in Hebrew, "aleph" means ox, and "bet" means house; the Greek "alpha" and "beta" are meaningless.)

This fusion of orality and literacy helps explain the potency of classical Hellenic culture. Songs and dances became literature; disputations became rhetoric and philosophy. The Greeks were able to incorporate the knowledge of the civilized world in their own language, and in turn transmit their own amalgamated culture wherever they went. As Ong notes, unlike writing or agriculture, the alphabet was only invented once - every single alphabet and abjad can trace itself back to the same Semitic roots. It was (and remains) a revolution that happened over and over and over again.

4. Now, the other major pre-Gutenberg "revolution" in the history of the book (and by now you may be getting the hint that not one of these revolutions were total coups that changed everything everywhere in an instant, leaving nothing of the old order behind) was in the shape, size, and design of the book itself. The shift from the rolled scroll to the folded codex as the dominant form of the book radically affected readers' conceptions not only of books, but of what kinds of reading were possible. Many historians have argued that Christianity, in practice and concept, was deeply affected by its embrace of the codex (and Greek) rather than the Hebrew scroll. Codices were cheaper and easier to read and carry than scrolls (clay and stone tablets were even heavier), and it was easy to perform anagogic readings linking the "Old" and "New" Testaments - just hold your finger in one place in the book and flip ahead to the end. Christianity, in turn, helped spread the codex throughout the Roman Empire. The scroll was persistent, though, as anyone familiar with synagogues, movie theaters, or long unpaginated web sites can attest.

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Tim Carmody is a contributing editor for The WireMore

Tim Carmody is a contributing editor for The Wire. He was previously a senior writer for Wired and The Verge, and has also written for The Atlantic, National Geographic, Newsweek, Technology Review, Hazlitt, and elsewhere.

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