Reading: Changing habits

Illuminating texts

When books and readers were rare, the words were spoken and savored. Now millions can curl up silently and scan quickly, with as much lost as gained.

(Yan Nascimbene for The Boston Globe)
By Jane Brox
Globe Correspondent / July 10, 2011

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This essay is the first in a three-part series about the past, present, and future of reading. Part two will focus on readers in transition between the page and the screen. Part three will look at the future of reading. Even on the subway, amid the jostles, conversations, and stares, a well of quiet seems to surround readers of books or newspapers or tablets. It may be a defensive quiet, but a quiet all the same, and not so unlike the habitual silences of readers in libraries or those curled in chairs at home. Their absorption distances voices, engines, and birds alike - the same sounds that can feel amplified and distinct before sleep or just after waking.

To learn to read, after all, is a descent into silence. I can still conjure the school room where I first began to puzzle out words on a page: our wooden desks, the map of the world rolled up above the chalkboard, green canvas shades partially drawn over high windows, manila cards strung around the room, which illustrated the alphabet in cursive script. We sat at our desks and read our pages aloud, mouthing syllables amongst each other, if not to each other, and to our teacher. Stumbling, smoothing, repeating the words again and again. How quickly we took to it might determine whether we would outdistance our parents - farmers, plumbers, small-business owners, housewives - or follow in their footsteps. Soon, we began whispering the words to ourselves, then mouthing them silently. Finally they sped by faster than we could possibly say. How long that all took I now have no idea, but the silence, I know, was an accomplishment.

I’ve always believed that the silence surrounding my reading was a cleared space for attention in a noisy, busy world, and that my eye running across the page had to be an asset since I’ll never read all the books I’d like to, and there are hundreds of thousands more being published every year. Yet, I remember so little of all my reading and rereading. Even when I try to recall the books that have grabbed me by the throat, I can conjure no more than a few scenes, or the bare outlines of a plot, or a striking line: “When it rains we would like to cry.’’ Where does the absorption in the moment go? Why isn’t there more space for all those hours in the cramped and cluttered place I imagine my memory to be?

It is said that readers in antiquity and the Middle Ages had capacious memories - Augustine referred to his own as a vast sanctuary, and as a great field. But then reading itself was a very different undertaking before the age of print. Literacy wasn’t common - there were more listeners to literature than there were readers of it - and books weren’t easy to acquire. Most libraries contained under 300 volumes - fewer books than I have in my home now - for the work to produce even one was so daunting that candles might be forbidden in the medieval scriptoriums: A fire meant not only the loss of books, but the loss of thousands of hours of labor. Before a scribe even dipped his goose quill into ink, the parchment had to be dried and stretched, then scraped clean and smoothed with a pumice stone. Each sheet had to be lined with a ruler and awl. A good scribe might produce two books a year. The Bible could take 15 months to copy.

Manuscripts were considered so precious that at times they were chained to lecterns where they might be read by more than one student or monk at a time, and if a scholar wanted a book that wasn’t in his library, he would have to write to friends or acquaintances elsewhere and ask to borrow it. If it couldn’t be borrowed, he would have to travel to the library to copy it for himself, or arrange for a friend to copy it.

What took time to produce and acquire also took time to read. Although silent reading wasn’t unheard of even in antiquity, many readers pronounced what they saw, if not clearly aloud then in an audible murmur. In his study of monastic culture, “The Love of Learning and the Desire for God,’’ Jean Leclercq notes that “in the Middle Ages, as in antiquity, they read usually, not as today, principally with the eyes, but with the lips . . . and with the ears, listening to the words pronounced, hearing what is called ‘the voices of the pages.’ It is a real acoustical reading; legere means at the same time audire. One understands only what one hears. . . . [It is] an activity which, like chant and writing, requires the participation of the whole body and the whole mind. Doctors of ancient times used to recommend reading to their patients as a physical exercise on an equal level with walking, running or ball-playing.”

Even now, when faced with an old manuscript - in the earliest, words aren’t separated and punctuation is inconsistent and rare - I often try to mouth out the words, much like my 91-year-old mother, who has forgotten almost everything, but reliably reads the signs along the road as we drive, saying them aloud. “Slow down,” she pleads, “so I can see what I need to read.”

The idea of reading something quickly would be incomprehensible to a medieval monk or nun, for reading was sacred. At Lent, each would be given a book, which was to be contemplated throughout the year, not only while reading but also while he or she tended bees, or hoed the garden, or kneaded bread. “Some part of your daily reading should also each day be committed to memory,” instructed William of St. Thierry, “taken as it were into the stomach, to be more carefully digested and brought up again for frequent rumination.” Of course, the murmuring of innumerable readers could be a distraction. In his “Rule’’ St. Benedict urged, “if, perhaps, anyone desireth to read for himself, let him so read that he doth not disturb others.” Generally, in the monasteries each monk retired to his own study in the cloisters - a carrel, meaning a ring, a dance, a song, Stonehenge. A garland made of one’s own voice.

In the Cistercian monasteries, with their plain lime-washed walls and grisaille glass, only shadow and light and stone accompanied a reader, for ornament, bright color, and narrative sculpture would be a distraction. “In the cloister, under the eyes of the Brethern who read there, what profit is there in those ridiculous monsters, in that marvelous and deformed comeliness, that comely deformity?” asks Bernard de Clairvaux. At the close of day, perhaps a scarcity of light accomplished the same thing. “The candle does not illuminate an empty room,” writes Gaston Bachelard, “it illuminates a book.” It was also its own presence, having to be coaxed into life, and tended during the time one read by it, but the flame also presented a place to gaze into when one looked up from one’s reading, so there might be a conversation between the reader, the light, the page. “The candle will burn out,” Bachelard also notes, “before the difficult book is read.”

The small, flickering light of oil lamps and candles accompanied readers into the age of print, which began with Gutenberg’s Bible in the mid-15th century. The first printed books looked much like manuscripts, and the largest number of books, as in the Middle Ages, were theological. They were likely read in much the same way. But as they took far less time to complete than manuscripts, the number of books in the world multiplied. By 1500, 45,000 books had been printed, and printworks had been established in more than 200 cities.

Eventually printed books acquired title pages, chapter divisions, and indexes, none of which existed during the manuscript age. Individual passages became easier to retrieve, so readers had less need to rely on memory. With more readers and more books, the place of reading in the world became more various. Many still opened books to search for enlightenment, but people also relied on them for information and entertainment. Over time, too, as Marshall McLuhan charts in “The Gutenberg Galaxy,’’ the sight of words broke away from the sound of them. Readers swallowed their voices, and learned to hear words internally: “The reader of print . . . stands in an utterly different relation to the writer from the reader of manuscript. Print gradually made reading aloud pointless, and accelerated the act of reading till the reader could feel ‘in the hands of’ his author. . . . [J]ust as print was the first mass-produced thing, so it was the first uniform and repeatable ‘commodity.’ The assembly line of movable types made possible a product that was uniform and as repeatable as a scientific experiment.”

By the 19th century, quiet readers left their oil lamps behind and moved into the gaslight era, then the age of incandescence. As light steadied itself and became exponentially more abundant, the reader no longer had to think about light, so the conversation between the page and the lamp dissolved into the brilliance. As I quietly read, light is everywhere in the room. When I look up from my book I see the colors and patterns of my recognizable world: paintings, photographs, books, furniture. I think of reading as a comforting possession that has traveled with me to different homes, and when I collapse into its silence - it might be one of the few things that has become quieter over the ages - I often regard it as a respite.

Sometimes when I read poetry I read aloud - in a shy, small voice - to hear the music on the page. Though it’s only a slight gesture toward what reading once was, there isn’t a writer I know who doesn’t dream of being read in such a way. Gerard Manley Hopkins, in a letter to Robert Bridges, wrote: “Take breath and read it with the ears, as I always wish to be read, and my verse becomes all right.”

As the screen overtakes the solid page, and the ground floors of libraries have begun to look like the decks of starships, and the page has become its own lamp, as millions of books become available at the click of a key, and a simple search will turn up almost anything one needs to recall, surely the memory of what is read is dissolving all that much faster. As a stalwart reader of printed books, I’m left to wonder what will happen to the wide, slow silty river of the their history, to the countless volumes waiting now in the abandoned silence of library stacks. Stacks: The word itself connects books to the harvest, to corn and hay. They were always earthbound. Smell the must, feel the brittle, browning pages between your thumb and forefinger. The tears, the cracked spines, the stains and folds. Even if we readers forget them, printed books will hold us in their memory.

Jane Brox’s fourth book, “Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light,’’ is now available in paperback from Mariner Books. She can be reached at

This essay is the first in a three-part series about the past, present, and future of reading. Part two will focus on readers in transition between the page and the screen. Part three will look at the future of reading.