History of Reading

by Steven Roger Fischer

September 24th, 2008

Writing has profoundly changed civilization. But reading has had an even greater impact. One person writes, but many people read. However, reading got off to a much slower start than writing. Originally developed as nothing more than a system for maintaining permanent records of economic transactions (primarily taxation), writing's first contribution to civilization was to make possible its financial underpinnings. It's difficult to imagine a civilization -- a large number of people living in cities -- without some sort of writing system. Even preliterate societies such as the Aztecs and the Incas had simple devices for recording facts and figures for transmission to the central authority.

For these societies, reading was really nothing more than decoding the code that recorded the facts and figures. However, as economies grew more complex, writing matured, permitting an ever-richer range of expressions, and soon transformed from a purely iconic code system to something that attempted to capture some fraction of spoken language. With this development, people began to write about a broad range of activities -- and reading became more than a matter of keeping the books balanced.

Even so, writing remained confined to an elite who could spend their lives learning the complex glyphs that made up the early syllabic and morphemic writing systems of the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, and Chinese. Three more developments were necessary to catapult reading into the position of civilization-energizer. The first of these was the Semitic invention of a consonantal alphabet. The second was the Greek extension of the alphabet to include vowels. And the third was the Egyptian development of papyrus as a cheap and copious source of writing surfaces. These three developments united in the Greek world to ignite an explosion of ideas.

One surprise for me was the longevity of oral reading. People read aloud for most of history; silent reading is a modern invention. The reason for this lies in literacy rates. Without many readers, it was necessary for one person to read the written document out loud for the benefit of others. Indeed, for centuries it was a time-honored tradition for one person to read out loud for the benefit of an audience. Think of it as low-tech cinema.

Another surprise was the cost of books throughout most of history. These things were labor-intensive, and regularly cost hundreds to thousands of times as much as a worker's daily wage. There were cheap editions, scribbled on low-quality papyrus, costing less, but still, when a book has to be hand-written by a trained worker, it will be expensive. Nevertheless, the Romans were great readers as well as writers. An archaeological dig at a minor Roman fort in northern Britain unearthed a trove of two thousand letters and documents, written by officers, soldiers, and their wives.

Parchment was invented at the beginning of the Dark Ages, and it quickly replaced papyrus in Christendom when Egypt was conquered by Muslims. It was more expensive than papyrus but it lasted much longer, changing the attitude towards books. They were now items to be handed down from one generation to the next, and the concentration of reading in the churchmen insured that a good fraction of the huge mass of classical literature was preserved in lovingly prepared copies. The scriptorium where books were copied and stored was an important component of most monasteries.

I was especially interested in literacy rates at different times and places, and the author provides a goodly number of answers to my questions. For example, in late nineteenth-century China, literacy rates among males were between 30% and 45%. But in the West, literacy took a long time to recover from its peak of 10% in Roman times. In the High Middle Ages, literacy rates in cities were only 5%, and in the country they were essentially zero. However, the dawn of the Renaissance initiated a surge in literacy. It started in Italy, where the literacy was essential to any merchant or businessman. Here literacy rates were around 50% in Florence just before the Plague. By 1500, a few cities in Italy had literacy rates as high as 70%. This was, of course, exceptional for Europe, but Italy led the way in both the Renaissance and in literacy. By this time, however, the printing press began a new explosion of reading. Invented in 1455, by 1500 there were 1,700 printing presses in over 250 locations; they had cumulatively published over 27,000 known titles and about 10 million copies. Talk about an explosion!

European literacy blasted off. Encouraged by the religious obligation to read the Scriptures, Protestants learned to read in their millions; owning a Bible was considered an act of piety. The average European did not own many books; indeed, for centuries the Bible was the only book in most households. In 1642, 60% of English town dwellers could write their names, while only 38% of those in rural parishes could do so. Around 1790, the number of people who could sign their names to legal documents was as follows: 

New England: 84%

Virginia: 77%

Northern France: 71%

Southern France: 27%

England: 65%

Netherlands: 65%

Prussia: 40%

Educational programs, when pursued diligently, were surprisingly effective. In rural Russia, the literacy rate was about 15% in 1850. The Czar launched a school program and by 1900 the rural literacy rate was up to 30%; and Lenin made primary schooling a priority, achieving 89% literacy rates by 1939.

While the book provided me with much useful grist for contemplation about the development of human thought, I cannot recommend it to anybody for general reading. It's a slog, full of fascinating bits of information dug up from deep in archives and primary research. The author has certainly done his homework. Sadly, reading his book felt like homework.