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The Book as a Reader's Experience: Readers through Time

Books have always had readers. However the act of reading has changed over time. Saenger notes that reading requires specific cognitive skills for decoding text that depend on the structure of the language as well as how the language is transcribed.

Chartier (1994, 4) notes that

"all who can read texts do not read them in the same fashion... (there are) great differences between the norms and conventions of reading that define, for each community of readers, legitimate uses of the books, ways to read, and the instruments and methods of interpretation. Finally, there are differences between the expectations and interests that various groups of readers invest in the practice of reading."

Silent Reading

Beginning around the time of the printed book, reading shifted from an activity done aloud in a group to a silent, private activity. According to Paul Saenger (1997, 1) in Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading,

"Modern reading is a silent, solitary, and rapid activity. Ancient reading was usually oral, either aloud, in groups, or individually, in a muffled voice. Reading, like any human activity, has a history."

Prior to the 15th century, most reading was done aloud. According to Manguel (1996),

"Until well into the Middle Ages, writers assumed that their readers would hear rather than simply see the text, much as they themselves spoke their words out loud as they composed them. Since comparatively few people could read, public readings were common, and medieval texts repeatedly call upon the audience to "lend ears" to a tale. It may be that an ancestral echo of those reading practices persists in some of our idioms, as when we say, "I've heard from So-and-so" (meaning "I've received a letter"), or "So-and-so says" (meaning "So-and-so wrote"), or "This text doesn't sound right" (meaning "It isn't well written").

The "privatization" of reading was a major cultural development of the early modern era. Reading aloud was a slow process that relied on people coming together as a group. With silent reading, individuals could read faster and more easily internalize that they were reading. Chartier concluded that it was silent reading, not the invention of the printing press that created intellectual and psychological changes in society. In the chapter The Practical Impact of Writing, Chartier (1989) wrote that

"between 1500 and 1800 man's altered relation to the written word helped to create a new private sphere into which the individual could retreat, seeking refuge from the community.. (however) reading aloud, reading in groups for work or pleasure, did not cease with the arrival of silent and private reading."

da vinciReading and Writing

Throughout history, people have been inspired by the work of others.

In 1490, Leonardo da Vinci drew his famous impact of a male figure in a circle and square.

The drawing was accompanied by notes about human proportion and geometry that were described in Vitruviu's famous book De Architectura. The drawing is known as the Vitruvian Man after the author of the book.

The image on the left shows La Vinci's drawing.

Today, most people think about reading and writing together. If you can read, then you can write and visa versa. However, this hasn't always been the case.

Chartier, Roger (1989). The practical impact of writing. In, A History of Private Life, Volume 3: Passions of die Renaissance. Belknap Press. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Read McCutcheon, R W. (2015). Silent reading in antiquity and the future history of the book. Book History, 18, 1-32. IUPUI students can view the article online.

The Role of Eyeglasses in Reading

glassesA small, but contributing factor to reading for some individuals was the availability of eyeglasses. References can be found to eyeglasses as early as the 5th century BCE. In the 8th century, Abbas Ibn Firnas developed a process for converting sand into glass. As a result, reading stones were produced to magnify letters. In the 10th century, Alhazen described convex lens and is known as the father of modern optics. During the 13th centuries the first wearable glasses were produced. Roger Bacon described experimenting with varies lens recognizing their importance in assisting those with "weak eyes" as well as aging individuals.

The image on the right by Friedrich Herlin (1466) depicts Saint Peter with eyeglasses.

During the 15th century, eyeglasses were being used by artisans, monks, and scholars. Once printed books became more available, the demand for eyeglasses increased. During this time, "spectacle peddlers" sold eyeglasses. The possession of Florentine glasses was viewed as a status symbol. Eyeglasses became a sign of intelligence and nobility.

In 1604 that Johannes Kepler published Astronomiae Pars Optica, or The Optical Part of Astronomy explaining how lenses could correct both presbyopia and myopia that the science of eyeglasses really progressed. The Nuremberg Spectacle Makers' Guild was formed in 1535 making Germany the center of eyeglasses production.

Finally, Benjamin Franklin is credited with inventing the first bifocals in the 18th century.

15th through 17th Centuries

During the first few centuries of the printed book, the book became integrated into the fabric of society. The act of reading shifted from a few people with a scholarly background to an activity of all classes.

The elite weren't the only class to be interested in reading. From the beginning of the printing press, readers of all classes enjoyed the growing number of books available for lending and purchase. Chartier (1989, 125) stresses that some members of the upper classes were hostile toward printed books because those "who had hitherto enjoyed a monopoly of the production and discussion of knowledge" were forced to relinquish their power to the masses.

Margaret Spufford (1981, xvii) in Small Books and Pleasant Histories notes that primary source documents in small towns throughout Europe show that books were being purchased by a wide range of readers. Spufford is convinced that most historians of literacy have been too conservative in estimates of the spread of reading. The documentary evidence includes

"the tantalizing account of a pedlar selling 'lytle books' to, amongst other people, a patcher of old clothes in the outlying village of Balsham in 1578. Six years earlier the devotees of the Family of Love, who were spread out across Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely, had been reading their tracts in secret. In the late 1580s and 1590s a Jesuit, gaoled in Wisbech, was horrified to observe large groups of Puritans, including women and children, following texts in their Bibles."

Chapbooks were becoming increasingly common in the late 16th and 17th centuries. Samuel Pepys collected at least sixty-five titles between 1661 and 1688 many of which were publishing much earlier. The chapbooks were distributed by chapmen who sold books throughout the countryside.

Spufford (1981, 2) notes that

"The importance of reading may have been still marginal at a social level below that of the yeoman in a world in which the regular social functions were predominately oral. Yet increasingly the attended at church, at manor and at court, and even at market, would find the written and the printed word was physically present, if not actually necessary. The sheer volume of cheap print available after the Restoration was very great."

In the 1660s, enough almanacs were produced so that one family in three could be expected to buy one. By the end of the 17th century, enough chapbooks were produced for one of every fifteen households to have one (Spufford, 1981).

Early modern readers faced a difficult task in trying to determine the authenticity of the books they read.

"A central element in the reading of a printed work was likely to be a critical appraisal of its identity and its credit. Readers were not without resources for such an assessment. When they approached a given book, with them came knowledge about the purposes, status, and reliability of printed materials in general - knowledge they used to determine the appropriate kind and degree of faith to vest in this unfamiliar object. Yet here too they also brought to bear knowledge about kinds of people. Their worries about literary credit were often resolved, as a matter of everyday practice, into assessment of the people involved in the making, distribution, and reception of books" (Johns, 1998, 31).

18th-19th Century Reading

As novels became more prevalent, interest in reading grew. In Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America, Davidson (1986, 6)

"argues that a community of readers (men and women) turned to the novel as a way of participating in national debates on a range of problem that were both included and overlooked in the nation's founding documents. Novels addresses ideas (such as abolitionism and female suffrage) that did not survive the secretive and partisan process of compromise, codification, and ratification that resulted in adoption of the final draft of the Constitution. Novels, in a sense, were the rough drafts for a range of problems vital to everyday life, both in and out of the public sphere."

While many books were available through bookstores and libraries, those interested in reading books not sanctioned by the government had to seek out alternative ways to locate books. In The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, Darnton argued that reading banned books acquired through the underground press helped set off the French Revolution.

try itTry It!
Go to People in the World of Print. Work your way through the online exhibit exploring how people during the 18th through the 19th century interacted with print. Compare the experiences of people from different classes, genders, or stage in life.

During the Victorian era, books were a cause for class as well as health concerns. According to Price (2012), a member of the upper class might be concerned about a maid touching a book implying that contact might bring disease. As a result, servants often delivered letters, newspapers, magazines, and books on a tray. Of course the servant had to handle to book to get it on the tray, so the tradition was more of an act of status rather than a health practice.

As the 19th century ended and the 20th century began, reading had become an integral part of daily life for many people in both their working and home life.

The image below taken in 1897 is titled The Last Chapter.


The image below taken by Lewis Hine in 1924, depicts a boy studying.

boy reading


try itTry It!
Browse Spiro, Lisa (2003). Reading with a tender rapture: reveries of a bachelor and the rhetoric of detached intimacy. Book History, 6, 57-93. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Spiro begins her inquiry by examining illustration from the 19th century depicting readers. Spend some time seeking out images of readers during this time period. How do they fit with the other images you seen?

Looking for ideas? Go to NYPL or Library of Congress and do a search for reading books. Also explore the following collection: Reading: General Reading, 1800-1810, 1830-1880, 1870-1880, 1890-1900. You can also find lots of examples at Wikimedia Commons.

The bulk of Spiro's article focuses on the letters among fans and authors. Think about the role that letter writing and reading had during this time period.

20th-21st Century

Although reading remained popular in the 20th century, other media such as radio, film and television began to encroach on the time spent reading. In Scriptures for a Generation: What We Were Reading in the 60s, Philip Beidler (1995) suggests that the 1960s was "the end of the last great reading culture perhaps in... history."

By the end of the 20th century, reading continued to be a form of entertainment for a segment of the population. However competition from television, video games, and the Internet, had dramatically altered the number of active readers.

Many book historians are investigating how the act of reading has changed with the introduction of the electronic book.

Read Hayles, N. Katherine (2015). How we read: close, hyper, machine. In M. Levy & T. Mole, The Broadview Reader in Book History. Broadview Press, 491-510. IUPUI students can view the article online.


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