History of Reading

The earliest mentions of the written word were found sometime in 3400-3200 BC in Mesopotamia and 3200 BC in Egypt followed by the birth of punctuation by Irish monks in 900AD. That moment on, man has possessed the power to read pretty much everything. The status of reading however has evolved as much as man itself.

Interestingly, some themes related to reading some stood out as strikingly similar to our life of today. Bibliophiles beware, the material below is about to alter your perception of the world forever more.

Learning and Reading is Madness

The Act of Apostles 24:26 Festus to Paul “Thou art mad, Paul; much learning turns thee to madness” has been quoted time and time again to demonstrate that learning makes a person mad. As I considered this some more, I came across a quote from16th Century French philosopher Montaige

“How poor is the proficiency that is merely bookish”

and then 19th Century French psychiatrist Lauvergue who opined

“the most unreformed criminals are all educated”

This isn’t so different from the world today then, is it? Even today we speak of such a thing as too much learning distorting an individual’s ability to conform to societal norms. Haven’t we all been a part of a conversation where someone’s unusual perspective was put down to being too learned. Perhaps the most relevant example is that people expect writers and scientists to be “strange” owing to their love and constant quest for knowledge. Have we apples of today really fallen that far from the tree?

Silent Reading and The Rise Of The Individual

In First Steps Toward A History Of Reading Historian Robert Darnton notes that up until the 17th Century reading was a social activity pursued in workshops, barns and taverns. That it was “oral but not edifying” summing up the de-merits of community reading most aptly. By making approved literature available to be read to people, the powers that be had formed an impression of free flow and availability of information. “Formed an impression” denoting the opacities of this process; the material was carefully censored and an oral medium of delivery didn’t allow for enough time to contemplate.

This brought to mind the media outlets of today which claim “unbiased journalism” and yet are often heavily inclined towards one point of view. If one is provided information orally, in passing and representing only one point of view, one can be easily manipulated. When one takes the time to read the same piece of news, one may yet form a different opinion. This is akin to the difference silent reading brought to the common man. As soon as people were able to peruse the written word themselves they perceived things differently. Thus, giving rise to solitary gratification, distinctive perspectives and a desire for individuality.

Non Non Non…..Reading is Simply Affreuse

Renaissance doctors believed that having your nose in a book was bad for the humours. Book based learning was derided in a multitude of ways from composing poetry to that end to coming up with medical conditions to blame on books. As new diseases “emerge” so do the “cures” which in this case also enjoyed a wide range from botany, gardening, scouting for boys, refrain from mental stimuli and going so far as committing people to institutions for “bibliomania”.

18th century Manchester based Scottish physician John Ferriar wrote:

 “What wild desired, what restless torments seize

The hapless man, who feels the book disease”

19th Century Sir George Henry prescribed the bookless cure to Virginia Woolf as did Dr Silas Weir Mitchell to Charlotte Perkins Gilman causing more agony than cure in both. Victorian Psychiatrist Thomas Clouston believed that women who read, scarcely had more than 1-2 children and those too would suffer ill health and early death.

Bibliomania was the poison of the day back then replaced by social media now. When we see people with their noses buried in their phones we endeavour to educate them on the dangers of the habit. It is called an illness and an unsanitary hobby destined to ruin our mind beyond repair. How strikingly similar is that to the treatment of books in the past!

In conclusion, we may be evolving, growing and changing all the time but our basic instincts never change. We abhor and adore everything new in equal measures, some of us fight change with all that we have and in hindsight we always cogitate that we had it wrong.