Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A History of Reading?

On a recent visit to the Odyssey Bookshop, I picked up a free copy of the semiannual newsletter of The Massachusetts Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies, part of UMass Amherst. For a free newsletter, this was a rather hefty tome, filled with intelligent articles. I greatly enjoyed my time perusing this publication. Just reading it made me feel smart, even if I didn't understand all the scholarly topics!

One of the articles was "The Protean Virgil: Book History and the Reception of the Classics in the Renaissance" which was the text of The Classical Legacy Lecture delivered on November 19, 2013. In it, Craig Kallendorf discussed, among other things, the way that reading has changed over the ages. For example, in the 1500s, students were encouraged to write in their books, making comments on the passages as they read, focusing intently on each part. In contrast, today students are usually encouraged to look for the big picture.

Part of this is due to the fact that there were far fewer books available to the general public. The small number of texts that were available were read intensively. With the advent of the printing press, more books became available and the transition to a less-intense (in general) style of reading commenced. By the 18th century, "extensive reading had become the norm." Being well-read and broadly read was now more important than knowing a few texts intimately. 

Kallendorf commented on how today's world has created a different type of reading as well, describing it as a "continuation of the process." We read on-line "in short, very rapid bursts, in a way that would simply not make sense in the Renaissance."

It is an interesting process to think about. While I certainly wouldn't want to go back five hundred years in time and only have access to a few books, I did complete the vast amount of my education in the pre-internet era which meant that I learned and read differently than I do now. There is something to be said for the ability to focus on a single text, to study deeply and reflect, that perhaps we have lost in our instant information world.

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