Categories
Intellectual history

What the Digital Dark Age Can Teach Us About Ancient Technologies of Writing

Editors’ Note: due to the disruption of academic networks and institutions caused by the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, JHIBlog will shift to once-a-week publication for the time being, supplemented by a selection of older posts from our archives. We are grateful for our readers’ understanding, and hope to resume normal scheduling as soon as possible.

By guest contributors Sara Mohr and Edward C. Williams

In contemporary science fiction it is hard to avoid the trope of an archaeologist or explorer unearthing a piece of ancient advanced technology and finding that it still functions. This theme may have its roots in the way we often encounter artifacts from the ancient world—decayed but functional or legible, as material culture and/or as carriers of written language. However, the prototypical “ancient technology” in fiction often resembles the electronic information technology of our modern age. Keeping our modern technology active and functional requires orders of magnitude more energy than the neglect implied by ancient ruins—delivery of spare parts fueled by cheap energy, complex schematics and repair manuals, and even remote connections to far-off servers. The idea that our technology would work hundreds of years in our future without significant intervention is unbelievable. In a certain sense, a Mesopotamian clay tablet is far more similar to the ancient advanced technology found in media—if it’s in good enough condition, you can pick it up and use it thousands of years later.

Will the archaeologists of the future see the information storage of the digital age not as sources of knowledge about our time, but undecipherable black boxes?  The general problem of data preservation is twofold: the first is preservation itself and the second is the comprehensibility of the data. The BBC Domesday Project recorded a survey of British life in the 20th century on adapted LaserDiscs—a format that, ironically, requires considerable emulation (the process of enabling a computer to use material intended for another kind of computer) efforts to reproduce on a modern machine only 35 years later. This kind of information loss is often referred to as the coming of the Digital Dark Age (Bollacker, “Avoiding a Digital Dark Age”). Faced with the imposing pressure of a potential Digital Dark Age and the problematic history of modern data storage technology, perhaps it is time to rethink our understanding of ancient technology and the cultures of the past who were able to make their data last long into the future.

Scholars of the Ancient Near East are intimately familiar with the loss and recovery of written information. Our sources, written in the wedge-shaped script called cuneiform, are numerous and frequently legible despite being thousands of years old. Once the scribal practice that transmitted the script was interrupted, considerable scholarly work was required to reconstruct it, but the fundamental media of data storage—the clay tablets—were robust. Even then, many valuable tablets have been lost due to mishandling or improper storage. Despite the durability of the medium, once the system of replicating, handling, understanding, and deliberately preserving these tablets were lost much information was lost as well.

But cuneiform writing is more than just the act of impressing words onto clay with a reed stylus; it is deeply rooted in the actions and culture of specific groups of people. This notion is certainly true of technology as a whole. An interrelationship exists between all elements of a society, and each constituent element cannot be considered or evaluated without the context of the whole (Bertalanffy, General Systems Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications, 4). Rather than focus on the clay and the reeds, it is necessary to take into account the entire “socio-technical system” that governs the interaction of people and technology (Schäfer, Bastard Culture! How User Participation Transforms Cultural Production, 18). Comparative studies of cuneiform writing and digital technology as socio-technical systems can inspire further insight into understanding ancient technology and illuminating why it is that humble cuneiform writing on clay tablets was such a successful method of projecting information into the future, as well as informing us about the possible future of our contemporary data storage.

Only recently have those who work regularly with cuneiform tablets studied the technology of cuneiform.  Cuneiform styli could be made of various materials: reed, bone, bronze, or even precious metals (Cammarosano, “The Cuneiform Stylus,” 62). Reed styli were the most common for their advantageous glossy, waterproof outer skin that prevented them from absorbing humidity and sticking to the clay. Another key part of scribal training was learning the art of forming tablets by levigating and kneading raw clay (Taylor and Cartwright, “The Making and Re-Making of Clay Tablets,” 298), then joining lumps of clay together in a grid pattern or by wrapping an outer sheet of clay around a core of a thin piece of folded clay (Taylor, “Tablets as Artefacts, Scribes as Artisans,” 11).

But cuneiform technology goes beyond the stylus and tablet and must include the transmission of cuneiform literacy itself. Hundreds of thousands of legible cuneiform tablets have been found and documented to date, with many more in the processes of being excavated. With such perishable materials as clay tablets and organic styli, how is it possible that these texts have survived for thousands of years? Surprisingly, the answer may lie in how we think about modern technology, data preservation, and our fears of losing records to the Digital Dark Age.

The problem is growing worse, with more recent media demonstrating shorter lifespans compared to older media. We see a variety of different projects that look back to older forms of information storage as a stop-gap between now and the possibility of a Digital Dark Age. For example, The Rosetta Project, from the Long Now Foundation, has been collecting examples of various languages to store on a 3-inch diameter nickel disc through microscopic etching. With minimal care (and the survival of microscopy), it could last and be legible for thousands of years.

We tend to think that a return to older forms of information storage will solve the problem of the Digital Dark Age—after all, the ancient technology of stylus + clay preserved Mesopotamian data neatly into the modern era. However, such thinking results from an incomplete understanding of the function of technology as it applies to the past. Technology is more than just machinery; it is a human activity involving technological aspects as well as cultural aspects interwoven and shaping one another (Stahl, “Venerating the Black Box: Magic in Media Discourse on Technology,” 236). Regardless of the medium or time period, the data life cycle largely stays the same. First, people generate data, which is then collected and processed. Following processing comes storage and possibly analysis.

But in the end, we always have humans (Wing, “The Data Life Cycle”).

Humans are the key to why information written in cuneiform on clay survived as long as it did.  In ancient Mesopotamia, scribal culture meant copying the contents of clay tablets repeatedly for both practice and preservation. There are texts we know from only one copy, yet in order for that copy to survive several other copies had to have existed. The clay and the stylus did not ensure the preservation of cuneiform information—it was the people and their scribal practice.

It is somewhat surprising that the discussion of ancient technology has not yet embraced the social aspect that accompanies the machinery, especially when we so readily acknowledge its impact on modern technology. To avoid losing electronic data, users are exhorted to intercede and make regular backup copies. We also find that the history of obsolete technology is based in innovative technology that died as a result of socioeconomic pressures (Parikka, “Inventing Pasts and Futures: Speculative Design and Media Archaeology,” 227). The technology was perfectly sound, but it was never a good match to the social and economic times of its release.

This need for protection from loss largely comes from the idea that “electronic writing does not have the permanence of a clay tablet” (Gnanadesikan, The Writing Revolution: Cuneiform to the Internet, 268). However, those of us who work with clay tablets are more than aware of the frightening impermanence of the medium. We are well acquainted with the experience of opening a box meant to contain a cuneiform object only to find that it has been reduced to a bag of dust. It has been said that more redundancy usually means less efficiency, but that does not hold for all circumstances. Mesopotamian scholars generated redundancy through productive training, and we now look to redundancy to save our digital future. However, redundancy was not a part of the physical technology, but rather the surrounding cultures that used it.

At its core, writing is an information technology. It is a system of communication developed for use by particular groups of people. In the case of cuneiform, the scribe who wrote the latest known datable cuneiform tablet composed an astronomical text in 75 AD (Geller, “The Last Wedge,” 45). Despite being able to date its final use, the last wedge, we are still able to read and understand Akkadian cuneiform today. However, it was not the process of incising the wedge itself that made this continuity possible. Rather, it was the scribal culture of ancient Mesopotamia that committed to copying and re-copying over the course of millennia.

The possibility of a Digital Dark Age has the world thinking of ways in which we can adjust our cultural practice around technology. Examples from Mesopotamia highlight the importance of the connection between human activity and machinery in technology. We would do well as historians to take notice of this trend and use it as an inspiration for expanding how we study ancient technology like cuneiform writing to incorporate more on human attitudes alongside the clay and the reeds.

Sara Mohr is a PhD student in Assyriology at Brown University. Her research spans from digital methods of studying the ancient world to the social function of secrecy and hidden writing. 

Edward Williams (Brown ‘17.5) is a software engineer at Qulab, Inc, working on machine learning and computational chemistry software for drug discovery. He acts as a technical consultant for the DeepScribe project at the OI, developing machine learning pipelines for automated cuneiform transcription.

Categories
Think Piece

Reading Saint Augustine in Toledo

By Editor Spencer J. Weinreich

1024px-Antonio_Rodríguez_-_Saint_Augustine_-_Google_Art_Project
Antonio Rodríguez, Saint Augustine

In his magisterial history of the Reformation, Diarmaid MacCulloch wrote, “from one perspective, a century or more of turmoil in the Western Church from 1517 was a debate in the mind of long-dead Augustine.” MacCulloch riffs on B. B. Warfield’s pronouncement that “[t]he Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church” (111). There can be no denying the centrality to the Reformation of Thagaste’s most famous son. But Warfield’s “triumph” is only half the story—forgivably so, from the last of the great Princeton theologians. Catholics, too, laid claim to Augustine’s mantle. Not least among them was a Toledan Jesuit by the name of Pedro de Ribadeneyra, whose particular brand of personal Augustinianism offers a useful tonic to the theological and polemical Augustine.

ribadeneyra_retrato_index
Pedro de Ribadeneyra

To quote Eusebio Rey, “I do not believe there were many religious writers of the Siglo de Oro who internalized certain ascetical aspects of Saint Augustine to a greater degree than Ribadeneyra” (xciii). Ribadeneyra translated the Confessions, the Soliloquies, and the Enchiridion, as well as the pseudo-Augustinian Meditations. His own works of history, biography, theology, and political theory are filled with citations, quotations, and allusions to the saint’s oeuvre, including such recondite texts as the Contra Cresconium and the Answer to an Enemy of the Laws and the Prophets. In short, like so many of his contemporaries, Ribadeneyra invoked Augustine as a commanding authority on doctrinal and philosophical issues. But there is another component to Ribadeneyra’s Augustinianism: his spiritual memoir, the Confesiones.

Composed just before his death in September 1611, Ribadeneyra’s Confesiones may be the first memoir to borrow Augustine’s title directly (Pabel 456). Yet, a title does not a book make. How Augustinian are the Confesiones?

Pierre Courcelle, the great scholar of the afterlives of Augustine’s Confessions, declared that “the Confesiones of the Jesuit Ribadeneyra seem to have taken nothing from Augustine save the form of a prayer of praise” (379). Of this commonality there can be no doubt: Ribadeneyra effuses with gratitude to a degree that rivals Augustine. “These mercies I especially acknowledge from your blessed hand, and I praise and glorify you, and implore all the courtiers of heaven that they praise and forever thank you for them” (21). Like the Confessions, the Confesiones are written as “an on-going conversation with God to which […] readers were deliberately made a party” (Pabel 462). That said, reading the two side-by-side reveals deeper connections, as the Jesuit borrows from Augustine’s life story in narrating his own.

Though Ribadeneyra could not recount flirtations with Manicheanism or astrology, he could follow Augustine in subjecting his childhood to unsparing critique. His early years furnished—whose do not?—sufficient petty rebellions to merit Augustinian laments for “the passions and awfulness of my wayward nature” (5–6). In one such incident, Pedro stubbornly demands milk as a snack; enraged by his mother’s refusal, he runs from the house and begins roughhousing with his friends, resulting in a broken leg. Sin inspired by a desire for dairy sets up an echo of Augustine’s rebuke of

the jealousy of a small child: he could not even speak, yet he glared with livid fury at his fellow-nursling. […] Is this to be regarded as innocence, this refusal to tolerate a rival for a richly abundant fountain of milk, at a time when the other child stands in greatest need of it and depends for its very life on this food alone? (I.7,11)

Luis_Tristán_de_Escamilla_-_St_Monica_-_WGA23069
Luis Tristán, Santa Monica

Ribadeneyra’s mother, Catalina de Villalobos, unsurprisingly plays the role of Monica, the guarantor of his Catholic future (while pregnant, Catalina vows that her son will become a cleric). She was not the only premodern woman to be thus canonized by her son: Jean Gerson tells us that his mother, Élisabeth de la Charenière, was “another Monica” (400n10).

Leaving Toledo, Pedro comes to Rome, which was cast as one of Augustine’s perilous earthly cities. Hilmar Pabel points out that the Jesuit’s description of the city as “Babylonia” imitates Augustine’s jeremiad against Thagaste as “Babylon” (474). Like its North African predecessor, this Italian Babylon threatens the soul of its young visitor. Foremost among these perils are teachers: in terms practically borrowed from the Confessions, Ribadeneyra decries “those who ought to be masters, [who] are seated in the throne of pestilence and teach a pestilent doctrine, and not only do not punish the evil they see in their vassals and followers, but instead favor and encourage them by their authority” (7–8).

After Ribadeneyra left for Italy, Catalina’s duties as Monica passed to Ignatius of Loyola, who combined them with those of Ambrose of Milan—the father-figure and guide encountered far from home . Like Ambrose, Ignatius acts como padre, one whose piety is the standard that can never be met, who combines affection with correction.

1024px-Ignatius_of_Loyola_(militant)
A young Ignatius of Loyola

The narrative climax of the Confessions is Augustine’s tortured struggle culminating in his embrace of Christianity. No such conversion could be forthcoming for Ribadeneyra, its place taken by tentacion, an umbrella term encapsulating emotional upheavals, doubts over his vocation, the fantasy of returning to Spain, and resentment of Ignatius. Famously, Augustine agonizes until he hears a voice that seems to instruct him, tolle lege (VIII.29). Ribadeneyra structures the resolution of his own crises in analogous fashion, his anxieties dissolved by a single utterance of Ignatius’s: “I beg of you, Pedro, do not be ungrateful to one who has shown you so many kindnesses, as God our Lord.” “These words,” Ribadeneyra tells us, “were as powerful as if an angel come from heaven had spoken them,” his tentacion forever banished (37).

I am not suggesting Ribadeneyra fabricated these incidents in order to claim an Augustinian mantle. But the choices of what to include and how to narrate his Confesiones were shaped, consciously and unconsciously, by Augustine’s example.

Ribadeneyra’s story also diverges from its Late Antique model, and at times the contrast is such as to favor the Jesuit, however implicitly. Ribadeneyra professes an unmistakably early modern Marian piety that has no equivalent in Augustine. Where Monica is reassured by a vision of “a young man of radiant aspect” (III.11,19), Catalina de Villalobos makes her vow to vuestra sanctíssima Madre y Señora nuestra (3). Augustine addresses his gratitude to “my God, my God and my Lord” (I.2, 2), while Ribadeneyra, who mentions his travels to Marian shrines like Loreto, is more likely to add the Virgin to his exclamations: “and in particular I implored your most glorious virgin-mother, my exquisite lady, the Virgin Mary” (11). The Confessions mention Mary only twice, solely as the conduit for the Incarnation (IV.12, 19; V.10, 20). Furthermore, Ribadeneyra’s early conquest of his tentaciones produces a much smoother path than Augustine’s erratic embrace of Christianity; thus the Jesuit declares, “I never had any inclination for a way of life other than that I have” (6). His rhapsodic praise of chastity—“when could I praise you enough for having bound me with a vow to flee the filthiness of the flesh and to consecrate my body and soul to you in a clean and sweet sacrifice” (46)—is far cry from the infamous “Make me chaste, Lord, but not yet” (VIII.17)

When Ribadeneyra translated Augustine’s Confessions into Spanish in 1596, his paratexts lauded Augustine as the luz de la Iglesia and God’s signal gift to the Church. There is no hint—anything else would have been highly inappropriate—of equating himself with Augustine, whose ingenio was “either the greatest or one of the greatest and most excellent there has ever been in the world.” As a last word, however, Ribadeneyra mentions the previous Spanish version, published in 1554 by Sebastián Toscano. Toscano was not a native speaker, “and art can never equal nature, and so his style could not match the dignity and elegance of our language.” It falls to Ribadeneyra, in other words, to provide the Hispanophone world with the proper text of the Confessions; without ever saying so, he positions himself as a privileged interpreter of Augustine.

The Confessions is a profoundly personal text, perhaps the seminal expression of Christian subjectivity—told in a searingly intense first-person. Ribadeneyra himself writes that in the Confessions “is depicted, as in a masterful portrait painted from life, the heavenly spirit of Saint Augustine, in all its colors and shades.” Without wandering into the trackless wastes of psychohistory, it must have been a heady experience for so devoted a reader of Augustine to compose—all translation being composition—the life and thought of the great bishop.

Ribadeneyra was of course one of many Augustinians in early modern Europe, part of an ongoing Catholic effort to reclaim the Doctor from the Protestants, but we will misunderstand his dedication if we regard the saint as no more than a prime piece of symbolic real estate. For scholars of early modern Augustinianism have rooted the Church Father in philosophical schools and the cut-and-thrust of confessional conflict. To MacCulloch and Warfield we might add Meredith J. Gill, Alister McGrath, Arnoud Visser, and William J. Bouwsma, for whom early modern thought was fundamentally shaped by the tidal pulls of two edifices, Augustinianism and Stoicism.

There can be no doubt that Ribadeneyra was convinced of Augustine’s unimpeachable Catholicism and opposition to heresy—categories he had no hesitation in mapping onto Reformation-era confessions. Equally, Augustine profoundly influenced his own theology. But beyond and beneath these affinities lay a personal bond. Augustine, who bared his soul to a degree unmatched among the Fathers, was an inspiration, in the most immediate sense, to early modern believers. Like Ignatius, the bishop of Hippo offered Ribadeneyra a model for living.

That early modern individuals took inspiration from classical, biblical, and late antique forebears is nothing new. Bruce Gordon writes that, influenced by humanist notions of emulation, “through intensive study, prayer and conduct [John] Calvin sought to become Paul” (110). Mutatis mutandis, the sentiment applies to Ribadeneyra and Augustine. Curiously, Stephen Greenblatt’s seminal Renaissance Self-Fashioning does not much engage with emulation, concerning itself with self-fashioning as creation ad nihilum—that is to say, a new self, not geared toward an existing model (Greenblatt notes in passing, and in contrast, the tradition of imitatio Christi). Ribadeneyra, in reading, translating, interpreting, citing, and imitating Augustine, was fashioning a self after another’s image. As his Catholicized Confesiones indicate, this was not a slavish and literal-minded adherence to each detail. He recognized the great gap of time that separated him from his hero, changes that demanded creativity and alteration in the fashioning of a self. This need not be a thought-out or even conscious plan, but simply the cumulative effect of a lifetime of admiration and inspiration. Without denying Ribadeneyra’s formidable mind or his fervent Catholicism, there is something to be gained from taking emotional significance as our starting point, from which to understand all the intellectual and personal work the Jesuit, and others of his time, could accomplish through a hero.

Categories
Think Piece

Humanist Pedagogy and New Media

by contributing editor Robby Koehler

Writing in the late 1560s, humanist scholar Roger Ascham found little to praise in the schoolmasters of early modern England.  In his educational treatise The Scholemaster, Asham portrays teachers as vicious, lazy, and arrogant.  But even worse than the inept and cruel masters were the textbooks, which, as Ascham described them, were created specifically to teach students improper Latin: “Two schoolmasters have set forth in print, either of them a book [of vulgaria] . . ., Horman and Whittington.  A child shall learn of the better of them, that, which another day, if he be wise, and come to judgement, he must be fain to unlearn again.”  What were these books exactly? And if they were so unfit for use in the classroom, then why did English schoolmasters still use them to teach students?  Did they enjoy watching students fail and leaving them educationally impoverished?

Actually, no. Then, as now, school teachers did not always make use of the most effective methods of instruction, but their choice to use the books compiled by Horman and Whittington was not based in a perverse reluctance to educate their students.  Ascham sets up a straw man here about the dismal state of Latin teaching in England to strengthen the appeal of his own pedagogical ideas.  As we will see, the books by Horman and Whittington, colloquially known as “vulgaria” or “vulgars” in schools of the early modern period, were a key part of an earlier Latin curriculum that was in the process of being displaced by the steady adoption of Humanist methods of Latin study and instruction and the spread of printed books across England.  Looking at these books, Ascham could see only the failed wreckage of a previous pedagogical logic, not the vital function such books had once served.  His lack of historical cognizance and wilful mischaracterization of previous pedagogical texts and practices are an early example of an argumentative strategy that has again become prevalent as the Internet and ubiquitous access to computers has led pundits to argue for the death of the book in schools and elsewhere.  Yet, as we will see, the problem is often not so much with books as much as with what students and teachers are meant to do with them.

“Vulgaria” were initially a simple solution to a complicated problem: how to help students learn to read and write Latin and English with the limited amount of paper or parchment available in most English schools.  According to literary scholar Chris Cannon, by the fifteenth century, many surviving notebooks throughout England record pages of paired English and Latin sentence translations.  It seems likely that students would receive a sentence in Latin, record it, and then work out how to translate it into English.  Once recorded, students held onto these notebooks as both evidence of their learning and as a kind of impromptu reference for future translations.  In the pre-print culture of learning, then, vulgaria were evidence of a learning process, the material embodiment of a student’s slow work of absorbing and understanding the mechanics of both writing and translation.

The advent of printing fundamentally transformed this pedagogical process.  Vulgaria were among the first books printed in England, and short 90-100 page vulgaria remained a staple of printed collections of Latin grammatical texts up to the 1530s.  Once in print, vulgaria ceased to be a material artifact of an educational process and now became an educational product for the use of students who were literate in either English or Latin to use while working on translations.  The culture of early modern English schools comes through vividly in these printed collections, often closing the distance between Tudor school rooms and our own.  For example, in the earliest printed vulgaria compiled by John Anwykyll, one can learn how to confess to a fellow student’s lackadaisical pursuit of study: “He studied never one of those things more than another.” Or a student might ask after a shouting match “Who made all of this trouble among you?”  Thus, in the early era of print, these books remained tools for learning Latin as a language of everyday life. It was Latin for school survival, not for scholarly prestige.

As Humanism took hold in England, vulgaria changed too, transforming from crib-books for beginning students to reference books for the use of students and masters, stuffed full of Humanist erudition and scholarship.  Humanist schoolmasters found the vulgaria a useful instrument for demonstrating their extensive reading and, occasionally, advancing their career prospects.  William Horman, an older schoolmaster and Fellow at Eton, published a 656 page vulgaria (about 5 times as long as the small texts for students) in 1519, offering it as a product of idle time that, in typical Humanist fashion, he published only at the insistence of his friends.  Yet, Horman’s book was still true to its roots in the school room, containing a melange of classical quotations alongside the traditional statements and longer dialogues between schoolmasters and students.

By the 1530s, most of the first wave of printed vulgaria went out of print, likely because they did not fit with the new Humanist insistence that the speaking and writing of Latin be more strictly based on classical models.  Vulgaria would have looked increasingly old-fashioned, and their function in helping students adapt to the day-to-day rigors of the Latinate schoolroom were likely lost in the effort to separate, elevate, and purify the Latin spoken and written by students and teachers alike.  Nothing more embodied this transformation that Nicholas Udall’s vulgaria Flowers for Latin Speaking (1533), which was made up exclusively of quotations from the playwright Terence, with each sentence annotated with the play, act, and scene from which the sentence was excerpted.

Loeb Facing Page Translation
Terence. Phormio, The Mother-In-Law, The Brothers. Ed. John Sargeaunt. Loeb Classical Library.  New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1920.  https://archive.org/details/L023NTerenceIIPhormioTheMotherInLawTheBrothers   

The vulgaria as printed crib-book passed out of use in the schoolroom after about 1540, so why was Ascham still so upset about their use in 1568 when he was writing The Schoolmaster?  By that time, Ascham could assume that many students had access to approved Humanist grammatical texts and a much wider variety of printed matter in Latin.  In a world that had much less difficulty gaining obtaining both print and paper, the vulgaria would seem a strange pedagogical choice indeed.  Ascham’s own proposed pedagogical practices assumed that students would have a printed copy of one or more classical authors and at least two  blank books for their English and Latin writing, respectively.  Whereas the vulgaria arose from a world of manuscript practice and a straitened economy of textual scarcity, Ascham’s own moment had been fundamentally transformed by the technology of print and the Humanist effort to recover, edit, and widely disseminate the works of classical authors.  Ascham could take for granted that students worked directly with printed classical texts and that they would make use of Humanist methods of commonplacing and grammatical analysis that themselves relied upon an ever-expanding array of print and manuscript materials and practices.  In this brave new world, the vulgaria and its role in manuscript and early print culture were alien holdovers of a bygone era.

Of course, Ascham’s criticism of the vulgaria is also typical of Humanist scholars, who often distanced themselves from their  predecessors and to assert importance and correctness of their own methods.  Ironically, this was exactly what William Horman was doing when he published his massive volume of vulgaria – exemplifying and monumentalizing his own erudition and study while also demonstrating the inadequacy of previous, much shorter efforts. Ascham’s rejection of vulgaria must be seen as part of the larger intergenerational Humanist pattern of disavowing and dismissing the work of predecessors who could safely be deemed inadequate to make way for one’s own contribution.  Ascham is peculiarly modern in this respect, arguing that introducing new methods of learning Latin can reform the institution of the school in toto.  One is put in mind of modern teachers who argue that the advent of the Internet or of some set of methods that the Internet enables will fundamentally transform the way education works.

In the end, the use of vulgaria was not any more related to the difficulties of life in the classroom or the culture of violence in early modern schools than any other specific pedagogical practice or object.  But, as I’ve suggested, Ascham’s claim that the problems of education can be attributed not to human agents but to the materials they employ is an argument that has persisted into the present.  In this sense, Ascham’s present-mindedness suggests the need to take care in evaluating seemingly irrelevant or superfluous pedagogical processes or materials.  Educational practices are neither ahistorical nor acontextual, they exist in institutional and individual time, and they bear the marks of both past and present exigencies in their deployment.  When we fail to recognize this, we, like Ascham, mischaracterize their past and present value and will likely misjudge how best to transform our educational institutions and practices to meet our own future needs.

Categories
Think Piece

The Revival of Harper’s Weekly, 1974-1976

 by Erin McGuirl

The story of the revival of Harper’s Weekly, a magazine published from 1857 to 1916 and then 1974 to 1976, begins with William (Willie) Morris. As Editor-in-Chief of the Monthly from 1967 to 1971, Morris changed the tone of Harper’s Monthly by publishing long-form, liberal-minded pieces by writers like Norman Mailer and William Styron. In 1971, magazine owner John Cowles, Jr. pressured Morris to take it easy, blaming his lefty writers for driving away advertising revenue. Morris refused, and much like the mass resignation of editors at The New Republic in 2014, many of Harper’s best writers, including Mailer, Syron, and Bill Moyers, walked out with him, leaving behind a lot of big shoes to fill.

Hired four months after Morris’s departure with his staff, Editor-in-Chief Robert Shnayerson (formerly of Time) needed to retain the interest of the new readership built up under his predecessor’s leadership without driving away much needed ad revenue. Enter Tony Jones, and a new section in the magazine: WRAPAROUND. First appearing in 1973, WRAPAROUND, edited by Jones, was a riff on the Whole Earth Catalog. In fact, there’s a direct link between the two, because Stewart Brand and the Catalog were the cover story of the April 1974 issue, and guest editor of WRAPAROUND. Like the Catalog, WRAPAROUND published reviews of tools for living and solicited content directly from it’s readers. “Above all,” Jones wrote in his first editorial, “the WRARPOUND invites your participation. …[We] would like you to think of these pages as an extension of your own processes of discovery, as a place to contribute whatever information, perspectives, resources, and conclusions you have found valuable in your own life – and share them with all Harper’s readers.” This is a page taken directly from the Whole Earth playbook. Stewart Brand and his team published regular Supplements to the Catalog that included content (fiction, poetry, and non-fiction) solicited directly from readers. Anyone could submit their own work for publication in both the Supplement and the Catalogs, and all printed contributors were paid for the work. And very much like the Catalog, each WRAPAROUND included an order form, so that readers could order anything they read about in the magazine directly from Harper’s offices.

Untitled2
From the Library of the New-York Historical Society.

WRAPAROUND must have been popular with reader/writers, because Harper’s Weekly: A Journal of Civilization was revived in 1974 using the one-year-old Harper’s segment as its model. Announcement of the weekly was something of a media stunt: Jones placed ads in local newspapers around the country similar to this full-page editorial/ad he published in The New Republic, explaining that he was reviving the Weekly, and he intended to exclusively publish content written by its readers. Here’s a summary of his intentions, in his own words:

“I want to offer a variety of communications from real people about just anything. … In a real sense, this communication would be a collection of points of view. A swath of our consciousness. An ongoing biopsy of our civilization. … So I’ve decided to revive the famous HARPER’S WEEKLY, a national newspaper that flourished concurrently with Harper’s Magazine from 1857 to 1916. The people who ran it had the temerity to call it ‘a journal of civilization.’ Well, that is exactly what I have in mind for the new Harper’s Weekly.”

As in the Whole Earth Catalog, writers would be paid for submissions that wound up in print; $25+ for features (a relative value of $116-140 in 2017 when calculated as labor earnings), $15 for items published in the “Running Commentary” section, $10 for “clippings, quotes, or other research material (please include primary sources.)”

Untitled
The Harper’s Weekly offices in New York, published in the magazine. From the Library of the New-York Historical Society.

Published from November 1974 to May 1976, the revived Harper’s Weekly is an extraordinary body of work. Readers from all over the country submitted more content than Jones and his team of editors could use (more on that in a minute), and the editorial board was in constant communication with its writer-readers through the printed magazine. In April of 1975, Harper’s Weekly published a frank editorial about its design, admitting that it had not yet achieved the quality and uniformity it aimed for.  They published readers’ suggestions for improvement of the layout, logo, and typeface, and invited anyone to join their ongoing conversation. Perusing issues of the Weekly, one sees the staff working with new ideas – using larger typefaces, experimenting with heading styles and graphics, and moving regular sections from one page to another. Under Jones’ direction, however, they never abandoned the Harper’s Weekly 19th century masthead, and the paper’s tagline, “America’s Reader-Written Newspaper” always appeared in bold nearby.

The reader-contributed articles often focused on local or obscure issues. An issue highlighting the world of the American snake handler featured interviews with self-ordained Reverend Carl Porter of Cartersville, Georgia, snake handler Robert F. Wise, Jr. of Charleston, West Virginia, and William E. Haast, director of the Miami Serpentarium. Another reader, Robert Cassidy of Chicago, profiled Laurie Brandt and Julian Sereno in “Turning Words into Type,” an article describing their one-room typesetting business, Serbra Type. These young entrepreneurs were the compositors behind University of Chicago publications like Current Anthropology. The Weekly established regular departments, notably a Critics Corp that featured regular reviews of movies, books, records, television shows, organizations, and conferences.  They even printed a Critics Card that readers could clip from the magazine and present at an event, and printed readers’ accounts of what happened when they tried using it. Alongside this diverse and unusual content – which is remarkably well written – the revived Weekly featured ads by major corporations. Mobil, the Bell Telephone Company, and Smith Corona all bought prominent space.

The journal reported on its operations in both issues of December 1975. The Weekly received 125,000 mailed submissions, and printed 3 million copies of the magazine for distribution by subscription and in newsstands. Jones and his team also published a remarkable account of its readership, including demographic information (gender, educational background, income, marital status, employment) gathered from a survey completed by more than half of the randomly selected sample of 2,000 subscribers (a response rate of more than 50% is remarkable), and compared that to information collected in similar surveys of subscribers to Time, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.

In 1976, however, something changed in the Weekly, and at Harper’s. That year, Lewis Lapham replayed Robert Shnayerson as editor in Chief, and the Weekly gradually declined and died. The issue for the weeks of May 10 and 17 appeared on newsstands without the historic 19th century  masthead. The large photographic image on the cover, the typography, and the layout were unmistakably different from everything that came before it; most importantly, however, the “America’s Reader-Written Newspaper” tagline was conspicuously missing. A notice appeared on the first page of the paper:

IMG_5995
Harper’s Weekly, Weeks of May 10 and 17, 1975. From the Library of the New-York Historical Society.

Inside the paper, long feature-length articles with prominent bylines replaced the shorter pieces. Peter McCabe, an editor at both Harper’s and Rolling Stone, took over as Editor of the Weekly, but it wasn’t the same magazine after Jones left because its core mission to publish the work of the common reader had been abandoned. The Weekly ceased publication sometime in the late summer or fall of 1976.

Those familiar with John McMillian’s Smoking Typewriters might read the revived Weekly as an outgrowth of the underground press movement, and the magazine itself certainly speaks to that. But the magazine itself was modeled on something that was also akin to, but not part of, the underground press. At a moment of crisis for a landmark American magazine, seasoned editors used the Whole Earth Catalog as a model for a new section of the Monthly, WRAPAROUND.The model worked, and Harper’s Weekly`was reborn in the wake of its success. This speaks not only to the impact of the Catalog across a broad spectrum of American publishing, but also, and most importantly, to the impact of its model on a growing body of readers who really wanted to access and exchange information. I see model as fundamentally bibliographic, and participatory.  Within that framework, discovery (or the act of reading) engenders participation by a community of readers and writers sharing a printed resource about tools for living. In From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Fred Turner makes important connections between Stewart Brand and Whole Earth community, and the early days of Silicon Valley and the internet. By publishing its readers’ own writing and drawing them into the editorial process, Harper’s Weekly fostered a short-lived community of engaged participants with shared concerns who assumed the roles of critic, local historian, anthropologist, and activist, and then shared their experiences with a national audience through the magazine. This sounds a lot like what so many of us engage in online everyday as readers, blog writers, Tweeters… the list goes on. Harper’s Weekly is yet another example of the how the Whole Earth model took root in American information and popular culture, in the moment just before the dawn of the digital age.

Categories
Think Piece

Global History of Ideas: A Sea for Fish on Dry Land

by guest contributor Dag Herbjørnsrud

A remarkable example of how ideas migrate across so-called cultural borders and change minds in unknown ways happened in the German city of Bremen on October 8, 1930. There, Martin Heidegger gave a speech based upon his masterwork Being and Time (1927). Afterwards, he and several of Bremen’s citizens gathered at the home of a wholesaler. During the evening, Heidegger suddenly turned to his host and asked, “Mister Kellner, would you please bring me the Parables of Zhuangzi? I would like to read some passages from it.”

Being_and_Time_(German_edition).jpg
Sein und Zeit
(Being and Time; 1927)

Martin Buber (1878–1965) had already translated these parables of a founder of Daoism (Taoism) in 1910 with the help of Chinese collaborators, one of his first acclaimed books, Reden und Gleichnisse des Tschuang-Tse (Leipzig, 1910). Buber’s afterword connects Zhuangzi (or Chuang Tzu/莊子 369–286 BC) with his reading of the Bible, and this can be seen as advance notice of sorts for his later philosophy of “I and You” (“Ich und Du”). It was this book that Heidegger demanded.

The tradesman didn’t hesitate but went to his library and returned with a new edition of Buber’s translation. Heidegger started reading from Zhuangzi’s chapter 17, which in this context might be seen as a follow-up to his own speech “On the Essence of Truth”. Heidegger read from the passage where Zhuangzi says to the thinker Hui Tzu, known for his Zeno-like paradoxes, as they walk by a river:

Do you see how the fish are coming to the surface and swimming around as they please? That’s what fish really enjoy.”

“You’re not a fish,” replied Hui Tzu, “so how can you say you know what fish really enjoy?”

Zhuangzi said: “You are not me, so how can you know I don’t know what fish enjoy.”

The people of Bremen could relate to this 2200-year-old Chinese conversation. As an eyewitness described it: “The deep meaning of the legend cast a spell on all who were present. With the interpretation he offered of that legend, Heidegger unexpectedly drew closer to them than he had with his difficult lecture….”

Heidegger’s and Buber’s dialogue with the thinking of Asia seems to prove that Arthur O. Lovejoy was right when, in the first issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas in 1940, he pointed out that “ideas are the most migratory things in the world.” Human thoughts are like fish that swim as they please. There are no borders underwater. The connections in our minds transcend modern categories in unknown ways, and thus our ideas migrate across ages and seas – from Zhuangzi’s ancient town of Meng in eastern China to Kellner’s modern home in northern Germany.

Heidegger seems to have proved that ideas are the most migratory things in the world long before he became internationally famous. When he studied in Freiburg with the philosopher Shuzo Kuki (1888–1941) from Japan, Heidegger read Edmund Husserl’s major work with him and other East Asians once a week, as he stressed in one of his late major texts, “Aus einem Gespräch von der Sprache. Zwischen einem Japaner und einem Fragenden” (1959) (“A Dialogue on Language between a Japanese and an Inquirer”) – set out as a conversation between two professors. By that time, in 1921, transcripts of Heidegger’s classes were already translated into Japanese, which might be regarded as the first recognition of his groundbreaking philosophy. Indeed, Japanese was the first language Being and Time was translated into – in 1939, a staggering twenty-three years before the first English translation.

Zhuangzi.gif
The Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu, 3rd century BC)

If we re-read Heidegger’s 1927 work from such perspectives, we might understand why many East Asian philosophers feel more at home in his thinking than most Europeans.  As he concludes: “One must seek a way of illuminating the fundamental question of ontology and then go this way. Whether this is the sole or right way can be decided only after one has gone along it.” This insistence on finding and going the way in order to seek the essence of being, might be hard to grasp with a so-called Cartesian or modern perspective, trying to make philosophy a part of science, but it seems all the more natural from Zhuangzi’s point of view and the way of thinking about the Way (Dao).

After the Nazi era, Heidegger concludes much of his wandering in Unterwegs zur Sprache (1959) (On the Way to Language). In that work he explains his 40-year-long quest for a deeper, pre-philosophical source which connects us as beings across time and space: “The word ‘way’ probably is an ancient primary word that speaks to the reflective mind of man. The key word in Laozi’s poetic thinking is Tao, which ‘properly speaking’ means way […].” He concludes: “The lasting element in thinking is the way.” In this way the thinking of China and Japan breathes in Heidegger’s philosophy. Europe’s foremost thinker of the 20th century cannot be properly understood without knowledge of Asia’s philosophy.

Heidegger’s universal quest might also be something for our times. Heidegger was seeking a thinking experience which would assure “that European-Western saying and East Asian saying will enter into dialogue such that in it there sings something that wells up from a single source.” And he walks the walk in the dialogue with his friend, as when he finds out that the Japanese word for language, ‘koto ba,’ is the best way to better understand his own language, German.

Thus, both Zhuangzi and Heidegger formulated central challenges and opportunities for the 21st century. Zhuangzi by asking us to see “the Others”, understand what they enjoy, and acknowledge it. Heidegger by asking us to seek a way to understand his thinking, his transcultural roots, and his search for a common human ground. Or as professor Reinhard May puts it: “In order to gain a new perspective from this ‘Heidegger case’,” we will have to devote ourselves to other people’s thinking “as thoroughly as to that of our own tradition, not least since Heidegger has, in his own special way, demonstrated the necessity of transcultural thinking.”

In this light we can also see how Heidegger questioned the basis of our modern thinking in Brief über den ‘Humanismus’ (1947) (Letter on ‘Humanism’): “Philosophy is hounded by the fear that it loses prestige and validity if it is not a science,” Heidegger wrote. And again he returned to a fish metaphor: “Thinking is judged by a standard that does not measure up to it. Such judgment may be compared to the procedure of trying to evaluate the natures and powers of a fish by seeing how long it can live on dry land. For a long time now, all too long, thinking has been stranded on dry land.”

He didn’t write it explicitly, but this metaphor seems to be a reference to another of Zhuangzi’s parables (number 6): “When the springs dry out, the fish are found stranded on the earth. They keep each other damp with their own moisture, and wet each other with their slime.”

Vital parts of our migratory history of ideas have become stranded on dry land since the encounter in Bremen. At the same time, a new awareness might be dawning of the importance of our long-forgotten global interconnectedness – as can be seen from Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori’s Global Intellectual History (2013) or Jonardon Ganeri’s “Why Philosophy Must Go Global: A Manifesto” (2016). The history of ideas can also learn lessons from the new insights now being presented in the field of global history and the de-centering of perspective, or from earlier times: The “universalism” of Mozi, or the argument for “world literature” by both Goethe and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

The world is not just connected by trade, as Hajime Nakamura pointed out in A Comparative History of Ideas (1975). Even more importantly, humans are bonded by those migratory ideas that transcend national and cultural borders. And as Heidegger showed, we don’t have to meet physically in order to face each other. In the global history of ideas we can rather stand face to face through texts across ages and seas.

Such a history of ideas has the potential to give us new and fresh ways of looking at our world, as the participiants at the gathering in Bremen found out. This is not just because “there is no such thing as western civilization,” or eastern civilization for that matter, as Kwame Anthony Appiah puts it. It is also because new research frequently proves that our cultural heritage is often not what we are taught to believe. Heidegger’s critique inspired the Algerian-born Jacques Derrida to develop the German term “Destruktion” into the French concept of “déconstruction”. As the time and being of the 21st century drags on, it might be about time to add reconstruction to deconstruction.

A reconstruction of our natural and common global history of ideas can be seen as a fulfillment of the thinking of Zhuangzi, “the first deconstructivist”. He disavowed the ideologies of rulers and the hierarchies of scholars that imprison the human mind, leading individuals astray from their own innate nature (hsing). The stringent argument that we are being taught is logic is far too often nonsense – because, rather, eclecticism is all. The eclectic, comparative, and inclusive way of thinking pours water over stranded fish, making reconstruction a flow of the natural way (wu wei 無爲). If we follow the way of Zhuangzi and read the classics anew, we can reconstruct our past based not on an ethnocentric take, but rather on a comparative and transcultural perspective – placing weight on our migratory ideas. Instead of studying history of ideas within a national or ethnic framework, we might re-orient and be on the way to reconstruction with the help of three ‘C’-terms: Contact. Comparison. Complexity.

johnadamsvp-flipped
John Adams concluded that the democracy of the US resembled that of Phoenician Carthage more than any other republic

We might for example see the way Thomas McEvilley has shown how the pre-Socratics and Plato were influenced by the thinking of India, a country where the secular and materialistic Lokayata (Carvaka) philosophy has prevailed for over 2500 years (Contact). Such global and comparative perspectives on the world of ideas can release us from the ethnocentrism that has left our thinking stranded on dry land for all too long now. If we follow such channels of thought, we discover that it was not Athens, nor any Greek city-state, that Aristotle hailed as the best-governed or most democratic. Instead, in Politics, he held up Phoenician Carthage, in modern-day Tunisia, as the state with the best constitution, the most stable rule – which was not prone to tyranny – and as the place where the people had the most say when it came to electing politicians (Comparison). As the second US president John Adams pointed out in A Defence of the Constitution of Government of the United States of America (1787): “This government [of Carthage] thus far resembles those of the United States of America more than any other of the ancient republics, perhaps more than any of the modern…” (Complexity).

Thus, the reconstruction of a global history of ideas makes the founding fathers and the basic documents of our past ripe for rereading from a comparative and non-ethnocentric perspective. Man is not an island and neither is the world – nor have they ever been. Rather, man is a fish, ever in danger of being stranded on dry land. But the springs can be refilled, opening up new channels of thought so that more fish can swim as they please – just as a simple question taught the merchant Kellner, Heidegger, and their guests how to enjoy swimming in the vast seas of the global history of ideas.

Dag Herbjørnsrud is a historian of ideas from the University of Oslo with a cand. philol. thesis on the late philosophy of Robert Nozick. He is the author of the book Globalkunnskap (2016, “Global Knowledge. Renaissance for a New Enlightenment”) at Scandinavian Academic Press, and the founder of the recently established Center for Global and Comparative History of Ideas (SGOKI).

Categories
Think Piece

What Was a Reading Community?

by guest contributor Edmund G. C. King

9158386789_40b6612a67_z
Howard Ignatius, “8:41 Notting Hill Gate”

It’s just after 10 am on a dingy December morning in London as I approach Canada Water underground station. The morning rush hour crowds have receded, leaving only their wet footprints on the platform leading into the station. The outside sheet of a copy of this morning’s Metro, the free London commuter newspaper, has been pulped and trodden into the pavement near the entrance. A single word of the front-page headline is still legible: “Aleppo.” Inside, I walk down the escalators and turn right, onto the westbound Jubilee Line platform. A train arrives almost immediately. I get into the first carriage and stand inside the doors facing away from the platform. To my left there are twelve people sitting, facing each other in two rows of six. Exactly half of them are reading. A woman scrolls through her Facebook newsfeed on an Android phone. A couple in their 30s read copies of The Metro. Opposite them, an older man is skimming an article in the personal finance section of a tabloid newspaper headlined “The Hell of Middle Age.” Two women sit opposite each other, each absorbed in a book. One is reading management theory. The other has a thick, tattered pop-psychology paperback with subsections headed in bold and diagrams illustrating interpersonal relationships. Next to them, a woman sits, headphones on, reading a Spanish novella. No one in the carriage acknowledges the existence of anyone else, not even the couple with their matching copies of The Metro. Each reading surface has become what Erving Goffman calls an “involvement shield,” a way of demarcating personal space and signalling social “non-accessibility” in a shared environment. Seats free up at Southwark. I take one, pull out my iPhone, put my headphones on, load up Spotify and a cached copy of a Jacobin article, and prepare to immerse myself in my own media cocoon.

For the past year, I have been Co-Investigator on an AHRC-funded project, “Reading Communities: Connecting the Past and the Present.” The purpose of the Reading Communities project was to reach out to contemporary reading groups in the United Kingdom and encourage them to engage with the historical accounts of reading in the Reading Experience Database. But the experience of working on a project like this has also changed my own academic practice as an historian of reading. I find myself paying more attention to the everyday scenes of reading unfolding around me than I might have done otherwise, looking for the elusive connections between reading practices and reading communities in the past and the present. Of course, a random collection of readers in a London tube carriage does not in itself constitute a “reading community.” We, in our Jubilee Line media cocoons, might all be using books and other forms of reading material in avoidant ways, as coping mechanisms to deal with the intensities and demands of occupying shared spaces in a large city. Some of us may even be consuming the very same text—this morning’s Metro—simultaneously. These acts of textual consumption form part of our social imaginary; they are props for performing our roles as commuters and as Londoners. But simultaneity and a shared habitus are not sufficient in themselves to bind us together into a specific reading community. For a reading community to exist, the act of reading must be in some basic way shared. Readers need to interact with each other or at least identify as members of the same reading collective. The basic building blocks of a community are, as DeNel Rehberg Sedo observes, a set of enduring and reciprocal social relationships. Reading communities are collectives where those relationships are mediated by the consumption of texts. But how can we define the social function of reading communities more precisely? What relationship do they have with other communities and social formations beyond the realm of text? What can examples taken from historically distant reading cultures tell us about the social uses of shared reading experiences?

In Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire, William A. Johnson interrogates ancient sources for what they can reveal about reading and writing practices in elite Roman communities. The scenes of reading preserved in ancient sources provide detailed glimpses into the place of shared reading and literary performance in daily life. In Epistle 27, Pliny describes the daily routine of Titus Vestricius Spurinna, a 78-year-old retired senator and consul:

The early morning he passes on his couch; at eight he calls for his slippers, and walks three miles, exercising mind and body together. On his return, if he has any friends in the house with him, he gets upon some entertaining and interesting topic of conversation; if by himself, some book is read to him, sometimes when visitors are there even, if agreeable to the company. Then he has a rest, and after that either takes up a book or resumes his conversation in preference to reading.

In the afternoon, after he has bathed, Spurinna has “some light and entertaining author read to him,” a ritual house guests are invited to share. At dinner, guests are entertained with another group reading, “the recital of some dramatic piece,” as a way of “seasoning” the “pleasures” of the evening “with study.” All of this, he writes, is carried on “with so much affability and politeness that none of his guests ever finds it tedious.” For Johnson, this reveals Pliny’s belief that shared literary consumption forms a necessary part of high-status Roman identity. “Reading in this society,” he writes, “is tightly bound up in the construction of … community.” It is the glue that binds together a range of communal practices—meals, exercise, literary conversation—into one unified whole, a social solvent that simultaneously acts as an elite marker. Shared reading experiences in this milieu are a means of fostering a sense of group belonging. They are ways of performing social identity, of easing participants into their roles as hosts and house guests, clients and patrons.

Another externality that impels the formation of ancient Roman reading communities is textual scarcity. To gain access to texts in the ancient world, readers needed social connections. Literary and intellectual culture in such a textual economy will necessarily be communal, as both readers and authors depend on social relationships in order to exchange and encounter reading material. As Johnson shows, the duties of authorship in ancient Rome extended into the spheres of production and distribution. Genteel authors like Galen retained the scribes and lectors who would copy and perform their works for a wider coterie of friends and followers. This culture of scarcity in turn imprinted itself onto reading practices. In the introduction to his treatise On Theriac to Piso, Galen describes visiting Piso at home and finding him in the midst of reading a medical treatise, an act of private reading that readily segues into an extended social performance for Galen’s benefit:

I once came to your house as is my custom and found you with many of your accustomed books lying around you. For you do especially love, after the conclusion of the public duties arising from your affairs, to spend your time with the old philosophers. But on this occasion you had acquired a book about this antidote [i.e., theriac] and were reading it with pleasure; and when I was standing next to you you immediately looked on me with the eyes of friendship and greeted me courteously and then took up the reading of the book again with me for audience. And I listened because the book was thoughtfully written … And as you read … a great sense of wonder came over me and I was very grateful for our good luck, when I saw you so enthusiastic about the art. For most men just want to derive the pleasure of listening from writings on medicine: but you not only listen with pleasure to what is said, but also learn from your native intelligence …

As Johnson notes, this passage is striking precisely because of its unfamiliarity, for what it says about the gulf that separates “Galen’s culture of reading” from “our own.” Specialised texts in the Roman world were so scarce—and hence so valuable—that it was axiomatic to readers like Piso and Galen that the “good luck” of mutual textual encounter should be maximised by an act of shared reading, not simply of a small extract, but of the entire work. The result is a precisely described scene of reading that baffles us with its strangeness.  What these anecdotes indicate is not only that, as Robert Darnton puts it, “reading has a history,” but that reading communities everywhere bear the unmistakable imprints of that history.

In early Victorian London, juvenile pickpockets reacted in their own way to the externalities of textual scarcity. As Henry Mayhew records, literate gang members would read their copies of Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Calendar aloud in lodgings during the evenings to those in their networks who couldn’t read. These acts of shared reading not only fostered group identity, but enabled gang members to maximise their communal resources, to make literacy and textual possessions go further. The reading communities in early twentieth-century New Zealand that Susann Liebich has studied are similarly embedded in wider networks of friendship and group belonging. Sharing books and reading tips was, as she demonstrates, a means of “fostering connections,” a way for “readers to connect with each other and with a world beyond Timaru.” What each of these examples shows is that the social function of shared reading differs according to the needs and norms of the wider communities and cultures in which that reading community is embedded. At the same time, however, attending to these differences encourages us to consider what is distinctive about norms and practices within contemporary reading communities, helping us limn what Rob Koehler elsewhere on this blog identifies as “the intimate and complex relationships between individuals, texts, and lived experience” across time and space, within history and our own present moment.

Edmund G. C. King is a Research Fellow in English Literature in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at The Open University, UK. He works on the Reading Experience Database and is currently researching British and Commonwealth reading practices during the First World War. He is co-editor (with Shafquat Towheed) of Reading and the First World War: Readers, Texts, Archives (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).