A Long History Of Social Reading


The shareable commenting features on e-readers may seem like a novelty, but reading has been a “social” activity far longer than it’s been a solo one:

Homeric poetry and other oral genres were recited to crowds for centuries before the notion of reading came around. The most beautiful depiction of learning in Western art may be Raphael’s School of Athens, which shows Socrates speaking as disciples surround him, listening and taking notes.

After writing became more widespread, it was often a prompt for speaking, something one used as an aid in orating, reciting, or declaring to others. When Saint Augustine watched Ambrose read a book without moving his lips or making any sounds, he was shocked: Until about the eighth century, most people read by reading words out loud.

No one was curling up with the large, bulky, vellum-and-wooden books that were kept chained to desks in monasteries. This kind of “social reading” continued throughout most of the Middle Ages, as scribes copying manuscripts assumed readers would enunciate the words they saw on the page. Written texts developed from and aided oral communication, and since there are no commas or capital letters in speech, there were initially no spaces between words, no lower-case letters, and no punctuation in manuscripts, either. THEIRSENTENCESLOOKEDLIKETHIS.

As late as the 19th century, Victorian readers could still often aptly be called “listeners” as they sat in chairs in a circle lit by candlelight, with one person reading out loud the copy of the latest triple-decker installment of, say, a Dickens novel. Even for us moderns, reading can be construed as an inherently social act, not as in “sitting in a room with others” but as in “together, alone.” Reading can be one of the most profound encounters a human can have, revealing the inherently connective tissue that is human consciousness. As David Foster Wallace put it: “Fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion—these are the places (for me) where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.”

(Image: The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1511, via Wikimedia Commons)