A Potted History of Reading

Or, how a skill we now take for granted is more recent and less widespread than we might think


Calum Johnson

3 years ago | 9 min read

The story of reading is as fundamental to our history as it is fascinating, surprising, and profoundly human.

The ability to read sets us apart from other animal species and simultaneously connects us to people from almost every generation since the dawn of human civilisation — and perhaps even earlier still.

But, despite the fact is seems natural to many of us today, the art of reading has evolved and adapted over millennia. These are some of the key developments in the history of reading.

What Is Reading?

To understand the history of the skill we call reading, it is first necessary to define what it really means to read.

In a phrase, reading is the process by which our brain extracts meaning from written symbols.

But such a conception houses many shades of definition. For example, how does reading differ from the appreciation of art? If an early hunter drew a wild animal on the wall of a cave, and a fellow hominid derived meaning from the images, would that be reading?

After all, the primitive artist might well have employed the drawings as a way of coding, in visual form, a series of thoughts (such as a map showing the location of the next meal). Reading is simply the act of decoding those symbols; of transferring the thoughts of one person to another without the need for speech.

And then there are other nuances that limit the possibility of defining reading.

Is picking up a book in a foreign language and scanning the words with your eyes still reading? If the language is incomprehensible, any extraction of meaning is minimal — and yet the action is effectively identical to reading in one’s own language, where meaning can be absorbed with ease.

While drawings in an ancient cave are not words, they may well be described as symbols, and it could be that one derives greater meaning from a picture than words in an unintelligible language.

Therefore, any complete definition of reading is elusive. But it is still possible to speculate on how, when, and why, the skill came about.

The First Readers

(Photo by Tim Oun on Unsplash)
(Photo by Tim Oun on Unsplash)

As the above introduction suggests, the first readers might have been those who first communicated visually — depending on whether one regards cave drawings and similar as pictograms with an inherent meaning, designed to communicate ideas to others.

The communicative element of reading is important, because it ties the reader inextricably to the communicator (often the writer, but perhaps also an artist), and to the skills that they employ (writing, drawing).

Setting aside cave drawings, writing, as we know it today, was invented around five thousand years ago, in Mesopotamia.

The Sumerians were the first, but they were not the only, inventors of writing, which sprung up at various times on other continents over the next 3,000 years.

The ability to read and write were rare skills in Antiquity. Those who could write held public office as scribes, while those who could read would entertain and inform by diffusing written messages and stories orally.

Even then, reading wasn’t a mandatory requirement for storytellers; the two Homerian epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, for example, were written down long after their original dissemination as oral texts, passed from generation to generation, village to village.

Oral storytelling lent literature a fluidity that modern texts now tend to lack. Storytellers could edit, adapt — or simply forget — elements of their story between different recitals, and anyone hearing the account could take it up and tell it in a different way themselves.

Reading in Silence

Most of our reading is done silently, with reading out loud a childish, sociable, or annoying habit depending on the situation.

However, in the context of the oral tradition, scholars believe that reading in the ancient world was predominantly performed aloud, rather than in one’s head (even when other people weren’t around to hear it).

Key to the change from spoken to silent reading was the introduction of spaces between written words. When reading aloud, the minds of the reader and the listener separate continuous streams of sounds into comprehensible words. Readers were typically extremely literate people and would find this to be a simple task, and so it was only when basic literacy became more widespread that it was necessary to make reading easier.

Indeed, those who could read did not want to make the skill more simple to master, lest there was more competition for their job!

Historian Paul Saenger suggests that it was Irish scribes in the seventh and eighth centuries that first developed the habit of separating words with spaces, likely catalysing the move towards silent reading.

Only when European scholars recovered more complicated works of science or philosophy in the tenth century did they find it advantageous to adopt the word separation espoused by the Irish, thereby spreading the custom around the continent.

Even then, it took another seven centuries before reading alone in bed — for many modern readers the only time they devote solely to reading — became more commonplace.

Sharing Knowledge: Books

Reading has often been viewed with suspicion because it allows the uninformed to learn more about the world — sometimes from sources that the ruling authorities view as transgressive, subversive, or radical.

Books have always been viewed as containers for knowledge, and they were even more necessary for that purpose in a time before the internet. The ancient Greeks were perhaps the first serious champions of books, with the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great presiding over the construction of the Library of Alexandria, which eventually housed more than half a million volumes.

Libraries acted not just sites for the storage books, but as a place for copying them in order to produce new versions and spread their message more widely.

With the rise of Christianity in Europe, this secondary function — of producing copies — was assumed by the Church. In monasteries across the continent, dedicated scriptoria were constructed for the copying of important texts that would aid the spread of religion and preserve the knowledge of previous generations, stretching back into Antiquity.

The Democratisation of Reading

(Photo by Raphael Schaller on Unsplash)
(Photo by Raphael Schaller on Unsplash)

The ability to read has grown enormously in the past two centuries. It is estimated that only a little over 10% of people in the world could read and write in 1820, compared to almost 90% today.

But despite the fact that complete literacy did not properly take off until the nineteenth century, perhaps the most important invention in the history of reading came about four hundred years earlier.

The printing press, which employs moveable type, was developed by Johannes Gutenberg, Johann Fust, and Peter Schoffer in the middle of the fifteenth century. For the first time, reading material could be printed for the masses, not just at the behest of a known, individual patron.

The printing press also turned the book into a sellable product on an entirely new scale. Before, books were copied in small numbers for Church communities or local noblemen, but now publishing became an industry, with profit to be made.

It is worth mentioning that, although the Gutenberg Bible was the first book printed with movable type in Europe (in 1455), Jikji, a Korean Buddhist work, was printed in 1377 by a similar method (though not on the printing press).

The printing press removed the obstacle of physical access to books for Europe’s prospective readers, but the inclination, leisure time, and ability to read was still widely lacking.

Moreover, most books were printed in Latin, which was less accessible to the masses than their respective European vernacular languages.

Although books in German, Italian, Valencian, English, and French followed in the two decades after the Gutenberg Bible was first published, the spread of texts in languages other than Latin was generally slow.

Nonetheless, the printing press was pivotal to the decentralisation of the power held by those who could read and write. Where once books treated subjects that were of religious, intellectual, or historical significance to the authorities, now anyone with enough money to persuade a publisher to print his or her book could do so, disseminating the ideas contained within.

During the Enlightenment, in particular, subversive texts were banned by the Catholic Church because their irreverent ideas about science and religion might have harmed the power of the Church authorities.

Reading without Sight

Reading typically relies on sight. But, for those that cannot see, Braille is a means of using another sense — touch — to arrive at meaning through understanding shapes. In the case of braille, it is not how the shape looks so much as how it feels — its physical form — that contains the meaning.

The Braille system was invented by a Frenchman of that name, Louis Braille (born in 1809). Braille was not always blind, but suffered a terrible accident involving an awl — the sharp tool used to pierce holes in leather (his father was a leather-worker) — as a young child.

Braille set about developing a means of reading despite being sightless. To achieve this goal, he turned to an earlier system, invented by another Frenchman, Charles Barbier de la Serre. Barbier invented a form of shorthand notation known as L’écriture Nocturne (“night writing”), which employed raised dots instead of written words.

That the system was tactile meant that light wasn’t needed to read it, which benefitted soldiers trying to read messages or orders at night while on campaign (a light might have attracted the attention of enemy scouts).

Braille’s cell of six dots (Photo from Wikimedia)
Braille’s cell of six dots (Photo from Wikimedia)

Braille was only 11 years old when he began modifying Barbier’s code, a process that took him nine years. Where Barbier had used cells of 12 dots, Braille opted for six dots per cell, allowing the reader’s finger to trace the entire cell with one impression.

Although Braille’s system has hardly changed in the 160 years since he died, not all blind people have adopted it as a means of reading. A 2009 report by the National Federation of the Blind suggested that fewer than 10 percent of blind people in the United States read fluently in Braille.

Indeed, illiteracy amongst the blind is going backwards; as many as half of all blind students in 1960 were literate in Braille.

Towards Ubiquity: Reading Today

Since 1960, global literacy rates have progressed by four percent every five years, and reading is now viewed as an essential skill taught young to children.

And indeed it is essential. The ability to read is the central premise on which a platform like Medium functions, and the essence of modern communication — required to make use and sense of everything from road-signs, to textbooks, to social media.

One need only look at the damning statistics for blind people today, of whom only a fraction are literate in Braille, to see the wider damage not being able to read can do. 70% of blind adults are unemployed in the United States, and 50% of blind high school students do not graduate.

And despite its integral role in our own lives, and the way we advance our knowledge, it is worth remembering that we belong to the few in history who have been lucky enough to learn to read, and to be able to use it daily.

For much of humanity’s time on earth, reading has either been beyond accessibility or considered a danger to the order of society.

Reading is a gateway to new lands and to new ideas, and just as we now see improving our knowledge as a means of bettering ourselves, the élites of many societies generally viewed it with suspicion, as if knowing more would lead their subjects to question their place. In some parts of the world, authorities still do.

Most humans to have lived on earth could not read; or, at least, they did not, in the sense that we mean it today — and many still don’t.

And for people who don’t and who didn’t, life is that bit harder and less rich.


Created by

Calum Johnson

I am a UK-based writer and journalist, interested in topics as wide-ranging as history and finance, politics and sport.







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