No pictures this time. I started thinking about this thing that we do called reading.
As the leading species of the Anthropocene, we should know more about ourselves and how we came to be. As an evolutionist, and a student of history and what we surmise of prehistory, it’s accepted that we stood upright. Why we took this step (these steps) is not obvious, but my guess is that we stood up to look around. We’re reasonably good at looking — not so much on smell. Hearing, so-so. Taste, well that would come in handy later, when vintners and chefs came into being.
We stood up and saw, among other things, each other. The evidence shows that we tended to go in bands of 20-30, and if we grew too large, to break off into other groups/families. We have a long history of us. Us and them. That’s still with us, even as nations.
Whether standing and sitting upright had anything to do with our brain development is hard to say. We had predators, to which we were prey, and we were hunters as well. Gathering could be somewhat of a solo occupation, but hunting required coordination, planning, attention to the seasons, migration routes, leadership, roles, if we were to hunt the larger animals. That, and sitting around a campfire at night, moved us toward language.
Whatever the reason, language added a human dimension that made us entirely distinct as a species. Not only could we greet each other, we could also tell each other what we did, where we went, how the hunting went, whatever. In other words, we could “know” something that we had not ourselves experienced, something that had happened far away. Or perhaps on a previous day. Some tribes to this day assign the role of reciting the entire history of the tribe, or at least the genealogy of the leaders, which may extend hundreds of years into the past. To my knowledge, no other species has that ability. We can “know” things from a different time and place.
In the recent past, just a few thousand years ago, probably in the agrarian age, when some people were able to produce more food or clothing than they needed, the idea of trade came into being. That in itself was a new notion — that someone “owns” grain or produce or sheep. And that these could be traded for something else.
Trade, however, began to extend beyond friends, sometimes to intermediaries who traveled. Keeping records began to be a necessity. Money or equivalent value was introduced. Honesty was a virtue, but memory was not enough. Marking down who took what in exchange for what else seems to have been the first writing, and it was essentially numbers.
Writing things down became a necessity. Several cultures, the Chinese, Egyptians, relied on pictures or sketches to represent the goods. And then ideas became pictorialized. Some languages still use that as their basis.
One report is that workers in Egypt, some of them non-Egyptians, used scribbles, called demotic rather than the elegant figures engraved on Egyptian monuments. The Phoenicians picked up on this, however, in a different way — they decided that language was too rich to be contained in cartoons, so they chose instead to record the sounds of the words, thus creating an alphabet.
This innovation proved to be useful for other languages as well, so that other nations might keep their own language, and yet they could write it out using essentially the same alphabet. We do that still today.
For about a thousand years, at least in Europe, writing was almost lost. Only a few monks in a few places kept it up. Poets began to use it to praise or celebrate, eventually to express ideas, at least for those people who were literate. Poetry, for an illiterate population, was easier to hear and remember when someone recited it for them, and it was considered the basic tool of education, before schooling took hold.
In Shakespeare’s day, perhaps 10% of the population could read and write: merchants, the nobility. Plays, however, served as a great way for people to learn about history, and the actions of others in dramatic settings. The audience knew it was a play, though, because all the roles were played by men at that time. But they accepted this convention. And this allowed the general population to ease into, by the 18th Century, books written not in poetry but in plain language. And not necessarily true or historical.
That was the introduction of fiction, stories that seemed like reality, yet were also recognized as “not real.” This new skill made it possible to satisfy an increasingly large audience of people who wanted to temporarily enter a psychic space that was not their own lives but more exciting, more romantic, more emotional. And they discovered that they could do this alone in a room with a book, not necessarily watching a dramatic performance.
What it required was the ability to read. To read words quickly, while completely ignoring the world around one, but concentrated on the words line by line, skipping the previously important step of the sounds represented by the letters on the page. In other words, the reader had to turn off all consciousness of surroundings, noises, aromas, traffic, in order to draw in the well-paced, explicit language of description, dialogue, emotions, threats, curiosity, uncertainty, suspense, anxiousness from the beginning of a chapter to the end—which almost always was a bit of a cliff-hanger, urging the reader into the next adventure.
So, the act of reading requires at least two levels of consciousness: ignoring the actual reality of sitting in a chair turning or clicking pages, to indulge in a writer’s skill to keep your attention satisfied through a whole passage of life with its interactions. Perhaps, depending on the writer, you’ll be looking through more than one perspective to grasp the whole of a scene.
In other words, reading, really reading, involves much more than simply sounding out the words. That may be the way to start learning to read, but to be a reader, one must move on to the next level of involvement, so that you and the book are one — at least for the time that you are reading.
Interruptions destroy this delicate balance. Even having ideas of one’s own must be kept for later. While you are reading, you must forget yourself and let the book carry you. Good writing can allow this to happen. That’s what makes a successful writer, the ability to engross your attention, satisfy your sense of time and place and action with consistency, so that you are not even aware of the author.
That, in my opinion, is how to read.