Friday, September 25, 2009

History of Reading

Since we've been having discussions about the experience of reading, I thought it might be interesting to post a couple of quotes concerning some of the ideas about reading that existed in the ancient world. In Plato's Phaedrus,
Lysias is Phaedrus’ lover. In their homoerotic relationship, Lysias is the active partner (the lover), Phaedrus the passive partner (the beloved). But here the lover is also the writer: Lysias wrote the discourse. Phaedrus will read this discourse out loud: the beloved here is thus also the reader. Now, within the Greek context, such a doubling of roles (the lover who doubles as a writer, the beloved who doubles as a reader) cannot be innocent: one of the first Greek models of written communication, in fact, defines the writer as a metaphorical lover, leaving the role of the beloved to the reader. This “pederastic” metaphor stems in part from the fact that the Greeks of the first literate centuries read exclusively out loud: through his writing, the writer is supposed to use the reader, the indispensable instrument for the full realization of his written word. The writer uses the reader, just as the lover uses the beloved to satisfy his desire. (Scheid and Svenbro 124-25)
What then happened when in certain circles the practice of reading silently began to take hold at the end of the sixth century B. C.? […] in the silent reading of the Greeks, the voice of the reader is in some sense transferred into the graphic sphere, which in turn raises its voice: the Greek who reads silently hears the “voice” of the writing in front of him in his head, as if the letters had a voice, as if the book were a talking object. In Euripides’ Hippolytus, the writing is supposed to be capable of “speaking” to the reader who reads in silence, of “shouting” to him, even of “singing” him a melos. It is as if the voice were inside the writing, present inside.

In other words, from now on writing and the voice seem to be lodged in the same place, and the “text” - created by the reader each time his voice unites with the writing – therefore becomes quasi-obsolete, replaced by a text that is closer to our own, which tends to erase the interpretative, or at least vocal, contribution of the reader (to such an extent that a considerable theoretical effort became necessary in the twentieth century to accord the reader an active role in reading). An unsuspecting ventriloquist, the reader now listens, in his head, to a text that seems to be addressing him autonomously. (Scheid and Svenbro 127)
As for the history of reading romances, McDaniel College have a new article up on their website about Pamela Regis:
In the early years of Regis’ scholarly attention to romance fiction as a form worth studying, she was criticized and all but ostracized from the academic community when she presented a paper noting Jane Austen as a romance writer. [...] Although nearly 20 years have passed, Regis will always remember it as her Davy Crockett moment since the paper was delivered in San Antonio, home of The Alamo, where the famed frontiersman and statesman perished.

“Oh, it was ugly. I was under siege,” said Regis last week. “They attacked. They handed me my head.”

In those days, Regis stood essentially alone among academics in believing that romance fiction is indeed worthy of study and recognition as a legitimate, centuries-old form. The harsh criticism rattled the young professor, but she remained undaunted.

[...] the romance criticism that was around when I began my thinking about the form in the early ’80s was so negative, so condemnatory of the form, that I thought, ‘Really!? Can all these women really be choosing to read such toxic literature, and is it really harming them in the ways that these critics claim?’” Regis says.
Edited to add: I've only just seen another post that's relevant to this discussion, so I'm adding some quotes from it. Over at Romance: B(u)y the Book, Gwendolyn Pough is discussing her experiences as a reader, and this too has a historical aspect to it since
Fifteen years ago, Kensington published the first Arabesque novels. To be sure, there had been a few romance novels published prior to 1994 that featured black heroes and heroines. Before that time, we had Rosalind Welles’s "Entwined Destinies" (1980), Jackie Weger’s "A Strong and Tender Thread" (1983), Sandra Kitt’s "Adam and Eva" (1985) and Joyce McGill’s "Unforgivable" (1992). Traditional paperback romance novels that showcased black love had been sparse to say the least. However, from the time editor Monica Harris got Kensington to publish those first Arabesque novels all of that changed.

[...] Many black women romance readers, like myself, read romance novels long before the first African American imprints appeared in the early 90s. Many still read a wide variety of romance and don’t limit their reading based on the race of the author or the race of the characters in the book. Some only started reading romance novels when the black romances were published and never will read a romance with white leads. Some have read white authors in the past when they couldn’t find black authors and will never read another white romance again now that they can find black romances. However, most black readers will tell you that they read black romances because they want to be able to relate to the book. They want heroines that look like them.

At first glance, that desire may seem superficial. But imagine growing up never seeing popular images of healthy loving relationships. Imagine hearing nothing but distortions about your sexuality, having your desire demonized, and hearing nothing but myths about your so-called pathology. Could you hold on to the dream that you would one day find love? African American romance novels also offer readers and writers a way to rewrite images of black masculinity. For the most part the stereotyped images of black masculinity that populate the larger public sphere are missing for romance novels.
That's just an (admittedly fairly substantial) excerpt of the blog post [the embedded links were added by me], so if you want to read the rest, you'll need to head over to Romance: B(u)y the Book.

Unfortunately I couldn't find a photo of a depiction of Phaedrus reading. Instead I've included a photo of a vase painting of a Muse "reading a volumen (scroll), at the left a klismos. Attic red-figure lekythos, ca. 435-425 BC. From Boeotia." This and other details about the work can be found at the same Wikimedia Commons page where I found the photo.


  1. Wow! This leads to so many thoughts, so will just focus on one or two.

    First, the convention of authors giving readings of their work. I've always thought it odd that works of fiction, that were meant (as I imagined) to be read silently to oneself, one reader at a time, were introduced to the public by authors reading aloud. And yet, for many years, well into the nineteenth century, novels were often shared among families and groups of friends, one person reading aloud while others did work like knitting or sewing. Jane Austen's family read her novels and other authors' works in this way.

    So it's probably just one more modern misconception of mine to think of author readings as some kind of "mismatch" between "silent" and "spoken" text.
    Still, we rarely read novels in groups like those families of the past. But we also have audio books now, so it's probably more accurate to say that the divide between spoken and written was never absolute, and that now, in many ways, the two forms are merging again.

    What about dialogue, with multiple characters speaking? What if the author isn't a very accomplished dramatic reader? At most readings I've attended, the authors simply read in their own voice and don't attempt to imitate different characters in any dramatic way, but let the dialogue and characters speak for themselves. It's the sense of the words (the text) that lets us in the audience follow who is speaking.

    But Austen, I think, prided herself on being a good (dramatic) reader, giving each character the right voice and expression, and complianed in a letter that her mother didn't do so well.

    When I write dialogue in my own novels I hear the different characters' voices in my mind, like an internal drama, and yet I never actually read it aloud unless I'm lucky enough to give a reading. I think my experience of reading dialogue in works I admire has given me a sense of what dialogue should "sound" like, even though I'm only hearing it internally. It may be a lot like the sense we all have of reading a well-written, absorbing book that takes us out of the here and now so that the only reality we experience is the story, including what the characters are saying.

    Second: The idea of the reader as the "passive" partner and the writer as the "active" partner, like the Greek ideal of homoerotic love, is a fascinating analogy. I also thinks it addresses the learning process of becoming a writer. Like most of us, I was a reader from an early age, just as the reader/beloved of your example would be a young person. Only as I grew older, more experienced, could I become the writer/lover.

    Of course back then, the older partner, once having made the transition to being "active," could not continue in the "passive" role. Which is one of the great things about being a modern writer: we can go on being readers; indeed, most of us couldn't give it up. It's hard to imagine being a writer but not being a reader.

  2. "we rarely read novels in groups like those families of the past. But we also have audio books now, so it's probably more accurate to say that the divide between spoken and written was never absolute, and that now, in many ways, the two forms are merging again."

    As you say, audio books take us back to the old-fashioned method of absorbing a book. It's interesting that some people who like audiobooks have reported that some other people feel that you shouldn't say you've "read" a book if you've heard it.

    I also remember a discussion at AAR's message boards not so long ago about whether people "heard" the characters speaking in their heads when they read novels. Some did, and they "heard" the characters speaking in accents which matched the ones described in the book. Others did sort of "hear" them but without the accents.

    "is a fascinating analogy"

    I certainly thought it was, which was why I couldn't resist posting such a long quote from Scheid and Svenbro. And applying the homosexual lover/beloved metaphor to the modern romance genre throws up some really interesting questions about power and gender, particularly as this is a genre in which male figures are often sexually dominant but we're so often told that the genre as a whole is written "by women, for women." There's also, as Laura Kinsale suggested in her essay, the possibility that many readers identify with the hero. The metaphor takes us such a long way away from the heteronormativity traditionally associated with the genre, and thinking about the ramifications of it all makes me wonder if one would have to conclude that romance reading is, metaphorically, like an orgy with a lot of role-playing, bisexuality, and BDSM!

    "I also thinks it addresses the learning process of becoming a writer."

    Since I don't write fiction, I hadn't thought of that, but I suppose it's akin to someone in another field having a mentor, and then themselves becoming a mentor yet still being a pupil of their original mentor.