My good friend and former colleague Richard Gibson has recently started a blog on books and textuality and reading and all that sort of thing, and this new post is fascinating. Read it with care, but in brief Richard is exploring the contrast (made much of by Ivan Illich) between the monastic book and the scholastic book, and how that difference manifests itself in the appearance of the page:
Monastic readers and their (likely, shared) books belonged to a different theory and practice of the book than their scholastic counterparts, one in which the book was not “scrutable” (Illich’s word for the scholastic “bookish text”), not easily mastered or controlled. It resisted, we might say, the would-be autonomous reader. To embrace the codex’s capacity to be sampled in a back-and-forth manner is, Illich would have us recognize, to trade the “vineyard,” the “garden, the landscape for an adventuresome pilgrimage” for “the treasury, the mine, the storage room,” in other words, a store for raiding rather than a place of leisure and retreat. Such is our fate, Illich concludes, as the children of the Scholastics (our ancestor university-types):
Modern reading, especially of the academic and professional type, is an activity performed by commuters and tourists; it is no longer that of pedestrians and pilgrims.
This post has nothing whatsoever to do with the digital age.
Commuters and tourists vs. pedestrians and pilgrims — now that is a fruitful set of metaphors (and not only metaphors).
Please keep track of what Richard and his collaborators are doing there — more good stuff is to come.
When the new semester begins at Wheaton College, where I teach, I’ll lead a seminar for senior English majors on the experience of reading. I’m interested in getting them to explore with me their own histories as readers: how their early reading experiences shaped them, what books were their favorites in childhood, how their reading habits changed as they matured, what made them decide to major in English, how being an English major has changed their practices of reading (for better or worse!), and so on. I’ve taught similar seminars before, and they tend to be pretty enlightening for all concerned. We’ll start by looking at two brief and very different accounts of what it means to be a reader, one by Virginia Woolf and one by Ursula K. LeGuin. Then we’ll explore some aspects of the history of reading. Our first book will be Orality and Literacy, by the late, great Father Walter Ong; then we’ll move to Ivan Illich’s remarkable investigation into medieval reading practices, In the Vineyard of the Text; and then we’ll read Sven Birkerts’s rage against the dying of the novelistic light, The Gutenberg Elegies, some excerpts of which may be found here. Obviously these books will not give us a systematic history of reading, but they will provide a general orientation to that history, and will give us terms and concepts within which we can think better about our own lives as readers. Then we’ll turn to two life stories, the autobiographical accounts of two people whose lives were changed by reading: Augustine’s Confessions and Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory. To try to get a handle on certain issues related to text and image, and how we cognitively process both text and image, we’ll also read Marjane Satrapi’s wonderful graphic memoir Persepolis. And to all this will be added a series of essays and articles, almost all of which may be found linked to here. Obviously, the theme of this seminar is very close to the core concerns of this blog, so you may expect occasional reports on the issues that arise in our classroom conversations. (But students, don’t worry, none of you will be exposed to the harsh glare of the public eye.)