Hamilton 1


Buffy Hamilton

ELAN 8005

Response Paper: A History of Reading

July 3, 2005



   After finishing this inte...
Hamilton 2


   How do books and reading define culture? How does culture define
   books and reading?


In many ways, thi...
Hamilton 3


revolutionary ideas in books. They did not believe those who argued

that literacy restricted to the Bible wo...
Hamilton 4


something of an initiation, a ritualized passage out of a state of

dependency and rudimentary communication....
Hamilton 5


    This tension between reading as something to be both revered and

loathed is evident in both small and la...
Hamilton 6



       “But not only totalitarian governments fear reading.
       Readers are bullied in schoolyards and in...
Hamilton 7


      sponsors like Oprah Winfrey’s “Oprah’s Book Club” seem to do
      more to fuel people’s interest in re...
Hamilton 8


in order to glimpse what and where we are. We read to understand,

or to begin to understand. We cannot do bu...
Hamilton 9


thoughts that resonated with me after reading The English Patient in

2004:

     In other words, a reading o...
Hamilton 10


my childhood as well as most of the books from my undergraduate

days as well as the books I’ve accumulated ...
Hamilton 11


   Manguel’s concept of the book as a holding space of memory and

the construction of the communal self ech...
Hamilton 12


cool, and rainy day although I do have fond memories of reading The

Odyssey and Greek tragedies on warm spr...
Hamilton 13


reading”(151). Perhaps the importance of place of reading may

explain why many students find it difficult t...
Hamilton 14




                            References

Manguel, A. (1996). A history of reading. New York: Penguin Books.
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Response Paper To A History Of Reading Buffy Hamilton ELAN 8005 Summer

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Response Paper To A History Of Reading Buffy Hamilton ELAN 8005 Summer

  1. 1. Hamilton 1 Buffy Hamilton ELAN 8005 Response Paper: A History of Reading July 3, 2005 After finishing this interesting history of reading, I found that I needed a few days to digest my journey through Manguel’s book to contemplate my thoughts and responses to the text. Manguel’s story of reading over the ages of humankind was an intriguing blend of facts, philosophy, and narrative, not a chronological presentation of events related to the evolution of reading. Although I embarked on the reading of this book with my independent study questions in mind, in the end I was more intrigued by his interpretations of acts of reading and what it means to be a reader. Consequently, I will frame my responses in both lights. A History of Reading and My Essential Questions At the beginning of this independent study, I designed the following questions to be my overarching framework for my readings, research, and explorations: What different kinds of literate communities exist, and how are they sponsors of literacy? How do these literate communities and literacy sponsors shape lifelong reading? How do they affect cultural perceptions about reading?
  2. 2. Hamilton 2 How do books and reading define culture? How does culture define books and reading? In many ways, this reading seemed to reinforce the ideas in Deborah Brandt’s book, Literacy in American Lives: across space, time, and many cultures, literacy sponsors determined who had access to literacy, a person’s literacy growth, and the kinds of literacy experiences. Whereas the impact of literacy sponsors in Brandt’s study felt more localized and individual, this examination of the history of reading shows the far-reaching powers of literacy sponsors, powers that have literally shaped history and the evolution of human civilization. When one looks at the clout wielded by literacy sponsors, it is rather humbling to realize their subtle yet cumulative impact on culture, politics, and society. Manguel’s examination of the history of reading also echoes Brandt’s concept of the link between a free democratic society and literacy. For example, when Cuban workers instituted the practice of reading aloud in cigar factories, those in position of authority thwarted those efforts because workers began to use literacy as a means for seeking better working conditions rather than simply accepting the practices of those in control of the factories. (108-114). During the 1800s, slaves in the American South were outlawed from learning how to read or write because the slaves, “…. might find dangerous
  3. 3. Hamilton 3 revolutionary ideas in books. They did not believe those who argued that literacy restricted to the Bible would strengthen the bonds of society; they realized that if slaves could read the Bible, they could also read abolitionist tracts, and that even in the Scriptures the slaves might find inflammatory notions of revolt and freedom…Learning to read was, for slaves, not an immediate passport to freedom but rather a way of gaining access to one of the powerful instruments of their oppressors: the book”(279-281). Literacy has been and continues to be a means of perpetuating practices, groups, and ideals that enable and entrench the dominant stakeholders in a society. Even in modern society, history repeats itself daily: the same groups that have traditionally been literacy poor and been oppressed by their limited access to literacy continue to be manipulated by sponsors of literacy in varying degrees today worldwide. Throughout Manguel’s exploration of the history of reading, there is a constant tension between the liberating and dangerous powers of literacy and reading. Reading is more than decoding symbols and signs on a piece of paper or a clay tablet; to read is to think, to have a means to shape one’s destiny in a literate society, to determine one’s fate rather than to be a victim of circumstance and one’s environment. Since the advent of reading and the flourishing of literate societies, Manguel asserts, “In every literate society, learning to read is
  4. 4. Hamilton 4 something of an initiation, a ritualized passage out of a state of dependency and rudimentary communication. The child learning to read is admitted into the communal memory by way of books, and thereby becomes acquainted with a common past which he or she renews, to a greater or lesser degree, in every reading”(71). To become literate is to have more opportunities yet to perpetuate the dominant literacy practices and experiences of a society. In the United States, parents and teachers ingrain the concept that reading is the key to critical thinking and a successful education, which in turn, are the stepping-stones to a fulfilling and better life, yet contemporary literacy sponsors institute practices and policies that make these stepping-stones slippery and treacherous. In American schools, teachers and administrators uphold reading and critical thinking as the cornerstones of opportunity and success, yet the explosion of standardized testing and commercialized reading programs, such as Accelerated Reader, limit critical thinking and standards of learning instead of purportedly “raising the bar.” What signals do these practices and sponsors of literacy send to children about reading? We extol the virtues of reading as something to enrich one’s life, but in the end, reading and literacy are often reduced to what Brandt refers to as an economic commodity.
  5. 5. Hamilton 5 This tension between reading as something to be both revered and loathed is evident in both small and large ways in American society. Children who prefer to read rather than playing sports or participating in other extracurricular activities are often labeled as “introverted” and not as popular as their peers. While a person can be a reader in the elementary school years and still be viewed positively for the most part by children and adults, adolescents who are readers are often marginalized by their peers and excluded from the “popular” crowd. High school athletes are the subjects of school and community recognition, often elevated to a near celerity status, but no similar recognition exists for readers unless they have accumulated an extraordinary amount of Accelerated Reader points. Even in this instance, reading is not valued in and of itself, but reading is viewed as a competition, not a life-enriching activity. In fact, students who practice reading as “civil disobedience” to question the “status quo” in a high school are often labeled as troublemakers who are disruptive and troublesome, not free thinkers who are exercising their right to practice the ideals set forth by our nation’s forefathers. Manguel observes the divergent perceptions as an act that is both revered and feared:
  6. 6. Hamilton 6 “But not only totalitarian governments fear reading. Readers are bullied in schoolyards and in locker rooms as much as in government offices and prisons. Almost everywhere, the community of readers has an ambiguous reputation that comes from its acquired authority and perceived power. Something in the relationship between a reader and a book is recognized as wise and fruitful, but it is also seen as disdainfully exclusive and excluding…Reality---harsh, necessary reality---was seen to conflict irredeemably with the evasive dream world of books. With this excuse, and with increasing effect, the artificial dichotomy between life and reading is actively encouraged by those in power. Demotic regimes demand that we forget, and therefore they brand books as superfluous luxuries” (21). In light of my reading of this book, it seems that literate communities flourish wherever humans have a need that only literacy and reading can fulfill. This reading also seems to reinforce Deborah Brandt’s conception of sponsors of literacy and their power to shape literacy practices in any given society regardless of the culture or historical context. At the same time, this reading has left with some key questions: What is “the” or “a” future history of reading? How will changes in the world’s economy, power structure, and technology shape and influence the place of reading and books in contemporary literate societies? Will a history of reading repeat itself in the future, or are there possibilities we cannot yet envision? What traditional sponsors of literacy may fall out of power, and what new sponsors of literacy will replace them? For example, libraries were once powerful sponsors of literacy, but how has that role changed with the advent of technology? While they seem to influence information access, libraries no longer seem to truly influence book production or people’s interest in reading. Instead, commercial bookstores (physical and online) or
  7. 7. Hamilton 7 sponsors like Oprah Winfrey’s “Oprah’s Book Club” seem to do more to fuel people’s interest in reading than public or even school libraries. Acts of Reading and Readers While Manguel’s story of the history of reading was enlightening and intriguing, I found myself mesmerized by Manguel’s rich accounts of acts of readers and reading, particularly his personal recollections of his reading experiences in his lifetime. I found his personal anecdotes fascinating not only because I personally connected with his experiences, but I also found his descriptions to be rich because they resonated with my earlier studies of reader response theories and lifelong reading. In addition, his accounts seemed to transcend the analytical lens of “sponsors of literacy” and instead give an intimate and personal account of a reader. After participating in a group reading and literary anthropology of The English Patient in ELAN 8410 in the spring of 2004, I observed: After revisiting these questions after our last class meeting and contemplating my experiences as first-time reader of The English Patient, I began wondering more about how acts of reading contribute to our identity and construct a “communal” text of ourselves. How do acts of reading “write” the “texts” of ourselves and help us “read” the world? How do acts of reading “write” us as actual readers? What powers do words have to construct readers and how they read the world? In what ways do we become “communal histories” and “communal books” through acts of reading over time? Manguel speaks to the communal and transactional nature of reading when he asserts that, “We all read ourselves and the world around us
  8. 8. Hamilton 8 in order to glimpse what and where we are. We read to understand, or to begin to understand. We cannot do but read. Reading, almost as much as breathing, is our essential function” (7). In this sense, reading is not a tool for democracy, economic gain, or power, but reading is the essence of one’s humanity, a profound act. Acts of reading help write our own identities and although each act of reading is temporal and unique to that reading in the context of that moment in the reader’s life, that act of reading conditions and influences all acts of reading, past, present, and future. Manguel echoes this sentiment, stating, “This light shines differently on all of us, and differently also at the various stages of our lives. We never return to the same book or even to the same page, because in the varying light we change and the book changes, and our memories grow bright and run dim and bright again, and we never know exactly what it is we remember. What is certain is that the act of reading, which rescues so many voices from the past, preserves them sometimes well into the future, where we may be able to make use of them in brave and unexpected ways” (64). These acts of readings not only construct our identities as individuals, but they contribute to the organic concept of what it means to be human and help us become part of a larger “communal book”: humanity. My reading of Manguel’s chapters, “The Last Page” and “The Book of Memory” evoked my memory of these
  9. 9. Hamilton 9 thoughts that resonated with me after reading The English Patient in 2004: In other words, a reading of a text does not occur in a vacuum, but our transactions with text simultaneously invoke multiple voices and experiences. In a sense, reading is an act of participating in a community because you bring your experiences, values, and beliefs to the text; consequently your transactions with the text condition how you “write” or “construct” meaning of those experiences, values, and beliefs. Those moments of intersection in an act of reading add another layer, subtle though it may be, to your construction of the world and to the “communal” dimension of “self” as well as your transactions with the text. Just as Hana used books and words to cope with a world she could not longer tolerate and to construct a new one in which she could make meaning, so do we use acts of reading allow us to enter a world without walls and to open ourselves to reinvention and reconstruction, a text that is constantly under revision. My reading of Manguel only reinforces my belief that reading is an organic act that constantly revises our notions of “self” and the world around us. With each act of reading, we experience in varying degrees the death of an old self and the birth of a new one that is induced by an act of reading. The chapter “Stealing Books” resonated with me both theoretically and personally. Although I never have enough bookshelves or storage space to hold all the books I own, I find it difficult to give up any of them. While I often fear I will need a particular book at any given moment, I hold onto many books for sentimental reasons just as Manguel did because they remind me of my thinking or a version of myself at a particular point in time. I still own nearly all the books of
  10. 10. Hamilton 10 my childhood as well as most of the books from my undergraduate days as well as the books I’ve accumulated in my “teacher” life of the last thirteen years. When I open one of these books, not only do I recall the story or the words of the book, but I also recall the experience of reading that book and what was happening in my life at that time, a multi-sensory experience rooted in both past and present. I love the physical book not only for the text itself, but I love the book for the experience of reading it represents. In The English Patient, the mysterious English patient created a “communal book of self” he had constructed from gluing and pasting bits and pieces of other texts and experiences into his Herodotus book; this concept of a “communal book of self” and memory reminded me of Manguel’s description of books as placeholders for memory and identity: “I delight in knowing that I’m surrounded by a sort of inventory of my life, with intimations of my future. I like discovering, in almost forgotten volumes, traces of the reader I once was…But then I have also had to acknowledge a grave, irreparable loss. I know that something dies when I give up my books, and that my memory keeps going back to them with mournful nostalgia. And now, with the years, my memory can recall less and less, and seems to me like a looted library: many of the rooms have been closed, and in the ones still open for consultation there are huge gaps on the shelves”(237-238).
  11. 11. Hamilton 11 Manguel’s concept of the book as a holding space of memory and the construction of the communal self echo my 2004 interpretation of Dennis Sumara’s ideas in Chapters 1 and 2 of Private Readings in Public: Schooling the Literary Imagination: Sumara’s observation that, “Memory is a collective phenomenon: past events can only be understood within the space between the remembered event, the present moment, and projections of what might be” (3) reminded me of our discussion about memories, and I began to wonder how do we “re-read” and “re- write” memories and if this continual process might be similar to the way we “re-read” and “re-write” reading experiences with texts. Sumara’s assertion that only one thing constitutes the act of reading, “…the experience of reading as it becomes part of our remembered, lived, and projected lives” (5), seems to parallel his concept of memory. Manguel’s musings in this chapter as well as other sections of the book spoke to the ideas advanced in the Sumara text, but the parallels they draw between reading, memory, and construction of identity are striking. Of utmost importance for me, though, is that both men’s conclusions are borne from their own experiences as readers and literary anthropology; they have come to know about readers and reading through an examination of their own private and public experiences as readers. Finally, “Private Reading” was a chapter that caused me to give more credence to places of reading. Like Manguel, I most enjoy reading in the bed (a lifelong passion!), but I also enjoy curling up on a cozy sofa. In addition, I truly love reading for hours on a cloudy,
  12. 12. Hamilton 12 cool, and rainy day although I do have fond memories of reading The Odyssey and Greek tragedies on warm spring afternoons as a college freshman. On occasion, I do get engrossed in a reading in a place outside of my home. I recently started twice a week allergy shots, and part of the regimen involves a mandatory 20-minute wait after receiving the shot to ensure the patient does not have a negative reaction to the shot. During the first month of my shots, I was engrossed in Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides. One afternoon, I was thoroughly lost in the book when I heard the nurse say, “What are you reading?” I looked up to see if she was talking to me; when I realized her question was directed to me, I told her the name of the book. She responded, “It must be really good! You have been here for over 40 minutes, and everyone else who came in after you got your shot has left!” I looked around, startled not only at the passage of time, but also by the fact I was lost in a book outside of my home. I had never really given much thought to how where we read conditions a reading experience. However, Manguel maintains that, “…not only do certain books demand a contrast between their contents and their surroundings; some books seem to demand particular positions for reading, postures of the reader’s body that in turn require reading places appropriate to those postures. Often the pleasure derived from reading largely depends on the bodily comfort of the
  13. 13. Hamilton 13 reading”(151). Perhaps the importance of place of reading may explain why many students find it difficult to read in a classroom or library, which are often outfitted with uncomfortable seating and are not environments that really do not allow the reader to engage in reading as an act and experience that is “…a self-centered act, immobile, free from ordinary social conventions, invisible to the world…”(153). I think it would be fascinating to interview individuals about reading experiences in their favorite places and to examine how “place” influences reading experiences and memories of reading. In conclusion, the reading of this text was gratifying on a personal level as well as a theoretical level. I enjoyed how my previous readings related to this larger question of “lifelong readers” and “reader response theories” transacted with this particular reading. Most importantly, this reading has opened up some new questions, lines of thinking, and possibilities for research for the remainder of this semester as well as the second part of this independent study into Fall 2005. I look forward to continuing this journey and exploration of reading!
  14. 14. Hamilton 14 References Manguel, A. (1996). A history of reading. New York: Penguin Books.

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