Libraries & Culture 36.3 (2001) 484
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A History of Reading in the West
A History of Reading in the West. Edited by Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier. Translated by Lydia G. Cochrane. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999. x, 478 pp. $40.00. ISBN 1-55849-213-5.
This collection of authoritative essays on reading since the ancient Greeks marks the culmination of more than twenty years of work in the new history of the book. Following the lead of bibliographer Donald F. McKenzie, the focus of this work is not on print (except for its uses) but on interpretive practices and their changing historical context in Western Europe. Although this approach to cultural history is no longer new, its results are not widely known, even in closely related fields of inquiry. Here the editors, Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier, have assembled the leading scholars in the history of reading to provide a well-balanced, nearly comprehensive survey of developments in the West.
The editors' introduction does a superb job of stating the field's assumptions and summarizing the contributors' essays. All their work is based on two premises, that "reading is not already inscribed in the text" and that "a text exists only because a reader gives it meaning" (1). According to French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, these assumptions require attention to the complex relationship between the world of the text and the world of the reader, which are not necessarily the same, even though scholars often conflate them. The distinct roles of the reader and the writer are in fact mediated not just by the text itself, but by various written objects subject to specific literate habits, all of which change from culture to culture and over time.
This perspective redefines what we know about past and present intellectual life. The object is to make sense of the consumer of texts at least as much as of their producers. Accordingly, Cavallo and Chartier identify four revolutions in the history of reading: the move from public oral to private silent interpretation of texts (a process begun in the ancient world but not much in evidence until the twelfth century); the change from scribal to print culture (another long process in the transition from volumen to the codex that actually started well before the invention of printing in the fifteenth century); the shift from the intensive reading of a few, often religious works to the extensive reading of many different, much more ephemeral texts (a controversial notion that has been all too conveniently attributed to the rise of the bourgeois public sphere in the eighteenth century); and the worldwide cultural transformation from the encounter of fixed texts on paper to the manipulation of electronic texts on the computer screen (a dramatic development in the coauthorship by reader and writer of an ever-changing visual field made possible by the Internet).
No brief review can do justice to such an important work. The implications for the history of intellectual life in the West over the past three millennia are too numerous and too profound even for a book of nearly five hundred pages, much less a review of five hundred words. Ranging broadly, the contributions do not privilege any one period or place; there are two essays on the ancient world, four on the Middle Ages, four on the early modern period, and only three on developments from the Enlightenment onward. In clear, forthright prose, much of it well translated from the Italian by Lydia Cochrane, these essays synthesize the latest historical research on reading as a cultural practice. The scholarly apparatus, bibliography, and index are useful adjuncts to exploration of an exciting new field, making this volume mandatory reading for all scholars and their students in the history of the book and its many uses.
James Smith Allen,
Southern Illinois University, Carbondale