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But What Exactly Is Reading?

That question raises some intriguing anthropological issues. One could say that reading is retrieving information encoded by making marks on a material base, but that begs yet another question. As Germaine Warkentin has noted, some indigenous peoples of North America seem to have recorded information on wampum belts, birch-bark scrolls, stone cliffs, and (among the Git'ksan of British Columbia) ceremonial cloaks. But linguists cannot read these texts (if indeed they are texts) as they might decipher and read Egyptian hieroglyphics, or the glyphs on a Mayan stela. In some cases they must be read—or, more accurately, performed—by an authorized member of the native nation. And different native "readers" may read different significances into the same inscription. One might conclude that a Git'ksan cloak is more like a work of abstract expressionist art than a document: it is supposed to be suggestive rather than precise. Yet a member of the Git'ksan nation will probably insist that the cloak is "written," not "painted." True, its meaning is radically indeterminate, but a generation of postmodern critics have argued that all texts are wide open to interpretation. Given all that, can one truly "read" a cloak?

One way of coping with this quandary is to go back to the original meaning of the word. Laurel Amtower makes the point that in Old English, raedan could refer to any kind of "interpretation and glossing of signs in a world in which all was text." It might involve reading a boc (an Anglo-Saxon term that included all sorts of documents, not just books per se). But one could also read things that were not (strictly speaking) documents, for example "Ic raede swefn" (I read dreams) (Amtower, ch. 2). That wider meaning survives in colloquial English in the early twenty-first century, as in "How do you read this situation?" A new methodology, "audience history," treats reading in that expansive sense, reconstructing (as far as possible) the entire cultural diet of a given group of individuals. Thus The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes considers not only how workers read books, magazines, newspapers, and advertising bills, but also how they "read" films, radio programs, musical performances, and school lessons.

Broadly, then, the history of reading has become the history of interpretation. Historians have become all too aware of the epistemological questions they encounter whenever they try to make sense of texts, and some of them have concluded that the most fruitful approach to those questions is a historiography of reading, which asks how readers in the past made sense of texts. The importance of the subject is clear: wars have been fought over different readings of treaties, scriptures, and intelligence reports. If, as Erving Goffman put it, people are always "reading" the sensory data that showers in on them, always asking themselves "What is it that's going on here?" then cultural historians must inevitably address "reading" widely defined.


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McHenry, Elizabeth. Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies. Durham, N.C., and London: Duke University Press, 2002.

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Rodden, John. George Orwell: The Politics of Literary Reputation. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 2002.

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Vincent, David. Literacy and Popular Culture: England 1750–1914. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Warkentin, Germaine. "In Search of 'The Word of the Other': Aboriginal Sign Systems and the History of the Book in Canada." Book History (1999): 1–27.

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Jonathan Rose

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Quantum electronics to ReasoningReading - How Historians Study Reading, Some Models, But What Exactly Is Reading?, Bibliography