06 January 2012

The Art of Reading, Then and Now

The cover-to-cover deep reading that was typical of my generation when we were students is now almost extinct, and instead you’ve got superficial reading: reading snippets and tweets and cutting texts up into tiny units that really prevent any appreciation of the whole sweep of a text. I have one half-answer to that, which isn’t adequate but I think deserves consideration. And that is, first of all, that this cover-to-cover deep reading shouldn’t be exaggerated as something that occurred in the past. We have learned a lot about the history of reading, which is one of the aspects of the history of books that we’re trying to develop, and one thing we have learned is that, for example, sixteenth-century humanists rarely read a book from cover to cover. They were reading what we today would call ‘snippets’, or even ‘tweets’, they were taking - . . .

They were taking short passages out, copying them into Commonplace Books, and using those passages for various purposes, often rhetorical battles at court by their patrons, or what ever it was. But this was not reading in the way that we like to imagine it. Now, of course, deep reading also did take place. I’m not denying that for a minute. But I’m not sure that we can assume that it was typical.

Professor Robert Darnton, Harvard University

Painting: Teodor Axentowicz (1859 - 1938)

Thanks to Jane Friedman for pointing me to Darnton's interview


  1. Well, that's certainly an interesting post. I work in an elementary school and I hear teachers talking about how cover-to-cover reading is disappearing. Now I have something to contribute to the discussion!

  2. Thanks for visiting, Lara. I'm sure we'll be running into each other more and more. I'm very happy that, as an educator, this post has special significance for you.


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