Reading like the ancients did, thanks to modern technology

I have a deep-rooted terror of not being able to read. I don’t mean that I’ll forget how to do it – I have always been an irritatingly confident reader and complex texts hold no fear for me; I’m talking about the physiological process of focusing your eyes on a page.

Born with little to no sight in one eye and now in my late 40s, I have inevitably started to experience further changes in my one sighted eye (and that one’s not particularly great, by the way). I suffer constantly with eye strain. My optician told me (cheerfully) that this was inevitable and expected. I’m embarassed to say it’s not something that occurred to me as likely when I was younger. Like most youngsters, I just assumed I was invincible.

The potential failure of my sight is just one of the reasons why I feel so viscerally irritated by the mantra that “real books” are better than electronic ones or indeed than audiobooks. The whole thing seems so tied up with an air of smugness and is usually disguised as a humble-brag such as “I guess I’m just old-fashioned.” But the underlying implication is always that there is something soul-less and empty about you if you don’t prefer “real” books to the modern alternative. Well, try reading a small-print book (especially one of those 1970s paperbacks) in poor lighting with sight like mine. It simply can’t be done. So when a device came along which allows me to select the font style, font size and page colour: forgive me for doing a little happy dance and never looking back.

On holiday once, I was berated by an elderly Yorkshireman for “staring int’ computer again.” It took me some considerable time to convince him that I was actually reading a book and even when convinced, he shook his head in disapproval. His supposed reasoning was about the “feel” of a book, and it was irrational but not unusual. The fact that books feel and smell like what they are – ink on paper – seems to be the core reason why many people reject eReaders.

I clung to the notion myself for a while. My first eReader, a Sony, was beautiful but felt strange. In the end, the hassle of plugging it into a computer and remembering how to download things proved to be too much of a challenge. I am a lazy technophile and I expect my gadgets to do everything for me in the style of ’70s futuristic Sci Fi. But lo, then the Kindle appeared. It’s easy to forget just what a short time we have all had access to this joyous wonder of modern technology. And when audiobooks exploded into my life, my cup overflowed. I now “read” around 100 books a year; I use scare-quotes because there are plenty of anti-audio-snobs who will tell me that I am not really “reading” at all. But the audiobook has freed me up, not only to read all the time without tiring, but also to experience novels that I know, hand on heart, I would not find the mental energy to get through on my own.

How anyone who claims to “love books” can be suspicious of either the Kindle or of audiobooks amazes me. As a child I had numerous book-related fantasies, and I’m not talking about the book-smelling that I mentioned earlier; I mean the heady fantasies of a child who spends most of her waking hours living and breathing the narrative of her current favourite story. One of my abiding fantasies was to be able to open up my hand and summon a book of my choice in an instant. With the Kindle, my fantasy became a literal reality. As for audiobooks, they allow us all to fulfill the book-lover’s ideal of “always having a book on the go” – quite literally.

But how should one experience a book? In the ancient and medieval world, the oral tradition was dominant. Not until the invention of the printing press was literature widely disseminated, and even then much of it was the preserve of the wealthier classes. Mass availability of literature in print, let alone through the wonderful range of electronic options we have now, is in itself a modern privilege and one I am unspeakably grateful for. With my eyesight, even as it is, there is no way I would ever have learned to read, never mind been able to continue to do so into my middle age and my dotage.

We have little to no idea what percentage of people were taught to read in the ancient world, but let’s talk about those who were. People would most often have read out loud – not because they lacked the capacity to read in silence (there is plenty of evidence from classical texts that they could do so), but rather because accessibility was an issue. It would certainly not be the norm for an ancient family to sit about reading different texts – they simply did not have access to them. Performance aloud was therefore considered normality, and readings and recitations were the standard way of sharing literature in the ancient world. Recitation was basically publication – it was how your work was disseminated. Do audiobooks perhaps take us back to reading as the ancients experienced it?

When it comes to the suspiscion with which some people view the process of listening to a book rather than reading it, I wonder whether they were not read to beyond babyhood. My childhood was different. Both my parents, but particularly my father, read aloud to the whole family throughout my formative years and into my teens. I was read books at an age when I could not (or would not) have read them myself – Treasure Island, some Dickens, dozens of novels by John Wyndham, some classic ghost stories. So I come from a family where reading as a group was a thing. My parents still read books together and I sometimes choose books for them to read together rather than individually. Perhaps that is why audiobooks appealed to me so readily. I saw reading aloud as something to be celebrated and something of value; it certainly never occured to me that it was second best.

When I mentioned to my late father-in-law that I was culling my book collection, for I was tired of the excessive number in the house, his reaction was one of horror: “I couldn’t possibly get rid of a book!” he thundered, as if my decision to donate around half of my ludicrously large collection to charity were an outrage to Jehovah. Not that I ever actually saw him reading a book, mind you, and by his own admission he tended to sample a small snippet before he got bored and moved onto another. This is something, incidentally, that the Kindle is perfect for; he wouldn’t even have had to leave his chair. Audiobooks, I grant you, are less ideal when it comes to this approach; but they are good for short attention spans and you can always rewind them. They are also ideal for making mindless tasks more bearable.

I assumed that I would meet with more rational thinking at work, but yet more irrationalism greeted my pragmatic remarks on space and the relative likelihood of me ever actually getting round to reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. (I mean … really?! Where did I even get it?!) Most of the romantics that I used to work with were considerably younger than I, yet they spoke in the same terms as the elderly Yorkshireman and my father-in-law. (God help us). More mumblings about smells and the rustling of paper, more lofty claims about how wonderful it is to live surrounded by a myriad of book-spines. I wonder how many of these people have had to move in and out of countless college rooms, jobs and houses with a large book collection? I spent eight years in Higher Education, and for some of that time I had to move in and out of my room six times a year. When I moved into lodgings near my first place of work, I was given a month’s notice in the first few weeks. Flat shares followed and a good deal of further moving before I even began to settle down. Then I met my husband and moved again, twice in one year. Since moving to our current home I have moved my books on and off temporary shelves and up and down stairs ad nauseam, as we progress through a decorating process that will probably never finish. And by the time you have moved hundreds of books hundreds of times, trust me: you start to resent them. Not their contents, you understand, but their physical presence.

In Stephen Fry’s first novel, The Liar¸ the wonderful Professor Trefusis, a character who lives surrounded by improving volumes in what he calls his “librarinth”, is similarly fed up: ‘Waste of trees. … Stupid, ugly, clumsy, heavy things. The sooner technology comes up with a reliable alternative, the better.’ A wise man, Professor Trefusis, who elsewhere in the novel points out that the physical existence of a book is irrelevant to its intrinsic value: ‘Books are not holy relics. … Words may be my religion, but when it comes to worship, I am very low church. The temples and the graven images are of no interest to me. The superstitious mammetry of a bourgeois obsession for books is severely annoying.’

Books are a vessel for learning, a gateway to knowledge or a vehicle that can transport you to another world. They are not of intrinsic value, yet what they bring to those of us that love them is incalculable. For me, anything that speeds up and facilitates that process is a Godsend.

Photo by Robert Anasch on Unsplash

Author: Emma Williams

Latin tutor with 21 years' experience in the classroom. Outstanding track record with student attainment and progress.

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