What are you reading?

A review from TLS of what looks to be a fascinating book.

Pass the tortoise shell: Eve Houghton explores reading and writing across time and space
The history of the book does not always involve the study of either history or books. As James Raven shows in this slim, engaging volume, the question of what sort of object might count as a book remains very much up for debate. The history of the book in the Western world has traditionally made “book” synonymous with “codex” – gatherings of leaves folded or stitched together – but in Professor Raven’s geographically and chronologically wide-ranging account, it takes a variety of material forms: Chinese tortoise shells inscribed 3,000 years ago; Sumerian clay tablets impressed with cuneiform scripts; knotted string records, or khipus, used for record-keeping by South American Incan officials. The boundaries of the book seem even less clearly defined in the era of the blog post and Kindle.

I’ve mentioned khipus here before. It’s so odd to think of a bundle of knotty string as a book. But of course books aren’t just written, using knots or otherwise — they’re read too, a trickier research topic.

The book also gestures towards emerging areas of scholarship, particularly in an illuminating chapter on the history of reading. Raven writes that reading is “the most significant and challenging dimension of the history of books”. Because it leaves few material records, reading remains one of the most elusive practices to capture in historical terms. For example, it is not always a silent, solitary activity. As Paul Saenger and other scholars have shown, there is significant evidence that many people in pre-modern Europe heard books more than they read them. But how can historians and literary critics account for a form of engagement with books that, more often than not, left no trace behind?

I was going to make a comment about the rich, varied and global history of the book standing in contrast to its bland, flat future, if Amazon has its way, but that could be a little hypocritical as I’ll probably read this on my Kindle, like everyone else.

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Author: Terry Madeley

I work with student data and enjoy reading about art and design, data, education and technology.

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