Some Fascinating Facts about the History of Reading

During some historical periods, such as early Greece, people didn’t trust reading. Plato was one, saying “It will make the minds of men lazy.” Orality and eloquence were far more respected.

During the Roman Empire, called the first “Literate Empire,” “only someone who could read Latin was litteratus” (Fischer, 2003, p. 149). From the rise of that privileged class has come terms such as literacy, illiterate and literature, as well as today’s formally educated class structure.

Before the civil war, in many southern U.S. states, it was illegal for slaves to read and illegal to teach them to read. Being caught would mean torture or even hanging (Quigley, 2006, pp. 41-46).

Following the Russian Revolution, the Decree on Illiteracy made illiteracy illegal. “All illiterates aged eight to fifty” were required to study. It was “a criminal offence to refuse to teach or study” (Eklof, 1987, p. 131). Not surprisingly, that part of the revolution failed.

“History has shown that…revolutionary regimes have been the only ones capable of organizing successful literacy campaigns. From the Soviet Union to China, from Vietnam to Cuba, all revolutionary governments have given high priority to the ‘war on literacy’” (Arnove & Graff, 1987, p. 1).

In 1859, well before public schools and Canada itself even existed, “on Monday evenings…classes in reading, spelling, and grammar” were held for adults at the Kingston YMCA (Ross, 1951).

“In 1984, two small clay tablets of vaguely rectangular shape were found in Tell Brak, Syria [Mesopotamia] dating from the fourth millennium, BC. Each bearing a few discreet markings…a small indentation near the top and some sort of stick-drawn animal in the centre. One of the animals may be a goat…the other is probably a sheep. The indentations, archeologists say, represent the number ten.

Clay TabletsAcross thousands of years, I felt a voice conjured up, a thought, a message that tells us, ‘Here were ten goats,’ ‘Here were ten sheep.’

All our history begins with these two modest tablets. They are…among the oldest examples of writing we know.” (Manguel, 1996, p.27)

Photo: Two Small Clay Tablets 3300-3100 BC

Read More

Arnove, R.F., & Graff, H.J. (Eds.). (1987). National literacy campaigns: Historical and comparative perspectives. New York: Plenum.

Eklof, B. (1987). Russian literacy campaigns, 1861-1939. In R.F. Arnove & H.J. Graff (Eds.), National literacy campaigns: Historical and comparative perspectives (pp. 123-145). New York: Plenum.

Fischer, S.R. (2003). A history of reading. London: Reaktion Books.

Manguel, A. (1996). A history of reading. Toronto: Viking.

Quigley, A. (2006). Building professional pride in literacy: A dialogical guide to professional development. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing.

Ross, M.G. (1951). The Y.M.C.A. in Canada: The chronicle of a century. Toronto: Ryerson Press.