Friday, February 13, 2009

Insights Into Reading

This week BBC4 that often lost channel broadcast two book programmes ‘Why Reading Matters’ and ‘How Reading Made Us Modern’.
We realise that those outside of the UK will not be able to view these BBC/iPlayer links but we would recommend those who can to find the time to watch.

‘Why reading Matters’ relates how modern neuroscience is revealing the extraordinary leap we made from our primary senses, to being able to read, understand and the cerebral workout that reading gives the brain. Rita Carter explains how the brain works at reading, she explains how the brain adapts and that importantly, no single part of the brain is dedicated to reading. We are all reliant on joins between different partsof our brains. What are the N400 and P600 reactions when meaning is wrong, surprising or not logical? Did we realise that Shakespeare used difficulty to excite the brain. Importantly is empathy the difference between games and reading?

In ‘How Reading Made Us Modern’ the English academic John Mullan charts the explosion of reading in English society in the 18th century. He starts with the suppression of literature before the revolution. In the reign of Charles 2 printers had to get a licence to press from the king and appachniks. Offenders who published without licence were hung drawn and quartered, printers pilloried and booksellers lost their hands. There were only 20 licensed printers in the whole of the country at the time of the Bill of Rights in 1695.

The ensuing lapse of the licensing act created an explosion of print; newspaper, journals, books, pamphlets and a new luxury market. On 11th march 1702 The Daily Courant, the first daily newspaper, was launched and within 10 years the London Dailys had mushroomed from 1 to 20, each with their own distinct political position and making ‘Politians of Everyman’. There were coffee houses on every street corner that in turn fuelled debate, reading and made it fashionable to be seen reading. The Spectator was read by 1 in 10 Londoners.

Under the patronage of bookseller entrepreneurs such as Robert Dodsley, Sam Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1745, defined good writing and language. George III created his huge library that now resides at the British Library. Every village had a bookbinder and a gentleman was often judged by the covers and spines on his shelves.

Mulllan presents three further interesting developments that have helped shape reading as we know it today. The introduction of ‘penny fiction’ for the masses - the Chap book, which were bought from so called ‘Chapmen’. The creation in Edinburgh in 1740 of Alan Ramsey’s circulating library. These quickly spread into every provisional town and today we would call these public libraries. Finally, the literary emancipation of women as readers, writers and ‘blue stocking’ women, which help create one of the major step changes – the novel, which was best reflected in the first best seller ‘Pamela’ by Samuel Richardson.

Hats off to the BBC for bringing these fascinating insights into reading.

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