The History of Reading and the Literate Life: Seth Lerer at TEDxUCSD



am i as handsome as he said I was all right well I'll take that thank you I'll take that as a no this is a scroll I am NOT here to tell you how to make money I am NOT here to tell you how to found a startup I am here to tell you how to read and write and in order to understand how to read and write you need to know something about the history of reading and writing and so my theme today and the subject of my research and of my teaching is the relationship among writing reading technology the body and cognition and as we move from a traditional literacy of the printed book to a digital world of screens and pads we need to understand that much of what we're going through is something that earlier societies went through in moments of comparable transition and so what you see before you here is a scroll in ancient Greece in ancient Rome in ancient Egypt in the Middle East writing was done not on bound books but on Scrolls and our word volume comes from the Latin word volumen meaning something rolled up now Scrolls are very hard to use they're very large you cannot skim them you cannot access them with ease scrolls are part of the tradition of Jewish religious culture much as they were a part of the tradition of ancient Greece and ancient Rome and as a scholar when I see a scroll I think of something classical and as me when I see a scroll I have bar Mitzvahed Rama now when you were a student in scroll world you took notes on a piece of wood that was covered with wax and you wrote on it with a stylus and a stylus was a sharp stick on which you could incise the letters and the words of your notes and then you would memorize it or you would go home and you would write it down you would copy it and then you would hold the wax over a candle and it would melt and you would have your blank slate once again and in the first and second centuries BCE it occurred to students and teachers that if you took some of these blocks of wood and sewed them together you could make something which they called a codex a codex was a bound collection of wooden boards and then several centuries later it occurred to people that you could take pieces of animal skin or sheets of papyrus and you could bind them together in a comparable way and thus what you would get would be a bound book now the bound book differs in many ways from the scroll it differs technologically that is your access to the bound book is vertical rather than horizontal you can open a bound book at random you can skim you can put your finger in a book and flip someplace else but a bound book differs from a scroll also ideologically the scroll was the book the volume for ancient Greece ancient Rome and ancient Jewish thought when the early Christians in the first century of the Common Era wanted to write their scriptures in a way that was different in kind from classical or Jewish Scripture they used the bound book of the Codex the codex was also available to them because it was smaller than a scroll it was surreptitious you could put it in your pocket and not be caught st. Augustine st. Agustin the great father of the church who wrote his confessions in the year 394 imagines himself as a young man beset by sin stealing fruit from a neighbor's garden learning rhetoric and language teaching but still hungry for the knowledge of divine truth and in this medieval representation of this late antique Saint we see him sitting beneath a fruit tree with an open book in his confessions he talks about how one day beset by anxiety and fear he took a copy of the bound book of Saint Paul's epistles and he opened the book at random and he read not in reveling and drunkenness and he says I put my finger in the passage and I closed the book and at that moment I need not read any further st. Augustine is converted to Christianity through the bound book but what st. Agustin recognizes and what Christian theologians throughout the Middle Ages recognized was that the bound book gave you a different way not just of reading texts but of reading the world one of the things that the early Christian theologians developed was a theory of allegory allegory literally means saying one thing and meaning another but for the early Christians allegory was a special kind of way of saying in meaning what they wanted to do is they wanted to read the stories of the Old Testament as allegorical prefiguration of stories in the New Testament in other words the belief was that somehow the New Testament completed in a figural or imaginative way the Old Testament so let's imagine you're reading an Old Testament story about a father and a son and the son has a load of wood on his back and the father is taking them up a hill and the father is intending to sacrifice him now you might say that this is the Old Testaments story of Abraham and Isaac but if you were a medieval Christian you might say where is there another story of a son with a load of wood on his back walking up a hill to be sacrificed by the father that of course is the story of the passion and the crucifixion as the son jesus walks with the wooden cross up a hill to be sacrificed by his father God and so the medieval theologians saw these two stories as allegorical er figure elated and the technological way of enabling that interpretation was the bound book that enabled you to take the Old Testament and read a story and stick your finger in that passage and then flip to the New Testament so my point is that the technologies of reading are not just simply about accessing information they are about changing the way in which you think about the world they are about changing spirit and they are about changing the metaphors by which we live I talked about the volume and voluminous the word rubric comes from the Latin verb rubric ra which means to write something in red in the medieval scriptorium the world with a manuscript was written there was a particular division of labor and one person had a job to write the red stuff and he was called a rubric hater and what you wrote in red were chapter titles as you can see that word capitulum here's the chapter title and they wrote in red things that were important things that became rubrics so when we think of a rubric we should think of something written in red that is important and when we think of a rubric we should think of reading a chapter title Dante Dante who wrote The Divine Comedy but before he wrote The Divine Comedy in the 12 90s he wrote a lovely little book called the new light it's a story of how he meets Beatrice when he's nine years old and how when they are 18 he sees her once again let me pause and say when I taught the Divine Comedy and when I taught the the Vita Nuova to my students here in Ravello manatees and I told them the story of Dante meeting Beatrice at 8:00 and then waiting another nine years to see her again and then he sees her and he practically passes out and right to Paul and they said okay so Dante begins the V actually I won't tell you what they really said but Dante begins the Vita Nuova and he says in that part of book in that book of memory where one finds the rubric here begins the new life and he sees his memory as a bound book your mind is made up of chapters and for each chapter there is a rubric that is the first line of the first work that Dante wrote and one of the last lines of the last work that Dante wrote the Paradiso the story of paradise at the end of the Divine Comedy Dante in Paradise in canto xxxiii looks at the very Godhead itself at divinity and he says in its depth I saw going inside bound by love into a single volume that which was previously scattered as pages throughout the universe Dante begins and ends his career as a poet as a writer with the image of the book remembering the chapters of his mind and then imagining the blessings spirituality of communion with God as in effect binding the book together this is what I'm getting at the technologies of reading and writing provide culture with metaphors of understanding and if I had more time I talked about Gutenberg and the printing press I talked about the way in which the very word impression changed dramatically with movable type but what I want to look at now are the in which not simply our minds but our bodies are shaped by the experience of reading this magnificent picture by Rembrandt of a woman reading shows us that the reading of a book traditionally is what I call absorptive to read a book is an active absorption you look down you hold it in your hand you are oblivious to that which is going on around you you curl up over and around the book when computers began to proliferate at the 80s and 90s screen reading became not absorptive but what I would call theatrical you did not look down you looked out as you can see in this very picture the way in which these individuals are pointing at the screen shows that the very physicality of reading changed when we moved from book to screen that the acts of bodily movement and the acts of social cognition changed as well little wonder then that what we miss in the book is the absorptive moment and so the rise of the e-book is I would suggest to you and attempt to recapture in the form of an electronic simulacrum the experience of reading this is not a book it's book like it's a book like experience and the very words we have today for our ear eaders evoke in our minds the metaphors of mystery and imagination the Kindle that Kindles the fire of the mind why are you asleep in the front row would you give him a poke please I am working up here come on ah sit up sit you're in the front row enhance my self-esteem thank you anybody else want to mess with me Tyndale the kindling fire of via Maddow he's gonna take a pic now he's really gonna die look the quietude the solace the silence of sitting in a corner the Kindle and the Nook although I have to tell you and I've said this many times before that when these ebooks happened I called my mother and I said to her would you like an e-book for your birthday she said yeah what are you gonna get me I said you want a Kindle what do you want to look she said a Kindle or Nook she said it doesn't sound repairs that Nook in that can the way is that Kimball it's in the Nook it sounds all wrong especially after st. Agustin and it also sounds all wrong when I think of my own students who don't even get these jokes who think I'm the oldest man in the world who read my emails as if they were business letters and finally distant and detached in the rhetoric of my electronic epistle arity here is an email from a student I received almost 10 years ago when I taught at Stanford University prof Lehrer on my way out to class today I got a piece of glass stuck in my foot it was bleeding and hurting a lot so I had to come back and clean it up sorry about the absence but I'll get the notes from someone apologies okay so I read this and I thought to myself how can I make something meaningful out of this text I have a PhD I can take anything and turn it into literature and I realized at that very moment I realized at that very moment that there was a lilt of American colloquialism here that the world of email is not the world of stupidity it is the world of what I would call faux intimacy it is the world of affectation as if the idea of grammar spelling punctuation and correct diction would be distancing as if intimacy were to be accomplished rather through the irregular but I read it again and as I read it to myself again I heard the lilt of the American poet prof Lehrer on my way out to class today I got a piece of glass stuck in my foot it was bleeding and hurting a lot so I had to come back and clean it up sorry about the absence but I'll get the notes from someone apologies and I could not but think of William Carlos Williams is this is just to say I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox and you are probably saving for breakfast forgive me they were delicious so sweet and so cold these are letters my friends my friends and you are my friends how does the email of a student resonate with the language of American poetry these are post-it notes on the refrigerator of life they are apologies for damage or destruction just as st. Agustin flung himself under the fruit tree to recreate the imagined sense now of taking a bite of the fruit not in sin but in knowledge William Carlos Williams asks apology of the reader for taking stolen fruit and as I thought to myself how can we understand the relationship between the modern and the ancient in this way if I could find in a modern email or resonance with a great American poem surely we can find something in this be right back these are actually texts that I personally have received be right back deep with passionate kiss on the lips gotta go now I laughed I cried I spilled coffee on my keyboard and talk to you tomorrow and yet because I am a scholar of the past and I have four seconds left I see this as exactly the same as this cuneiform tablet in which the ancient scribe has written new Ed's unbound wrote any new echo echo 10 E and nu as an innocent hesitating Varma echo 10 e now you eat the bread then you eat the water this is Hittite cuneiform in which the words for bread and water are written out not as words but is India graphic signs this is the uniform equivalent of I heart New York and so my argument at the end is that these forms of literacy are not damaging but they are constantly changing that in this world we need to understand the text messaging and email are a kind of code and if there will be a future for literacy it will be a stratified future a future in which everyone uses a different discourse of language I remember a time when I could walk into a classroom with a bound book and stick my finger in it and I could talk about William Carlos Williams and stolen fruit and temptation and apology and today the only fruit I walk into a classroom with is by McIntosh my students read their assignments on their iPhones and I know that somewhere up in heaven Steve Jobs is looking down and finding that it's good thank you job

21 thoughts on “The History of Reading and the Literate Life: Seth Lerer at TEDxUCSD”

  1. So, it's good that this generation has horrible grammar and spelling? It's good that there are increasingly divergent tiers in modern communication? How about educating this generation to write properly. Or is that saved for the elite?

  2. As good orator as he is, his tone is extremely neurotic and frightening, as if he is trying to scare or punish the listeners.

  3. Can we possibly get captions on this please? Would love to share with someone who is Deaf but the automated captions are not accurate. Thank you!

  4. We shouldn't confuse reading the text with reading the world. Educated illiterates do the former and literates the latter.

  5. Fantastic talk…love TEDx. And yes a kindle or any ebook just does not work for me. I need those pages. I need that smell.

  6. Brilliant and compelling lecture.  I whish Dr. Lerer had taken the time to examine  moveable type in more detail. One correction, though: the painting of the old woman reading the Bible (see 11:10) is not by Rembrandt but by Gerrit Dou c 1630.

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