Image credit: jblyberg

In case you missed it, this year 14 February wasn’t just an opportunity to pen some purple prose for your beloved. It was also a chance to wax lyrical about your love of reading. On Valentine’s Day 2012, the Australian Government launched their National Year of Reading campaign, Love2Read. An initiative of Australian public libraries and the government, the year-long celebration of reading is intended to encourage the reading habit in every home.

Although I’m all in favour of celebrating the joy and pleasure of reading, sometimes it can be refreshing to take a clear-eyed look at reading itself and how we do it. You’re reading this right now, for instance, on a blog, via a screen – it might even be a very small one you also mash against your ear a few hundred times a week, or swipe with sweaty fingers while killing time on the tram. This is not what we usually talk about when (to corrupt Raymond Carver’s famous line) we talk about reading.

The literary critic I.A. Richards once famously declared, ‘the book is a machine to think with’. His point was that reading involves material and mental mechanics – turning pages, connecting words with images, defining meanings, interpreting symbols, drawing conclusions.

Because the print format of the book has seemed so stable for the last few hundred years it’s easy to leap to the conclusion that the new ways of reading that have developed in the last ten years (on phones, on e-readers, on tablets and laptops) represent a complete break with tradition. But the truth of the matter is that, joy and magic aside, books are a communication technology and have been subject to the same changes and upgrades as any other media. The idea of what a book is and its practical function have been in a state of ongoing development since the fifth century BCE.

The word ‘book’ conveys a deceptive uniformity, but books have not always worked the same way with the same readers over the course of their history. Different cultures have used books differently over time, coming up with idiosyncratic functions in terms of use (reading left to right, or up and down) and storage (pages out or spines out). The switch from scroll to codex came about because lawyers and businessmen were just the kind of discontinuous readers that come in for such a beating today by critics like Nicholas Carr. These ‘distracted’ types needed a better format than the scroll to access information. And so, the codex was born – flicking through bound, indexed pages proved to be much more efficient than scrolling through long rolls of parchment.

Of course, not all the mechanics of reading have proved to be so logical. The novel, for instance, is a case of form winning out over function. Before the novel rose to prominence in the eighteenth century, the codex – ideal for documentation, essays, treatises, and other non-fiction – had become synonymous with the word ‘book’. Contrary to all logic, except maybe the logic of the market, when novelists began penning linear narratives dense with meaning, requiring uninterrupted focus, the novel maintained the codex form. And even still, the novel came to make the codex form its own. Try this experiment: when I say ‘book’, is your first thought of the Yellow Pages or Middlemarch?

This just goes to show the central role readers have in shaping the ideas we hold about books and reading. Could we really expect, then, that the needs and interests of readers in one era will match those of another? Historian of print culture Robert Darnton points out, for instance, that ‘a seventeenth-century London burgher inhabited a different mental universe from that of a twentieth-century American professor.’ Just as surely, a reader today has different requirements and expectations from a reader fifty, or even twenty, years ago.

There’s a tendency to think of technologies as things to do with computers, and forget that the book itself is a technology that evolved over the course of many hundreds of years to suit different purposes; it has been designed over the course of that time to suit those ends in a whole range of distinct and complex modes. It’s great that we have a whole year dedicated to celebrating the fact that we love2read but, at the risk of sounding unromantic, the book is at heart just one media format. Books, on any platform, are still machines for thinking. But if we only immerse ourselves in a leather-bound fantasy world of what it means to read and be a reader we end up ignoring the varied ways in which reading takes place today.

Caroline Hamilton is a Killings columnist, and a research fellow at the University of Melbourne investigating the future of publishing, writing and reading. She has also written a book about the publishing success of Dave Eggers, One Man Zeitgeist.