History of Reading

history of readingFor most of us, there has always been reading. Those of you reading this probably cannot remember a time when you were not able to read the words on this page.  We are lucky that reading just ‘happens’ for us, almost as naturally as spoken language.  But, have you ever really thought about the invention of reading? That’s right. I said invention.  It wasn’t always around, and someone had to come up with the bright idea.

There was a point in history where humans realized that the spoken language is not adequate communication.  We needed something else.  Who knows how it happened.  Maybe leaders verbally gave directions to the best fields for gathering foodstuffs, and the hunter/gatherers got it all wrong and came back empty handed.  Maybe trade among tribes became too complicated to keep track of orally. Whatever the reason, humans decided that nearly six million years of oral communication was no longer enough.  Therefore, six thousand years ago, writing and reading were invented.

While a nameless brilliant mind, centuries ago, realized that he (or she!) needed a written record, it still was not the perfect system.  The timeline for written language proves to have been a slow evolution for the craft we all enjoy today.

Reading began c. 4000 BCE with Sumerian pictographs. It was fairly easy to decode, as it was simply pictures of objects and activities. This method was deemed sufficient enough to last for nearly 2000 years.



Circa 2000 BCE, the Phoenicians complicated matters a bit. They developed the first alphabet.  However, it did not contain any vowels.  Yet, this evolution of writing and reading was still a better representation of the spoken language.  During the Golden Age of Greece, written language was edited even farther by adding vowels c. 1000 BCE. Ancient satirical comedian, Aristophanes, can be directly linked to the addition of punctuation roughly 800 years after the invention of vowels. To clarify,


Medieval Scribes took written language even further; they added lower case letters. A Medieval Scribe’s job was to hand copy text to preserve records and history. Were you able to read the sample sentence above? Most likely not without extreme concentration. I think the invention of lower case letters may have made a scribe’s profession less difficult. For two centuries, Medieval Scribes would painstakingly copy endless text that resembled this:



        Although, the above is a vast improvement, it is still incredibly difficult. A majority of readers had to read aloud, with the exception of an elite few, including Julius Caeser. It took 200 years after the invention of lower case letters for Medieval Scribes to come up with the next and greatest thing; spaces! Yes, c. 700 CE, spaces were added to separate words in text. Now most literate people could read silently with ease, and Caeser was no longer special!

After the impressive progression of written language, you may think that nothing could make reading any easier than spaces between words.  For centuries, many people would have agreed with you. However, the last major invention is thought to be one of the most important inventions of modern times; the printing press.

Prior to Gutenberg’s printing press, knowledge had a major limitation; it was limited to the wealthy. It was a long and expensive process to get a book, as they still had to be handwritten.  Errors were plentiful in books; therefore, there were atrocious errors within the fields of science, medicine, mathematics, and history. Using various human hands to produce educational materials is like playing the child’s game of Telephone; the information gained is extremely unreliable.

If we stop to think about Gutenberg’s contribution to reading, it is truly astounding.  The printing press brought forth movable type and easy and affordable access to mass book production. Book production flourished, and with it an increase in literacy. Europeans craved knowledge, and with accessible books, their knowledge was consistent and reliable. For the first time in human history, the masses were able to rapidly spread their ideas through the written word. Readers flocked to writing that was previously unavailable to them, such as travel books! People were able to spark their own creativity and gain inspiration! All from reading a book.

In his book A History of Reading, Steven Roger Fischer writes that, “What music is to the spirit, reading is to the mind.  Reading challenges, empowers, bewitches, enriches. We perceive little black marks on white paper or a PC screen and they move us to tears, open our lives to new insights and understanding, inspire us, organize our existences and connect us with all creation. Surely there can be no greater wonder.” How very correct he is.

Courtney Keating, Education Coordinator