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When did we stop reading aloud?

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The memory is an echo, but the thunder and gallop of the rhythm still quivers in my head:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the Valley of Death rode the six hundred,

the opening lines from Alfred Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade. Back in my home-schooling days when we lived in Morocco, my dear mother, poor lady, was implored to read this poem over and over again by two of my older brothers and I during our weekly poetry class. Sometimes I envied my other siblings who attended the local school, but not during poetry class. We didn’t have to do anything, just listen (and try not to fidget). Sometimes, on a glorious day, the sweet Mothership would take us outside and conduct the lesson in the shade of our back yard. Bliss. Give her half the chance – no, less – and she’ll still whip out an old favourite before you can say, “Mum, do you remember that poem you used….”

Likewise, I will never forget – not in all my life – my Italian professor reading out long passages from the Divine Comedy in Italian. It is some of the most beautiful poetry ever written, and to hear it read in its native tongue is enough to make you melt. You absolutely have to believe me. Amongst my favourites are the mellifluous opening lines of Purgatorio Canto VIII:

Era già l’ora che volge il disio
ai navicanti e ‘ntenerisce il core
lo dì c’han detto ai dolci amici addio,

The above examples illustrate some of the rare scenarios when reading aloud is still practiced and therefore normal: to children and in places of learning. The few other examples I can think of are: in court, at religious gatherings, and readings. Even readings, though, have become an “alternative” passtime. Count the occasions you’ve been to a reading versus gone out for dinner or to the movies. As for religious gatherings, a lot of people don’t. And court, well let’s just hope not.

Truth is, we don’t read aloud very often – and I’m as culpable as anyone. Reading aloud, it seems, has become somewhat of a lost art, a tradition battling an incipient extinction. But why?

One thing is for sure, read a book to a child and you’ll feel quite normal, even grown up. Read a book to an adult and you’ll feel like a complete plonker. Likewise, I know most of us descended into a blind panic when called upon to read during class: our eyes suddenly flittering in and out of focus, the surge of blood to the head as we anticipated a stutter or mispronunciation, fearing the censorious judgments of the teacher, not to mention the merciless taunting of classmates. So that’s clearly part of the reason: we’re embarrassed, or far too self-aware at least. But surely embarrassment alone hasn’t eroded this millennia old tradition.

In my last post on blogging and the history of writing I mentioned that Homer never wrote down a single word of his poetry, meaning – incredibly – that it was passed down orally for centuries. But that was normal back then because no one was very literate. Well, literacy didn’t really exist at all. Then literacy happened, slowly. So people who couldn’t read a story had to listen to one. On top of that, there weren’t very many books knocking around, and those that were, remember, cost you a pretty sum. So going to a reading was a bit like today’s equivalent of going to the library – you have to put up with a few weirdos, it kind of smells, but you get the same thing for free.

But now where are we? Everyone can read and books are as cheap as chips (if you buy them on Amazon). The conclusion, then: we don’t read aloud anymore because we don’t need to. More interesting, though, is that the spread of literacy and availablity of books – both wonderful things – have aggravated the demise of an equally important and longstanding tradition.

Fortuantely, not everywhere has reading aloud become such an atavistic activity. The Italians and their affair with the Divine Comedy is an apropos example.

For centuries in Italy in different piazzas, town halls, and auditoriums the Italians have shared in the prolific Lectura Dantis, the reading of Dante’s Divine Comedy, often in its entirety, over a series of days – weeks, really. (The Divine Comedy, by the way, is composed of three books – Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso – totalling 100 Cantos, each Canto comprising some 130+ lines. Yes, this is one poem. And the entire thing rhymes – and brilliantly, too). This has been happening since Boccaccio’s time, who himself, as orator, partook in the very same tradition in the piazzas of Florence. The beauty of this is that it still happens to this day, lead by, most notably, Academy Award winner and Italy’s cherished Roberto Benigni. Extraordinarily, he recites each Canto from memory. You can find videos of this on Youtube, my favourite being his recital of the last Canto, the climax and apogee of the entire poem. It is exquisite, breathtaking, life-affirming. Trust the Italians: when they do something well, Madonna mia don’t they know how to knock your socks off!

So we’re not all Roberto Begnini, I know. But we can try at least; we can begin to rediscover something of this important and increasingly rare tradition. Not just for tradition’s sake, but because it’s entertaining, sociable, beautiful. So read to each other. It takes some courage, and you may feel a little foolish, I understand. But you’ll also experience joy, trust me. Go on, promise me you’ll try it.

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Blogging and the history of writing

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At some point in time, probably a very long time ago indeed, something quite extraordinary happened: someone (or a group of people) decided to transfer spoken language into symbols. We can only surmise what the implements were – a finger in the sand perhaps? Burnt embers on stone? – and what the purpose of their communication was. And how the moment unfolded can likewise only be left to supposition. Was it a brilliant flash of genius followed by much metaphorical popping of champagne corks? Or was it an unruffled affair of simple necessity owing to the natural vicissitudes of mankind? Whenever and however it happened, it marked one of the most significant shifts in the history of mankind – the move to written/visual communication.

Of course this visual communication could not be called writing in itself. Rather, historians refer to it as proto-writing, literally a proto-type. (For those interested, Andrew Robinson has written several books on writing and scripts.) Really, proto-writing was a form of drawing, which is why its individual elements are called pictograms. Technically speaking, therefore, if you could draw, you could (proto) write. Although the width of your readership probably left much to be desired.

Proto-writing developed into more complex pictograms. Most of the earliest examples of these were inscribed into clay tablets, and whose existence today, by the way, we owe to the fact that they were baked and hardened in the fires of incinerated communities. These emerged around 3300 BC, and interestingly their purpose seems to be predominantly mathematical – ancient Excel spreadsheets recording and balancing transactions.

The pictograms became ever more complex and therefore esoteric, Egyptian hieroglyphic script being an excellent example. Clay tablets gave way to papyrus and other forms of parchment. And so nations, it appeared, began writing their stories and histories, not just their financial transactions. Then alphabets appeared, the Phoenician in 1000 BC, the Greek in 730 BC, just in time for Homer’s poetry. Interestingly, though, Homer is believed to have lived closer to 850 BC, and therefore his poetry was transmitted only orally for at least a century, if not two (depending on which scholar you believe). If you could write back then, that was probably your job; you were a scribe. But as Homer’s example evinces, it wasn’t so much about readership as “listenership”.

The codification of alphabets (and therefore language) and the spread of “education” no doubt accelerated the art and practice of writing. Readership now relied on literacy and wealth. Your own manuscript would cost you an arm and a leg.

Then another monumental shift in the history of writing occurred, this time during the boom of the European Renaissance: the invention of “movable type”. In other words, the printing press. To say it revolutionized the way writing was produced and disseminated is practically an understatement. Suddenly books could be made en masse. Partner this with ever exploding trading routes and you could have your own copy of, say – Dante’s Divine Comedy (with illustrations), printed in Florence and over to you in London in a month or two. OK not quite as expeditious as Amazon’s standard free 3-5 business day shipping, but not a million miles away either, and not bad for the fifteenth century, you’d have to agree.

Next up was your very own printing press of sorts – the typewriter, invented in 1867. I have my own, a Smith-Corona Skyriter (salvaged from Value Village for the ransom of $30). It is an object of unparalleled mechanical beauty. And then of course, much like Bob Dylan’s music, writing went electric. From pictograms to telegrams. The 1980s saw the first ever electronic word processor, and the 1990s heralded the invention of the irrepressible and now ubiquitous monolith – the World Wide Web. Still, though, if you wanted anyone to read what you had written you pretty much had to get published.

Enter blogging stage left. Hardly a grande entrance. More of a discreet shuffle out from the wings. Even the word evoked suspicion. “Blog?” we all thought. It sounded too frumpy, too guttural. Somewhere between a blob and a log. Not the most alluring of literary enterprises. Like I said, we all thought. And now where are we? – hundreds of millions of blogs, and the vocation of scribe has become the vocation of blogger.

You know already the point I’m going to make about readership; it’s roll-your-eye-balls obvious, but nonetheless remarkable: write a blog piece and post it, and virtually anyone in the world with an internet connection (an estimated 2 billion+ people) can read what you’ve written. We’ve all got used to this idea, I know. But from the perspective of history’s timeline of writing the shift is jaw-dropping! There’s been a heretofore unwitnessed explosion. We are living on the mushrooming cloud of a fusillade of new and accessible writing.

I’ll admit, I used to feel mild disdain towards bloggers – What because everything you  have to say is so desperately important? Well actually, in a way, yes it is. I’ve come to accept that what we have to say is important. What you have to share is valuable. Not everyone’s going to be interested (a lot of people won’t even care), and what you post is not always going to be brilliant or “right”. But when it comes from a place of truth within yourself – and interests and creativity are an inseparable part of that truth – then it matters. And that’s why it should be shared. And that, readers, is what blogging is all about.