In The Great Cat Massacre, Robert Darnton says, “To understand how the French…read books is to understand how they thought…” Books in the 18th century were hand made, the paper chosen specifically for the client. Revolution in technology has also changed reading habits. No longer is it important to ‘feel’ the word, we just use kindle readers, iPads and so on, download what we want and read.
To me, this is impersonal. I do not spend the time to search for the perfect book, I just type it in the search engine and poof I have my book. No more stumbling across the obscure title, while looking for the new bestseller. No more exchanging how a particular piece of prose affected you with the 80 year old bookseller you always go to to get your fix. The one who knows what you like, and has guided your reading and developed your taste for philosophy, art, comparative religion, history and the travelogue. No more feeling the paper between your fingers as you turn the page. No more reading a family heirloom, with notes in the margins made by your great-grandfather and comparing your thoughts to his. No more reading under the covers using only a flashlight so your parents don’t discover you haven’t slept all night.
I cannot remember how or when I learnt to read, but I do know reading has molded my personality, reflecting on my thoughts and actions. So, choosing a book, the way it feels in your hand says a lot about how reading affects your thought process. What does reading a paperback vs a hardback or limited edition say about your cognitive process? In fact, Robert Darnton argues that a peoples culture can be determined from what they read. Reading does not only help us ascertain what people think but how they think – “how they construed the world, invested it with meaning, and infused it with emotion.” [Introduction – The Great Cat Massacre].
Reading helps us with the culture of nations, what might have been acceptable in the 18th century was unacceptable now, just follow how literature and popular fiction has evolved. I grew up on a staple of Alistar McLean, Ludlum, Oscar Wilde, Jack London, Hemingway, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Bronte sisters, and so many more. Now everything is vampires, magic, zombies – relationships with the dead or unreal. What does that say about our culture? Are we delusional? How do ordinary people make sense of this? “It begins from a premise that individual expression takes place within a general idiom,…that we learn to classify sensations and make sense of things by thinking within a framework provided by our culture.” What are we providing our children?