The unauthoritative advice of a medieval reader for the modern age

Chantilly, Musée Condé, 388, f. 5v

Reading defines our modern culture, whether we read electoral banners, adverts, comics, novels or scholarly articles. Although reading was not invented in the modern period, there are important differences between reading in the ancient and medieval times and the way we read today. We use the same words, and they mean similar things, but somehow they are different.

Medieval readers and writers would find our reading practices today odd, just like modern scholars find pre-modern reading habits strange and often otherworldly.

If medieval readers ever met us, they would have some curious insights to share. Among these:

  1. Cultivate your memory and rely on it as though all the books you’ve ever read will go up in flames and be no more. Memory is a precious repository.
  2. Read every paragraph several times, ruminating it like cud in your mouth.
  3. Don’t ever skip to the next paragraph or turn the page until you’ve made the knowledge your own through perfect assimilation.
  4. Remember that reading is transformative: your substance may not change, but your accidents and your moral frame will change, so pick your reading wisely.
  5. Wrestle with the text as though you were chewing rubbery meat. Best outcomes come from putting a lot of pressure in the right place.
  6. Don’t judge a book by its covers, its title or its author. Remember that most books have spurious authorship, misleading titles and are not even bound properly. Instead, judge a book by the treasure or dung it preserves – and proceed accordingly.
  7. Remember the responsibility behind reading a book. If it’s a good book, make the wisdom therein your own. If it’s a bad book, berate it in a review, prefacing your own book with it.
  8. A bad book should never go unnoticed. Be ruthless. Remember that piece of meat rotting behind your desk which you only start to notice when the air has become filthy. Avoid letting bad books go bad. Review them out of circulation.

One thought on “The unauthoritative advice of a medieval reader for the modern age

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  1. Echoes of Plato’s PHAEDRUS, where he warned that writing would be our downfall because it undermines memory. Just about every entry in this list flows from Plato. As a former lit professor, I wholly endorse the list, though I have some reservations about Plato.


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