The roots of reading

The theologian Peter Comestor lecturing in the classroom, Paris, Bibliothèque Mazarine, 313 (15th century)

Everybody loves a good etymology. Mark Forsyth’s book Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language ‘ was one of the bestsellers of 2011. It was so popular that year that nearly everyone started thinking of roots more than anything else. Roots were, rather unnaturally, in the air. Two years later, the Santa in the Great Beauty drove the matter home:

‘Do you know why I eat roots?’
‘No, why?’
‘Because roots are important’.

If you read this blog regularly, you will have guessed by now that one of my favourite verbs is ‘to read’, but not the English read, which comes, ultimately, from the Proto-Germanic redan meaning advice. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s all a matter of preference. No, the word I have in mind is the Latin legere, also ‘to read’, one of the most fluid Latin words, and therefore most relevant today. Here’s my rant.

According to the genius of the Latin language, one which has been spectacularly ignored today by those whose mother tongues were nursed and weaned by it – reading is first of all about choosing.

Lego ergo lego. I read, therefore I select, or to latinize, I read, therefore I elect. The act of reading is one of election: electio. To get to the heart – or, better yet, root – of the problem of reading is to grasp that a reading is, at its most fundamental, a picking-out of words on the page, and at its most superficial, making a choice about what gets to be read out of a variety of legible material.

Reading is choosing what to read.

The act of selection is at the heart of reading. E-lectio is not a digital reading, but an election, a selection of candidate items out of a group. Once the candidate has been se-lected, that is hand-picked and put aside (se), they can be allowed to lecture in a lecture theatre. Lecturing is nothing else than reading, and those who choose not to read before their audience are in breach of the etymological terms and conditions. Incidentally, they also make better lecturers. The reason for this stricture goes back to the Middle Ages, of course, where formal education meant a teacher reading the lesson before a cohort of note-taking pupils. The lesson here lies in the lesson itself, the 12th-century French leçon breaking free of the Latin lectio of the earlier periods. Languages evolve, and they often give rise to new ones.

There is no lesson here, really, except perhaps that reading is not merely about exercising one’s literate abilities. Reading goes deeper than that, tracking the roots of its own linguistic past. It reaches down into one of our deepest human qualities, that of making choices, of making good as well as bad choices, of misreading ourselves and others, but ultimately rising above all the misinterpretations and fallacies with the clear purpose of improving and doing a better reading each time.

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