I went to a photography exhibition last weekend, and on display were items from Irving Penn’s 1951 iconic Small Trades series, a collection of portraits of workers with the clothes and tools of their trades. I was struck by how some of the trades portrayed there no longer exist. The iceman is gone, and so is the milkman, the street photographer, or the telegrapher. Technology, whether refrigeration, the telephone, retail or the personal camera, made many jobs redundant. Tech may be retrofit, but our memory is not. We barely remember those jobs and trades at all.
Similarly, we’ve forgotten how we used to read to each other. Admittedly, we are still being read to in some ways thanks to audiobooks, and many of us still read to our children in bed – and some public readings still happen. But in the long history of reading, we’ve outgrown the practice of reading out loud, to each other, as a means of cultural transmission. We don’t read to each other to remember anymore, or to learn.
An important part in the life of a Benedictine monk was that of reading to the brothers during meals, or listening to another brother’s reading of a chapter from the Rule of St Benedict, the constitution of Latin monasticism. Monastic communal life was a life of communal reading. Whether in the refectory where the monks gathered to eat, or in church where they gathered to pray, reading by rotation to the entire community was de rigueur. It was also quite essential, in that those who were listening didn’t follow the text in their own copies, as it became more common after the Reformation. Reading was an important way of communicating knowledge and delivering devotional value, in addition to being an established ritual and simply something that monks had to do.
Like Irving Penn’s street photographer, we don’t need one to have a picture taken, we can do it ourselves. And it’s as if street photographers never existed – if it wasn’t for testimonies such as Penn’s. The same goes for reading. We can all read for ourselves silently, and when another person reads to us, we consider it art or an act of worship.