The acrobatics of reading

Anju Dodiya’s struggle with books and reading as part of the Conversations On Tomorrow installation @Sadie Coles gallery Mayfair, London (visited this weekend)

To believe the meme wisdom of this age, there are very few things more enjoyable than cozying up with a book in bed, on the sofa, on the beach or even under the canopy ot a tropical forest. Reading is often am integral part of the New-Age lifestyle. Burning candles, soothing music and a hard copy.

But the physical and mental pleasure of leisurely reading a book is quite a recent thing. For centuries, reading was rather seen as a mental exercise, a spiritual workout, a cognitive bootcamp in search of resilience and character development.

For the ancients and the medievals, our pre-modern reading ancestors, picking up a book and staying with it was about the pursuit of virtue and the cultivation of the soul. And, for this very reason, it was a struggle. Reading was not a quiet activity, but a tormented acrobatic routine of the mind.

First, there was memory. The written word was always moveable type: data on the move, the constant transfer from the page to the storerooms of the mind. The premodern readers developed the most advanced techniques for memorising words, phrases, paragraphs, even entire chapters and books. Finding himself in prison in the 520 AD, Boethius, the last true ancient philosopher, wrote his age-shattering work The Consolation of Philosophy relying on hundreds of books he had read and memorised before his imprisonment. The flash disk of human memory.

Then, there was, as the medievals called it, rumination, ruminatio, the process of transforming the contents of the book into food for the mind and the soul, the stuff seen to be at the heart of what it is to be human and to pursue the human project, life in the city, for some, life before God, for others. For the premoderns, reading was not a casual activity, but the chewing, as the metaphor went, of wisdom for the benefit of the reader. Nutritious text nourishing the heart, metabolising into a mind- and soul-enriching experience. And, to believe the thinkers of that age, reading was more like chewing overboiled cuttlefish than mashed potatoes. Cognitive acrobatics resulting in a transformed mind and a matured soul.

In the next post, I will look at some of the manoeuvers involved. Stay tuned.

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