Reading, Now and Then

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In trying to make out The Case for Books, I've found myself circling round the mysteries of reading, past, present, and future. We don't know what it is when it takes place under our nose: Synapses snapping in a hemisphere of the brain? Spiritual contact with other minds, most of them white, male, and dead?

We can form rough ideas of reading in the past by picking up hints from the physical traits of books. In the ancient library of Alexandria, books came in the form of scrolls. Readers gripped them by handles and developed dexterity in rolling and unrolling a ribbon-like text, so the page was not the dominant unit of perception. Nor was the word. Romans often read from wax tablets in which words ran together, leaving the eye to pick out sounds made by combinations of letters. Silent reading existed in antiquity, but it probably was unusual before the first century, when the codex -- books made of leaves sewn together at the spine -- became a vehicle for the spread of Christianity and, with it, a reflective mode of reading, silent and solitary.

Of course, we can only speculate about the inner experience of making sense of words. According to one historian, Rolf Engelsing, a "reading revolution" took place at the end of the eighteenth century. Before then, "intensive" reading prevailed--a practice of scouring only a few books, such as the Bible and Pilgrim's Progress among English-speaking Protestants, over and over again. In the nineteenth century, "extensive" reading became dominant. People read books and periodicals only once, racing from one text to another.

For my part, I believe that reading practices changed radically in the course of the eighteenth century, but not in a single direction. They became more varied -- both more intensive (think of the tears shed over Pamela, La Nouvelle Heloise, and The Sorrows of Young Werther) and more extensive (newspaper reading) as well as more varied in their purposes, whether for pleasure, edification, utility, instruction, titillation, or the amusement of children.

That tendency has continued to the present, accompanied by an additional element: speed. Readers in their teens and twenties expect to communicate with one another instantly and constantly. They are "always on" online, thumbs flying, instant messaging, multitasking, surfing, blogging, and "virtually" existing. Speed reading existed long before the Internet. President Kennedy promoted it in the 1960s. But the new, technological speed-up threatens to transform the experience of reading serious books, the kind that require sustained concentration from cover to cover.

Now that books are "born digital" and readers enter literacy as "digital natives," books and readers come together in ways undreamt of in the Kennedy era -- or fail to come together at all. In a recent article in The Harvard Crimson, Alexandra Petri, a senior, described the difficulty of communicating the love of books to her multitasking, iPod-addicted classmates: " "This is a book", you say, holding up the rectangular, clothbound object and shaking it at them. "Go sit somewhere quiet by yourself and read it." They look at you..."

No one can see far into the digital future. When I attempt to make it out, I come up with only one prediction: the loneliness of the long-distance reader.