There can be few who now need convincing that the very idea of reading in private has been a disaster for humanity. Books were never designed to be facilitators of self-indulgent introspection, but, alas, this is the dire pass toward which history has brought them and us.
Historically, hand-written books were expensive to make and own. To read a book privately to oneself was as selfish and decadent as travelling by private jet. Then, the decline. In the 4th Century, St. Augustine bursts in on St Ambrose indulging in a private and shameful practice when alone in his chambers: reading silently.
This act of scholarly onanism seems to have spread. When printing made the manufacture of books inexpensive, there was no shortage of profiteers wishing to cash in on the general populace’s weakness for private thought. Aldus Manutius was the ring-leader – a man who designed books to be small enough to secrete on one’s person. In 15th Century Venice, when a young man was late for supper, it was odds on that he had been sat under a tree, mentally – and privately – gorging himself on Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Alas, his poor parents would have had no idea.
To the present, when it is not uncommon to see people sitting on a train reading from a ‘Kindle’ or some such. The problem here is that the designers of these devices have neglected to allow the spine and cover of the book to be visible to helpful and interested onlookers. My railway companion could be reading absolutely anything, without my knowledge. It is – absurdly – frowned upon to insist that these readers clearly call out the title and author of the books they are reading.
Remember, if they can be reading anything, they can literally be thinking anything. And there is nothing that the authorities can do to stop it.
Thankfully, the tide is turning. Technology, for so long the enemy of progress, has come to our aid.
Amazon and Apple have realised that the social aspect of reading is the best part of the whole process. What is the point of reading if you can’t tell other people? The vital part missing from a room full of people with their indulgent noses silently in books is forcing them to share their thoughts and conclusions with everyone else. With tablets, we can share our insights, and the authorities can quietly and discreetly monitor them, for the good of all.
Book groups are useful here as well. How can anyone claim to have read any book until they have heard the opinions of several other people comparing it unfavourably to the Twilight trilogy? They also help us to ensure all of our ideas never fall too far from the tree, so to speak.
Hopefully, with strong leadership, we are moving toward a time when all reading is done in public and from approved lists. Our long nightmare of privacy and internal contemplation will be at an end.