This Is Your Brain on Books

“Reading occupies a strange position in today’s world, being at once physiologically unnecessary and culturally central.”

The subtle Saint Anselm, a Benedictine monk, treated reading as a form of communion. In his time, the 11th century, readers often consumed books differently than they do today. A common form of monastic reading, for example, was lectio divina, which monks treated—as Christopher de Hamel says in The Manuscripts Club, a group biography of manuscript lovers—as “an act of devotion, like prayer.” The reader would open a religious text to a random page, then prayerfully study the passage to see what message God had chosen for him now.1

This form of reading, de Hamel says, is one reason why so many medieval manuscripts have richly decorated pages. The decorations “helped impress a page visually in the reader’s memory,” helping him to meditate later upon the revelatory passage. We can see from this example how an era’s methods of reading affect the look and feel of its books. (And how they are valued. Anselm indicated in his correspondence that he preferred a faithfully copied but incomplete book over a badly copied but complete one—which might seem puzzling to modern readers, who read from front to back and don’t want to miss the reveal that the narrator killed Roger Ackroyd.)

De Hamel’s book is a group biography, reaching back to the Middle Ages and forward to the 20th century, of the old and affable brotherhood (and sisterhood) of manuscript lovers. He chooses, as representatives of this group, a selection of influential readers, collectors, and sellers—including Anselm (ca.1033–1109), who rose, after the Norman Invasion of 1066, to become the archbishop of Canterbury; Jean, duc de Berry (1340–1416), a French toff who commissioned gold-and-lapis manuscripts that lived up to the luxury he lolled in; Vespasiano da Bisticci (ca.1422–98), an Italian bookseller whose writings tell us about the world of manuscripts in the early age of print; Constantine Simonides (ca.1824–90), a forger and confidence man whose counterfeits fed the voracious appetites of British museums at the height of the empire; and Belle da Costa Greene (1879–1950), a personal librarian and collector for the wealthy who—passing as white in Gilded Age New York—raised the bar for rare book collecting in the United States and curated the collections of the Morgan Library. They’re a motley group: princes, polymaths, rabbis, saints, and scoundrels.

The usual way to write books about people who love books is a genre that we might call, after one best-selling title, “A Gentle Madness.”2 These are catalogs of the oddball adventures of the bibliomaniacs and bibliographic detectives who, consumed by an acquisitive hunger for rarities or mysteries or prestige, fall down strange rabbit holes and make fabulous finds.

De Hamel could easily have written this book as another entry in the genre. Instead, he wrote a love story. The madhouse is a place of isolation, and his interest is with community: with the passion for art, for learning, for nerdy minutiae, for history still living and breathing on the page, that brings manuscript lovers together. If you can imagine shedding tears because a manuscript is so exquisite, then this is a book about your people.

A recurring theme of The Manuscripts Club is the many different ways, over the years, we’ve approached reading and construed ourselves as readers. During meals at Anselm’s abbey, one of the monks would read a book aloud while the others ate and listened; for instance, the Moralia, a medieval discourse on the Book of Job that offered lessons for monastic life from Job’s surrender to suffering. (“What else then does Eliu mean by bread, but the pleasures of this life? For after having stated the power of temptation, he immediately subjoined, His bread becomes abominable to him in his life, and to his soul the food which before it desired: because, in truth, all the sweetness he used before to enjoy from the prosperity of his life, afterwards becomes bitter by the power of temptation.”3 A suitably severe accompaniment to a meal of bread and water, which might, after all, be eaten with inappropriate indulgence.)4

Other readers absorbed books through memorization. De Hamel describes Jewish readers who praise the example of great scholars like Judah bar Ezekiel (220–99), who reportedly memorized so many texts that he “allowed himself the leisure to pray only once every thirty days in order to have time in the meanwhile to rehearse all [the] knowledge in his mind.”

Still others treated books as treasures or relics. They kept them in the same collections that they used to hold, say, purported thorns from the Crown of Thorns. And they brought the acts of devotion that they used for other religious objects—touching, kissing, handling—into their rituals of reading. (My favorite anecdote about the haptics of reading doesn’t appear in the book: John, Duke of Bavaria, called John the Pitiless [1374–1425], was murdered with a poisoned book. That’s the story, anyway: that one of his underlings painted poison onto his prayer book, which killed the reader because, in that time and place, you caressed a prayer book and kissed the pages.)5

In short, the manuscripts club of the title is a cohort of infinite variety. Readers have used manuscripts as oracles, artworks, knowledge engines, status symbols, jewelry. One conclusion that we might draw from this history is that reading itself is infinitely various: that the death of reading—a topic of feverish op-eds about AI and TikTok and declining post-lockdown test scores—has been greatly exaggerated.6 The very technologies that critics decry as fatal threats to reading are just giving people new ways to construe themselves as readers: the trope connoisseurs of BookTok, the doomscrollers of social media, the textual poachers of fan fiction.7 And if you like the sound of the old readerly customs described above—well, as de Hamel says, the manuscripts club is always looking for new members.

Another new book out this season, Adrian Johns’s The Science of Reading, pairs curiously well as a bookend with de Hamel’s to the act of reading. Johns seeks to explain how we read; de Hamel seeks to explain why. Johns focuses on the part of reading that happens between the eyes and the brain; de Hamel, the part of reading that happens between the world and the reader. Johns emphasizes solitude and science; de Hamel, community and, metaphorically, magic.

reading shapes the thinking of book lovers in ways that go beyond merely what they read.

Johns offers other reasons for rejecting the idea that new technologies are driving reading to irrelevance. After all, reading shaped (and trained) those technologies no less than, say, Boolean algebra. The science—and social science—of information emerged from our efforts to understand reading. It isn’t possible to remove the foundation from that house. The Science of Reading starts around 1870, when a new breed of scientist started to ask—in the words of a later researcher, Edmund Burke Huey—“Just what, indeed, do we do, with eye and mind and brain and nerves, when we read?” Reading occupies a strange position in today’s world, being at once physiologically unnecessary and culturally central. Language is natural—we produce language automatically, as children, and we know of no human societies that lacked language—but reading is artificial. It had (and has) to be invented, like the crank. Plenty of human societies have lacked reading. Despite its artificiality, we, referring to participants in the modern West, consider reading to be an essential skill and spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to make people read more and better. “Reading is a good thing,” Johns writes. “We like to believe that it is a fundamental element of any modern, enlightened, and free society. We may even think of it as the fundamental element. It has long been standard to identify the emergence of contemporary virtues like democracy, secularism, science, and tolerance with the spread of literacy that occurred in the wake of Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of printing in the fifteenth century.”

The fact that reading isn’t hardwired directly into the human brain is one of the things that the scientists in Johns’s book had to discover. They did much of their work by hooking people up to machines that might have come from a James Whale film and recording their physiological functions as they read all kinds of texts. They learned that the eye, when reading, doesn’t move smoothly, but in saccades, or little jumps.8 They learned that people read full words faster than they read individual characters. They learned that specific letters in the alphabet are variously hard and easy to read. (The letter e is remarkably difficult, it turns out.) They learned about the effects on reading speed of fonts, layouts, styles of punctuation, and, of course, hard drugs.

And they came up with policy proposals based on their research. One scientist proposed in 1885 that we eliminate either uppercase or lowercase letters, since combining them was “more of a hurt than help to the eye and brain”; that we replace punctuation marks with lengths of spaces that indicated lengths of pauses; that we take the dot off the letter i; and that we get rid of the letters x, q, and c. This, he said, would make us all not just better readers but better thinkers. Another, in 1902, proposed that we remove the windows from streetcars, since looking outside while the carriage was moving must be “ruinous to the delicate muscles of the eyes.”

In 1960, Wayne Booth, soon to be a famous literary scholar, published in the Journal of Developmental Reading a satire of this kind of quantitative research. “I sincerely pitied Mr. E. B. White when he confessed recently, with no apparent shame, that he is a slow reader,” he wrote in the character of a devotee of reading optimization.

Since I am a very fast reader myself, the pity didn’t strike me until three seconds of reading-time later, when I was reading something else, but when it struck it struck hard. I think I read White’s statement in The New Yorker, sometime during the last six months, about two-thirds of the way down the far right-hand column. With the photographic memory I have developed in learning to read so fast, I can see White’s statement exactly where it fell on the page.

The speaker might have considered, but didn’t, having odd little images, like knights battling snails, painted in the margins of the page, the better to memorize the text in the manner of medieval readers. The same satire describes a researcher who hooked himself up to a machine and measured his physiological responses while reading, for the first time, the salacious novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. (After conducting the experiment, he ran off with two of his secretaries, never to be seen again.)9

Easy as it is to find humor in some of these scholarly detours, the study of reading and the mind had far-reaching effects in the real world. Generous funding for public libraries from Gilded Age plutocrats (those were the days), which the 1 percent believed would save democracy. A public education system that gave reading pride of place among the three R’s. A school textbook industry so corrupt and venal that Upton Sinclair wrote an exposé about it as his follow-up to The Jungle. Attempts by politicians and librarians to expand library access for ordinary Americans—and to bar library access for other ordinary Americans, showing how powerful they believed reading to be. “Read-ins” at public libraries in the 1930s and 1940s, in which Black readers would request library cards, get denied, politely insist, and then get arrested for their cheek. Johns traces these effects all the way up to the “reading wars” of the 1960s, Sesame Street in the 1970s, and Reading First, a flagship initiative of No Child Left Behind, in the 2000s.10

“One must learn to read in self-defense,” said one of the scholars in The Science of Reading, describing the importance of basic literacy.11 That remains true today, though the problems of literacy that attend our own time are beyond what he could have imagined: how to recognize bots, how to discuss a subject that a government is algorithmically censoring, how to know the difference between understanding something and predicting the next word in a string.

Though he does discuss Claude Shannon, the father of information theory, Johns doesn’t mention that Shannon took a youthful interest in cryptanalysis after reading a detective story and continued to reference detective stories in later years as he worked out his ideas about information. (In the early 1950s, for instance, he tested his intuitions about probability and communication with a noir story by Raymond Chandler, “Pickup on Noon Street.” He spelled out a sentence, letter by letter, to his wife and research assistant, Betty. After each letter, she guessed what the next would be. Eventually, demonstrating the predictability of communication if you have a large enough sample text, she was correctly guessing three letters at once. A S-M-A-L-L O-B-L-O-N-G R-E-A-D-I-N-G L-A-M-P O-N T-H-E D … E-S-K. Shannon figured that the letters we can predict aren’t information, because they don’t tell us anything new.)12

If you ask, as the New York Times did in 2016, “Who cares if Johnny can’t read well, so long as he can multiply?,” you ignore how reading can ignite the passions of children who grow up to become greats in STEM.13 Shannon’s frivolous childhood reading started him on a path that led to his development of information theory, which became an important basis of modern computing.

Which brings us to the present day: to a book about a community of readers who—even though manuscripts couldn’t be more outdated—found something so wonderful about the materiality of manuscript texts that they preserved them, studied them, and cherished them in every way short of eating them; and another about a community of scientists determined to use the most advanced possible technology to quantify and optimize the raw transmission of text to the brain. If I were to try to be extravagantly topical, I would describe them as a Barbie/Oppenheimer pairing for library lizards. (I think it’s clear which one is Barbie and which one is Oppenheimer.)

As I said, I think they’re a great pair, though my own sympathies lie with the book eaters. As Johns himself readily notes, reading entails a much larger set of activities than what goes on in the brain. Death didn’t come in at the eye for John the Pitiless of Bavaria. It came in at the hands and the lips.

And reading shapes the thinking of book lovers in ways that go beyond merely what they read. I remember sitting, in college, in a lecture that the professor was giving extemporaneously, without notes. At one point, he said, “As I said above …” He was writing the words in his head as he spoke, or at least he was moving through his ideas spatially as one would down a page.14

Was this oral culture, written culture, or a mix of the two? If we can’t separate the dancer from the dance, what hope do we have of separating reading from the reader? icon

This article was commissioned by Leah Price.
  1. A charming novel about lectio divina is Barry McCrea, The First Verse (Carroll & Graf, 2005).
  2. Nicholas Basbanes, A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books (Henry Holt, 1995).
  3. Gregory the Great, Morals on the Book of Job, trans. John Henry Parker (J.G.F. and J. Rivington, 1844).
  4. Anselm had the Moralia in his own abbey’s library transcribed, at a fellow monk’s request, to send to an abbey in England (de Hamel 2023, 21–2).
  5. I’ve heard it suggested that the book might have been a van Eyck (Pers. comm, Hugo van der Velden, Harvard University, 2012). Death via poisoned book is, of course, a plot point in Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose (Harcourt,  1983).
  6. See, for example, A. O. Scott, “Everyone Likes Reading. Why Are We So Afraid of It?,” New York Times, June 21, 2023; and Tristan Justice, “Teens Don’t Read Books Anymore Because They’re Wasting Their Lives on TikTok,” The Federalist, July 13, 2023.
  7. See, for example, Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (Routledge, 1992).
  8. This is the case, Johns notes, specifically with alphabetic texts.
  9. Wayne Booth, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the Tachistoscope,” Journal of Developmental Reading 3–4 (Summer 1960): 232–7.
  10. Sesame Street premiered in November 1969.
  11. James McKeen Cattell, “The School and the Family,” Popular Science Monthly (January 1909): 85.
  12. Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman, A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age (Simon & Schuster, 2017, 2018): 152–3. Johns discusses Shannon’s analyses of redundancy in printed text.
  13. The Times writer asks this ironically, and I’m cheating a little by making it sound like he asks it straight. But isn’t it part of cultural literacy to check the quotation against the source? David Kipen, “Fighting to Reopen a Closed Book,” New York Times, December 29, 2016.
  14. Edwin Williams, Princeton University, ca. 2005.
Featured image: The Library of Trinity College Dublin by Rene Cortin, which houses the medieval illuminated manuscript The Book of Kells / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).