Bookish

Nancy Marie Brown
March 01, 1994

In 1128, when Hugh of Saint Victor wrote the first book on the art of reading, the method of learning he practiced was all but obsolete. In 1993, when Ivan Illich published In The Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary to Hugh's Didascalicon, the same could be said to be true.

"Western social reality has now put aside faith in bookishness," Illich writes. "The screen, the medium, and 'communication' have surreptitiously replaced the page, letters, and reading." Moreover, "A bulldozer lurks in every computer with a promise to open new highways to data, replacements, inversions, and instant print. A new kind of text shapes the mindset of my students."

monks reading

In The Vineyard of the Text deals "with the beginning of the epoch of bookishness which is now closing," focusing on "a fleeting but very important moment in the history of the alphabet when, after centuries of Christian reading, the page was suddenly transformed from a score for pious mumblers into an optically organized text for logical thinkers."

To Hugh of Saint Victor, a 12th-century monk, "Learning and, specifically, reading, are both simply forms of a search for Christ," Illich writes. Reading was a spiritual quest: "Approaching wisdom makes the reader radiant. The studious striving that Hugh teaches is a commitment to engage in an activity by which the reader's own 'self' will be kindled and brought to sparkle." Reading was also a communal act: "The monastic reader—chanter or mumbler—picks the words from the lines and creates a social auditory ambience. All those who, with the reader, are immersed in this hearing milieu are equals before the sound. It makes no difference who reads, as it makes no difference who rings the bell." It is above all, a physical act: "When Hugh reads, he harvests," Illich writes. "He picks the berries from the lines." Each reader, whether chanter or listener, "understands the lines by moving to their beat, remembers them by recapturing their rhythm, and thinks of them in terms of putting them into his mouth and chewing."

These harvests of wisdom are then ordered and stored for future recall in what Hugh calls the "hiding places in your heart," a complex internal diagram. Writes Illich, "The young student is enabled to place all the events of biblical history within its frame; all are assigned a time and a place within a series: patriarchs, sacrifices, victories. . . . The child's mind was trained to build the memory mazes, and to establish the habit to dart and retrieve in them. Remembrance was not conceived as an act of mapping but of psychomotor, morally charged activity." (For practiced readers, "Hugh proposed a much more complex, three-dimensional ark—a space-time matrix built within the mind of the student and modeled on Noah's ark." According to one scholar Illich cites, "a still readable blueprint" of this "three-dimensional multicolored monster memory scheme" would require 220 square feet of paper.)

Hugh of Saint Victor's readers were "the last of their kind," Illich writes. "Before Hugh's generation, the book is a record of the author's speech or dictation. After Hugh, it increasingly becomes a repertory of the author's thought, a screen onto which one projects still unvoiced intentions."

The change was brought about in the middle of the 12th century—300 years before the invention of printing—by a "collection of techniques and habits [which] made it possible to imagine the 'text' as something detached from the physical reality of a page." Among these were the rediscovery of cursive script, the spread of paper-making (which permitted "the truly portable book"), and such scribal inventions as "alphabetic arrangement of key words, subject indexing, and a kind of page layout suited for silent scanning"—a layout based on the use of underlining and varying letter sizes to distinguish text from commentary and to highlight the beginning of sections and paragraphs. This "visual architecture" of the page made it "increasingly necessary, when reading, to have the book under one's eyes." Writes Illich, "In Hugh's generation the book is like a corridor with the incipit as its main entrance. If anyone thumbs through it hoping to find a certain passage, there exists little more chance of happening upon it than if the book had been opened randomly. But after Hugh the book can be entered randomly, with a good chance of finding what one looks for. . . . The flow of narration has been sliced up into paragraphs whose sum total now makes up the new book."

These techniques transformed the book "from a pointer to nature to a pointer to mind." Writes Illich, "the book was no longer the window onto nature or God; it was no longer the transparent optical device through which the reader gains access to creatures or the transcendent." This redefinition made possible editing (by which, writes Illich, "Tradition is cannibalized and compiled according to the new editor's whim") and led to what Illich calls "bookish" or "scholastic" reading.

"After Hugh's death," Illich writes, "students begin to use these compilations. A new kind of reader comes into existence, one who wants to acquire in a few years of study a new kind of acquaintance with a larger number of authors than a meditating monk could have perused in a lifetime." This new reader also pursues the act alone: "Fifty years after Hugh . . . the technical activity of deciphering no longer creates an auditory and, therefore, a social space. The reader then flips through the pages. His eyes mirror the two-dimensional page. Soon he will conceive of his own mind in analogy with a manuscript. Reading will become an individualistic activity, intercourse between a self and a page."

Illich is not a medievalist (on the book jacket he is described as "a Marine on the shores of the contemporary mind" by the New York Times Book Review); he has written of the distant past, he writes, "not . . . to make a learned contribution . . . [but] to offer a guide to a vantage point in the past from which I have gained new insights into the present." Unlike Hugh of Saint Victor, he is a conscious witness to the end of an era— "The book has now ceased to be the root-metaphor of the age"; his commentary on Hugh's Didascalicon is a warning to all readers to prepare for like changes in their bookish world. The survival of the bookish reader, Illich concludes, "can now be recognized as a moral task that is intellectually based on understanding the historical fragility of the bookish text."

Ivan Illich, Ph.D., is a visiting professor of philosophy in the Science, Technology, and Society Program in the College of Engineering, 117 Willard Building, University Park, PA 18602; 814-863-1173. In the Vineyard of the Textwas published in 1993 by the University of Chicago Press.

Last Updated March 01, 1994