“In the Vineyard of the Text”


That is the title of a slender volume authored by historian and social critic Ivan Illich in 1993 and subtitled, A Commentary to Hugh’s Didascalicon.  The Hugh in question is Hugh of St. Victor, a medieval theologian, philosopher, and mystic who wrote the Didascalicon around 1128.  According to Illich, Hugh’s Didascalicon was the “first book written on the art of reading” and  Illich believes that revisiting this 12th century work will help us better understand our ongoing transition from “bookish” reading to whatever multiple forms of reading have been emerging in the wake of the electronic or digital revolution.

In the spirit of the commonplace book, I’m going to transcribe some excerpts from In the Vineyard of the Text below and in subsequent posts over the next several days.  Realizing that there are countless books I would like to read and for a variety of reasons will simply not ever get to, I appreciate it when I can nonetheless get some gleanings from one of those books through a review or post that excerpts some of the key ideas worth considering.  Hardly the best form of reading, but nonetheless a useful one I think.  So in the hope that this will prove useful and because I do think Illich wrote a remarkably insightful little book, here are some selections from the Introduction:

  • “I concentrate my attention 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.  After this date a new kind of classical reading became the dominant metaphor for the highest form of social activity.”
  • “Quite recently reading-as-a-metaphor has been broken again.  The picture and its caption, the comic book, the table, box, and graph, photographs, outlines, and integration with other media demand from the user textbook habits which are contrary to those cultivated in scholastic readerships.”
  • Quoting George Steiner:  “The development of the modern book and of book-culture as we know it seems to have depended on a comparable fragility of crucial and interlocking factors.”
  • “Classical print culture was an ephemeral phenomenon.  According to Steiner, to belong to ‘the age of the book’ meant to own the means of reading.  The book was a domestic object; it was accessible at will for re-reading.  The age presupposed private space and the recognition of the right to periods of silence, as well as the existence of echo-chambers such as journals, academies, or coffee circles.  Book culture required a more or less agreed-upon canon of textual values and modes . . . . [T]he formalities involved in this one kind of reading defined, and did not just reflect, the dimensions of social topology.”
  • “The book has now ceased to be the root-metaphor of the age; the screen has taken its place.  The alphabetic text has become but one of many modes of encoding something, now called ‘the message.'”
  • “Bookish reading can now clearly be recognized as an epochal phenomenon and not as a logically necessary step in the progress toward the rational use of the alphabet; as one mode of interaction with the written page among several; as a particular vocation among many, to be cultivated by some, leaving other modes to others.”
  • “. . . in the first six chapters I describe and interpret a technical breakthrough which took place  around 1150, three hundred years before movable type came into use.  This breakthrough consisted in the combination of more than a dozen technical inventions and arrangements through which the page was transformed from score to text.  Not printing, as is frequently assumed, but this bundle of innovations, twelve generations earlier, is the necessary foundation for all stages through which bookish culture has gone since.  This collection of techniques and habits made it possible to imagine the ‘text’ as something detached from the physical reality of  a page.  It both reflected and in turn conditioned a revolution in what learned people did when they read — and what they experienced reading to mean.”
  • “By centering our analysis on the object that is shaped by letters, and on the habits and fantasies connected with its use, we turn this object into a mirror reflecting significant transformations in the mental shape of western societies, something not easily brought out by other approaches.”
  • “What had started as a study in the history of technology, ended up as a new insight into the history of the heart.  We came to understand Hugh’s ars legendi [art of reading] as an ascetic discipline focused by a technical object.  Our meditation on the survival of this mode of reading under the aegis of the bookish text led us to enter upon a historical study of an asceticism that faces the threat of computer ‘literacy.'”

The Introduction as a whole challenges us to think again about the activity of reading.  We assume reading to be a singular activity, we assume it is always done in the same way and for the same reasons, we do not think of the alphabet as a technology that can be deployed in multiple modes, we do not think of a whole cultural milieu depending on something so mundane as reading, we do not think that changes in reading habits and assumptions about reading could reorder society.  By taking us back some 900 years Illich aims to show us that these are mistaken assumptions.

More to come.

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