Reading throughout the ages

Continuing the discussion from Introduce yourself, antilibrarian friends!: I’m interested in learning more about how the acting of reading has changed over time and in various parts of the world. I mentioned in my intro post that in Europe for a long time reading was something done aloud. No one was snuggling up with a book in a cozy corner and reading quietly to themselves.

Does anyone else have more insight into what reading used to look like, and what it might look like in the future? Where does the idea of “reading in a cozy nook with a cup of tea” come from? Why don’t we read aloud anymore? etc etc

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A couple things that come to mind: first, on a macro scale, how recently we’ve achieved literacy for most of the global population. Per this chart, the global literacy rate is currently ~86%, but it only passed 50% in the mid-20th century, and was ~12% just a couple hundred years ago.

I don’t know a lot about the history of reading but just based on this I imagine “reading” meant something very different to most people for most of human history, and reading as we know it was largely an activity for the elites…but orality (song, storytelling, other verbal expression) has a long and rich history and I’d love to learn more about that as well.

And more recently, lots of interesting changes in how we read and consume media in reading-adjacent ways! A few might be:

  • Podcasts (curious how these are changing the market for audiobooks)
  • Serialized fiction evolving with e.g. new apps and distribution mechanisms
  • How has the idea of a book club / reading group changed with social media etc.?

I am very interested in trying new forms of I guess you could call “collective reading experiences”. For example silent book clubs are a thing now! Reading silently to yourself…but surrounded by others so it still feels social in some way. I would love to try a reading retreat (or “readtreat”) as well!

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I wonder what helped improve literacy rates – I’m sure there’s a Wikipedia article somewhere about this :sweat_smile:

Can you tell me more about serialized fiction and the apps that go with it? This is a space I know very little about.

Who started the first book club?? Silent book clubs and readtreats sound amazing. I wonder if people have already explored these ideas before, or if they’re fairly new.

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  • Podcasts (curious how these are changing the market for audiobooks)

I don’t think the connection has been definitively proven, but the audiobook business has definitely been booming for the last couple years (here’s an article I wrote on it for Forbes last year), which closely tracks with the rise of podcast awareness.

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Ha yeah the article on literacy has some hints e.g. “decades of universal education policies, literacy interventions and the spread of print material and information and communications technology (ICT)” + some interesting stuff on regional and gender disparities and other stuff on the history of literacy, approaches, etc.

The section “Broader and complementary definitions” is interesting too, talking about wider context / possible definitions for how we think about literacy. Not necessarily one thing but “literacies”, plural…I have often seen the term used more generally to mean something like “fluency” or “competency” in something. And there are increasingly more things for which we have to develop literacy…

I don’t know a ton about this either but looking up various apps I’ve seen…

There are newer ones like Wattpad, Radish, and Serial Box that publish original writing…@Adam has some great stuff re: Wattpad and their moves into film / TV deals in his newsletter here!

I’ve also seen lots of mediocre looking stuff in the app store with like chat / text-message based stories…even smaller “bites” than a typical serialized story, with the potential for some light interactivity / choose-your-own-adventure type stuff as well.

And some that take classic literature (public domain so free to use) and basically just repackage into more digestible forms. For example Serial Reader and DailyLit seem to offer this kind of thing…I will probably not opt to read Anna Karenina one 500-word email per day, but hey if it works, it works!

Interesting! So basically we’re seeing a rise of audio / listening more generally. I guess probably a lot of factors driving that, from better mobile internet to bluetooth headphones to an increase in the quantity & quality of content available. Curious to see how all these trends continue.

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I have an artist friend who seems to read constantly, but after I talked to her I found out that she’s actually only “reading” by audio book. She listens to audio books for long stretches at a time as she works, basically all day, though. It’s a good way to multitask. Wondering if this is going to be more and more common for others who do work that occupies their eyes/hands but not their ears.

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Just saw this line on a press release about a new survey from the Audio Publishers Association and was reminded of this thread:

Over half (55%) of audiobook listeners have also listened to a podcast in the last month, continuing the strong historical association between podcast listeners and audiobook listeners.

About as close to a smoking gun as we can get, I think.

Yeah, I feel like there’s a positive feedback loop as filling more time with listening becomes normalized, better tech and platforms continue emerging to support it, and more good content becomes available in these formats!

One other interesting thing I’ll note on this topic — it seems in a lot of ways podcasts & audiobooks are major formats built on an evolutionary through-line from older media (radio and books, respectively) but there’s also a lot of room around them for these lines to be blurred and further audio format experimentation to take shape.

There was a piece recently in Nick Quah’s Hot Pod (great industry insider newsletter about the business of podcasting) called “The Many Forms of the Mueller Report” that got me thinking about this. He describes how after the report came out, it was adapted in various audio formats, including a “narrated adaptation” in Slate’s “Trumpcast” podcast, and at least two different versions on Audible…stretching the definition of “audiobook” as I normally think of it.

“Podcast” has become kind of a catch-all that’s more descriptive of the distribution technology than the actual content, which is enormously varied. I wouldn’t think to call an annotated version of the Mueller report an audiobook or a podcast…but since those are the buckets people are familiar with, it can kind of be both / either. I wonder how the landscape of audio forms may further fragment…

I also just heard of this book Ways of Hearing which looks very interesting. The author:

Each chapter of Ways of Hearing explores a different aspect of listening in the digital age: time, space, love, money, and power.

So, an interesting subject, but also relevant to this discussion b/c of the form — Ways of Hearing was actually originally a podcast, and the book was adapted from it and published by the MIT Press!

I think a lot about writing/reading in relation to speaking/listening. This article from a few years back (terrible clickbaity title, please ignore) goes pretty deep into considering non-linear control in reading vs watching/listening:

The implication is, one of the superpowers of reading is that the reader can technically take control and break out of the pace and order set by the author - something that wasn’t a feature of oral storytelling. Also, historically, this wasn’t possible to do with audio and TV, but now even though a similar level of non-linear control is possible through digital interfaces, creators want to maintain control over the rhythm of how their content is consumed (eg lamenting 2x speed playback), and audiences aren’t doing the most to exert that control (eg skimming around AV materials. best examples of this happening now are probably with educational platforms that link text and audio/video, e.g. Coursera, TED)


I love Hot Pod and I just put a library hold on Ways of Hearing… I gotta check out anything that’s comparing itself that strongly to Ways of Seeing.

Non-linear control in reading vs. watching/hearing definitely makes a lot of sense. Now that you put it that way, I think that’s why I prefer reading fiction over listening to an audiobook or fiction podcast. When I’m reading something that I really want to pay attention to, I need to have that extra non-linear control in order to make sure I don’t miss anything when I (inevitably) lose my train of thought.

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Ah I remember this article, it’s very good! I do the 2x speed-up thing with podcasts and YouTube videos though not for movies / television…basically, for purely consuming information I want to go as quickly as possible, but for more experiential narrative things I’m happy to go at regular speed.

I really appreciate when a podcast or interview video makes the transcription available alongside so I can just read that instead and get through it quicker.

Re: linearity, some important differences too even between physical book vs. Kindle for example…I think I sometimes take for granted how easy it is to flip back a page or two almost instantaneously to refresh my memory of something I just read in a paperback, but not as straightforward to make small yet non-linear jumps on Kindle. (Though, conversely, it often makes reading footnotes easier b/c you can kind of just flip to them instantly, then return to the main text!)

I don’t understand how anyone actually absorbs anything this way. I can only focus on one language based task at a time.

Continuing the discussion thread re: audio + reading, good article here—

A few interesting takeaways:

  • Audible is now commissioning / publishing works directly, working with some A-list writers…and not just books; also things like longform journalism and even original plays
  • Audiobook revenue has nearly tripled just in the last five years (!)
  • Sounds like audiobook sales are even surpassing digital / print book sales for some authors! I would not have guessed that; I definitely thought audiobooks were more niche…

I think it works for her because she is an illustrator and spends most of her day purely drawing, which isn’t as language based as most other tasks. I actually personally listen to a ton of podcasts when I draw or do crafts like knitting that occupy my eyes and hands but not my ears (or language-processing parts of my brain.) For me the podcast content gets mentally tied into whatever I’m working on—I can look at the piece when I’m done and each part reminds me of whatever I was listening to when I was working on that part (sometimes I even get a brief audio memory echoing in my head.)

In the interest of cross-linking related conversations, I’ll mention I just posted on this topic — Developing a "non-reading" practice — with some thoughts on book summary services and possible implications for how & what we read.

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Latest 99PI episode gets into the history of non-visual reading practices, e.g. “talking books” for visually impaired (and how they broke their records trying to speed up the slow, highly produced recordings), braille, and some cool offbeat (though IMO unscalable) stuff about audio renderings of letterforms

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Thanks, this is great! Lots of good history and stuff I hadn’t thought about before.

Thinking about the key points—

Traditionally, books are visual objects. And for centuries now, blind and sighted designers have been arguing over the most effective way to translate the visual, ink-print book into an accessible form for people without sight. For as long as blind people have been reading, there’s been this tension between systems that try to stay close to the original form of a book, and systems that radically depart from our ideas about what a book can be.


The history of blind reading is really the history of finding a new language for the fingers, and for the ears — one that captures the essential elements of the ink-print book, but in a new language that’s unbound from the visual.

I did find it particularly interesting to consider the kind of tension between on the one hand, competing type systems and experimentation with new devices / technologies that can lead to big breakthroughs, and on the other hand the importance of having durable standards that work in an efficient and near-universal way. I liked this point re: audiobook development:

Talking Books began to sound different. No-nonsense narrators like Alexander Scourby became more popular in the 1940s and 50s. Their voices became almost like fonts — standardized, legible, and most importantly, conveying information without getting in the way.

Makes me think about screen reader technology for navigating computers and websites, taking this idea even further with standard conventions and prioritizing information density and interactivity as well.

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Yes exactly!! This is an idea I’ve been super jazzed about for people across the visual spectrum. Think there’s so much room to grow here.

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