Thursday, January 17, 2013

Svenbro - Phrasikleia: An Anthropology of Reading in Ancient Greece

Some modern theorists on reading in the modern and ancient world want to view the act, process and social position of reading from a modern position. What Svenbro manages in this volume is to make clear just how different the social position of reading was in ancient Greece. The debate around silent reading seems to produce violent reactions because, I believe, modern theorists do not want their heroes viewed as somehow deficient, and maintaining that Plato or Plutarch had to, at least, subvocalise when reading or, at worst, always read aloud is liking calling them dunces (put on the cone-shaped hat & stand in the corner Plato!). Svenbro makes very clear that the social stigma attached to reading aloud simply did not exist in ancient Greece. In fact, writing was only seen as a (poor) replacement for the voice. The role of the written word was to produce a voice, and only when the ear caught the words could a meaning be reproduced. This was so important to the Greeks that myths were developed to separate Greek writing from its Phoenician roots. Unlike other commentators, however, Svenbro disagrees that the ancients could not read silently. It was possible (although the form of writing in scriptura continua made it far less efficient than modern spaced writing), but it was very unusual and was only practiced by scholars, playwrights or poets that had to read a lot of text. Svenbro deduces all of this from original documents, placing particular emphasis on inscriptions on statues that announce themselves to the reader as well as extracts of plays and poetry.

Yep. You guessed it - also available as a Goodreads review.