How we benefit from reading literary works

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Erich Schön

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is a retired professor for literary studies and literary didactics at the University of Cologne. [email protected]

We talk about reading and think of literary reading, but it wasn't until long after the creation of writing that it began to be used for literary texts. [1] The historical substance is therefore pragmatic reading - from the Babylonian clay tablets to the current book market statistics, in which non-fiction and specialist books predominate over fiction. A first ambivalence in reading is already evident here. More are shown in this article.

Beginnings of writing culture

Wherever the beginnings of the written culture are started, [2] whether in the signs of the Vinča culture in the Danube region (around 5300-3500 BC); whether in Mesopotamia (symbolic figurines since 5000 BC, the protocuneiform script from 3200 BC) or in Egyptian hieroglyphs (3rd millennium BC): Everywhere at least the evidence that has been preserved indicates that writing was initially mainly administrative and has fulfilled economic, sometimes religious purposes, but not literary: the heroes of civilization were not the singers and poets, but the tax inspector who kept tax lists; the land registrar who noted the sale of a field; the notary who recorded a court judgment; the logistician who kept lists of goods or issued accompanying documents. In Babylon from 2700 BC onwards Myths and hymns recorded. But for these and other literary texts, writing was initially only used for archiving, to support the lecture and for memorization, and later also for conception.

Reading privilege?

Because it was a social necessity for very few people to be able to read and write, only a few were able to do it at first: In Egypt of the Old Kingdom (3rd millennium BC) about 0.3 to one percent; in the New Kingdom (1570–715 BC) about five to seven percent. It was the art of a small group of priests and professional scribes, often administrators. In Mesopotamia, the proportion of those who could write was certainly higher, since writing was not only used by the administration here, but also by merchants. But was it a "privilege" because of that? The "Kemit", a compendium for writing students from Middle Kingdom Egypt (around 2000–1700 BC), closes with an encouragement for the students: “A writer in any post in the state does not suffer from hardship.” [3] Writing was a special skill, a professional qualification (today perhaps comparable to the knowledge of an IT specialist), the prerequisite for high-level professional positions, but not as such reserved for the upper class.

The easier-to-learn Greek phonetic script was already in use in the 7th and 6th centuries BC. Chr. Socially widespread. Since the early 5th century BC BC, the majority of the citizens of Athens could read and write, about 25 percent of the total population. But even where written form was common, such as in Hellenistic Greece or in Roman antiquity in the late republic and the imperial era, literature was mostly received orally. The quasi-educated bourgeois appropriation of Greek culture by the Romans took place both in individual reading and by having them read aloud: Greek slaves were used as readers; the one who could read (aloud) was thus in a serving role.

This applies to the entire older history of reading, from the Middle Ages until well into modern times, especially since in the Middle Ages reading and writing ability (literacy) was synonymous with clergy and knowledge of Latin, and thus it was not a question of qualities that noble rulers and upper classes made out. In modern times, literacy may be largely (not completely) assumed for aristocrats, but with all the noble-courtly behavioral stylization (which one may understand historically as a kind of "education") what we associate with "education" today was not part of it of the noble habit. There were exceptions, but this generally applies until the first third of the 18th century, when, after the end of the reconstruction phase after the Thirty Years' War, nobles gradually entered the absolutist administrations. However, the aristocratic habitus generally encompassed far more than that the aristocrat did not have to qualify to be a nobleman, not even through education, even less through personal reading.

Beginnings of reading culture

Reading one's own texts and thus a literary reading culture begins around 700 BC. Chr .; Hesiod's epic didactic poem "Werke und Tage" was one of the first examples. But it was not until Hellenism (326–30 BC) that there was a culture of individual reading. We find the first reading alone on a grave stele from the turn of the 5th to the 4th century and in allusions in the dramas by Aristophanes and Euripides. But Aristophanes still makes fun of such a mode of reception; in the hegemonic, "legitimate culture" (Pierre Bourdieu) it is not yet accepted.

The always problematic relationship between individual reading and legitimate culture means that reading will soon be the subject of discussions and regulation through reading propaedeutics. An early example is Plutarch's (around 46 to 125 AD) text "In what way it must be that a young person hears the poetry". These regulatory efforts illustrate the "dangerous" aspects of emancipating the reader from the social situation of mutual reception: Individual reading means a reception that is no longer socially controlled, so that socio-culturally different, disapproved reading can easily arise. Anyone who reads individually evades social control. This is another ambivalence: on the one hand, "wrong" reading can lead to socially undesirable behavior; on the other hand, individuality arises through the acquisition of an individual background of experience.

With individual reading, the quality of reading itself, the reading experience, becomes problematic: in ancient times reading was seldom an intimate experience according to today's ideas. Reading, at least literary, was more or less articulated aloud reading as reading "for itself". If it served not pragmatic or scientific, but diet or aesthetic purposes, in ancient times reading was done with a loud voice (alta voce); this custom continued in the Middle Ages and for certain genres (poetry, dramas) or occasions into modern times. Prose, on the other hand, was read silently from an early age, novels probably from the beginning. To be able to read literary texts not only "with the eyes" but aloud was considered to be a higher literary reception competence and thus a prerequisite for the full sensual reading experience. So it says in Lukian's pamphlet against the "uneducated book fool": "Of course you have that ahead of the blind man, that you look into your books and that, by God, fed up with them, and read some things, but so fast that your eyes cover your lips always run ahead. But that's not enough for me, and I will never admit that you have read or can read a book. "