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The Evolution of Reading

Science has it that millions of years ago stuff began to happen and for a couple hundred million years they continued to happen. And then, about three hundred thousand years ago, Bingo! Humankind started wandering around. That’s the generally accepted timeline in today’s world, so that’s what I’m going to stick with for the sake of this piece. Yes, I know. A lot of steps were skipped in my version. Feel free to fill them in as you will.

So, jump forward to a few years less than three hundred thousand years and some folks in Samaria, which is a place in the Middle East, invented “writing.” The micro version of what happened is that some really smart people figured out a way to write things down in order to maintain a record of what they considered to be stories worth passing down to future generations. But make no mistake, those stories were preserved for very few people to read. From around 3400 BC, which was about the time that writing was invented, up until about 1300 AD, less than 5% of the world could read. And virtually all of that 5% were the wealthiest, most highly educated and privileged people in the entire world. There was no Saturday Evening Post for the masses back in those days. While I read somewhere that the first book was written around the year 23 AD, most people who know about such things claim that the first book written was The Epic of Gilgamesh around 1400 AD.

The micro-history of reading pretty much goes as follows. In the beginning, the written word was read by almost nobody. By about 1500 somewhere around 11% of people in Europe could read to a certain level. By the end of the 1600’s that number had significantly risen, and by the mid 1700’s about 60% of Europe had become literate to one degree or another. By the mid 1800’s almost all of Europe and America was being schooled and was learning how to read and write. Today, of course, nearly everyone in the US, Europe and the majority of the world are reading as if it were something that we have always done since the beginning of time. Everyone seems to forget the two hundred and ninety-nine thousand years that preceded our literate age.

In all likelihood, the years and dates and percentages and the book titles are all up for debate, but none of it is that important to me. What’s important to me, and getting to my point, is that after two hundred and ninety-nine thousand years of not having the ability to read and write, things began to change. Then about a thousand years ago, give or take a few years, people began writing books for other people to read. In the past couple hundred years nearly the entire planet has started reading and sharing information. It’s a feat that could not even have been imagined not all that many years ago among a species who has been around for three hundred thousand years.

You may wonder where I’m going with these dates and other information, so let me explain. I walked into our local bookstore here in Grand Cayman a few days ago and I could not help but notice that each and every time I go there, there are less and less books and more and more toys and games. I walked around for a while and did not find the three books I was searching for, but I thumbed through other books because that is what I like to do. After an hour or so of hanging out in my favorite place I began working my way from the back of the store to the front. When I neared the front door a young woman who was sort of arranging toys and other non-book stuff on the shelves said hi to me and we chatted for a few moments.

“I can’t help but notice that every time I come here there seems to be more toys and games and less books,” I said, seemingly making the point that it felt a little odd for a bookstore.

“Yeah…” she said with complete indifference. “People just don’t read that much anymore.”

I have to admit that my first thought was, “WTF! This is a book store, isn’t it?” But then I regained my composure and I smiled and nodded and said nothing. What could I say? For two hundred and ninety-nine thousand years no humans could read and write. And over the past few hundred years most of the world population gained the ability to read books and share stories that have been handed down for centuries. And today? Well, today it appears that humans are becoming bored with the written word and perhaps we’re just over that reading thing. To be honest, that is something that is just beyond my comprehension.

As an added note on the personal side, it struck me as funny that it took almost three hundred thousand years for mankind to learn how to read, then I wrote a few books and now the world is losing interest in the written word. Now that’s crappy timing. I hope I didn’t cause the demise of reading books.

Oh well, I think I’ll write another.


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