The history of reading is broader in scope than the history of literature. Systems of writing were first invented to record commercial and governmental transactions such as tax collections, treaties and laws. Over time, these communication systems were extended to cultural materials including religious and historical texts. In most cases, the literate classes consisted of specially-trained elites who carried out religious or governmental functions. Only slowly was the use of writing extended to works of entertainment like poetry, epics and drama. Such creative literature has generally been considered among the highest achievements of historic civilizations. However, the reality is that throughout most of human history the percentage of people who could read has been incredibly small. Literary works achieved significant influence over the population at large only if they could be performed orally on the stage or in some other public manner. Those who did learn to read generally did so for practical purposes: to conduct business or government, for communications over distance, to learn and apply technical knowledge, or to improve their own spiritual well-being. Higher forms of literature were left to a very small audience. This situation only began to change during the early modern era with the spread of the printing press. First in Europe and later in its colonies, books and education were extended to a wider spectrum of the population. As literacy grew, so did audiences for literature and reading. As the skills and interests of these new readers varied, so too did the market for writing. New forms of writing and readership developed. Reading was no longer confined to purposeful literature, such as sermons, theology, history or governmental affairs. Newspapers and magazines gave notice of business, sailing and political news. War, trials and executions spawned sensational broadsides, ballads and tracts that sold very well. New creative works such as novels and short stories began to appear in book and serial forms. At the same time new types of didactic materials began to appear. Primers, textbooks, cookbooks, almanacs, encyclopedias and manuals proliferated. As Western style access to education extended around the globe, local traditions of reading developed accordingly.
This new history of reading encompasses these varied traditions and much more. With separately edited volumes surveying reading in the United States and around the globe, the scope is worldwide from the ancient to the modern world. The global survey divides the world into five regions: the Americas, Europe, South Asia, the Far East and Africa and the Middle East. Area experts selectively examine the development of reading in 27 periods or cultures, including imperial China, the Ottoman Empire, Renaissance Europe, the Soviet Union and post-colonial Africa. For each culture, scholars explain reading trends and practices, beginning with the classic creative texts. However, the scope extends well beyond each region’s literary canon to include religious, political, educational and scientific writing. From saint’s lives to comic books, ephemeral and popular reading materials also are reviewed. Changes in the distinctive reading patterns of each region also are presented. Thus, the entries on China feature political propaganda as well as internet blogs. A volume on the United States provides detailed examinations of popular reading during 11 periods of American history. From the Age of Discovery to the Twenty-first Century, the contribution of reading to the development of a national identity receives particular attention. Each essay includes a brief chronology of the period as well as a list of contemporary resources and recommended readings. Selected illustrations and sidebars highlight significant developments, from newspapers to book clubs. This cultural history is recommended for academic libraries.