- Johnson begins by describing the origins of the bookroll and its basic formatting (lack of punctuation, paragraphs, and spacing between words). He then goes on to describe how these bookrolls were predominantly read by educated, experienced people in a careful, methodical manner within a group of the high society elite and then opened up for discussion. He argues that since reading and writing were limited to the elite, there are broader implications for society about the way literature is produced, who is popular, and who controls the writing system.
- One of the most interesting points is that the format of the bookroll was intentionally made to be difficult, thus limiting readership to a select few. The Greeks and Romans seemed to value aesthetics over ease of reading when compiling bookrolls, but valued comprehension over merely articulating words when actually reading, which seems contradictory. One way to look at this issue is that by making bookrolls difficult to read, they limited readership to a few. Once that small readership was determined, those who could both comprehend and read well produced an even smaller group of people, which seems to be increasing elitist.
It is also interesting to note that reading was largely a group activity, albeit of a few select groups. Johnson writes, “A typical way in which elite in literate societies distinguish themselves from the masses is by asserting control over literature and language” (pg. 118). Issues were meant to be debated and argued over, which is important because these discussions by the elite appear to be the precursor to larger debates on philosophy, ideology, economics, the law, and religion, all of which affect society as a whole.
Finally, Johnson discusses how being well read was a sign of respectability and virtuous behavior. As opposed to other leisure activities such as drinking, prostitution, and gambling, reading for leisure was an indication of being above such behaviors. Again, going back to the notion of elitism, it is important to recognize how these select few people shaped society through their control of language. For us, it should make us wonder about what we read. What makes the “classics” so important and who made those decisions?
- On page 121 Johnson argues a return to discussion-based reading. Since he has established that discussion-based reading was an activity of the social elite, is he advocating a return to a society that is dominated by a select few or is he saying that everyone should strive for high levels of reading and comprehension that the select few now become the masses?
He focuses mostly on those in society who can read and often contrasts them with those who cannot without ever really going into much detail. Outside of the social elite, what was reading like for the masses? Were they totally illiterate? Or could they read a little but were unable to acquire bookrolls? As far as the education system is concerned, was reading something that was taught or was it more of a trade to be learned outside of a formal educating setting?
- Looking at how written material was by the elite and for the elite, what do we make of written material today? It seems like the difficult and confusing format of the bookroll has given way to more accessible and easy to read material. Especially in today’s digital world where much of what we read is online, think about a news article. There is a title and subtitle followed by several bullet points, which are then followed by a heavily paragraphed and fragmented article. This type of article is geared towards accessibility for all, which is vastly different than the type of society Johnson describes. Does this difference signify a shift of written material produced by the masses for the masses or is it merely a different variation of written material produced by the elite and dumbed down for everyone else?