Keynote Talk
STD Induction, 17 January 2010

Professor Dan Terkla

            First, let me thank Sigma Tau Delta for inviting me to speak today.  It’s an honor to be associated with this august body, this community of reader-scholars. You presently will join a society of bookworms, which I mean in the mostly positive sense of people who seem to find, as the OED suggests, their “main sustenance in reading” and who are “always poring over books.”  Even though there’s something worrisome in “main sustenance” and “always,” that understanding of the word is far more palatable than the OED’s first definition of bookworm: a “maggot which destroys books by eating its way through the leaves.”  A distasteful image, to be sure, but a vivid one that has at its core a kind of multisensory reading that I’d like to recommend to you, a kind of reading practiced in the Middle Ages, where else?

            And so, you are bookworms—in the nicer sense—book consumers with an appetite for knowledge.  And you are intelligent readers; you wouldn’t be here this afternoon if you weren’t.  But you’re also members of a digital generation unlike that of your younger siblings who, the NYT reports, use different technologies than you; in other words, you’re becoming technologically old school, even before you get out of school.  You’re also well removed from my generation, some members of which—well, a few members of which—are nostalgic for a bookish era that we never experienced, a time when the experience of reading was of a markedly different, physically immersive character.  Some few of us are fortunate enough to approximate at times a medieval kind of reading experience by spending time in cathedral archives and monasteries where we have monkish scholarly friends.  Admittedly, our approximations are only partial, since even the centuries-old archives to which we are admitted no longer have cold, damp, dimly lighted reading rooms populated by murmuring readers and scribes who’ve never known the wonders of reading glasses—thank you, Walgreens—let alone a shower or a toothbrush.

            Even many of us who are old school in this way partake of digital wonders and recognize the utility and joy they provide.  We are not all Luddites, saboteurs looking to stop the forward march of visionaries like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates—well, maybe Gates, who in his earlier incarnation really was the antichrist to those of us who were stalwart rimwalkers of the DOS world.  (Don’t even get me started on docx.)  Still, there is a very wide generation gap between you and those like myself, who moved into adulthood, if not maturity, just as the computer was born.  Those of us who sit uncomfortably on the far side of the digital divide, those of us who are unavoidably becoming our parents—Michael Doonesbury, you were so right—think rather grandly that we’re also on the wisdom side of that divide, but, of course, that’s what elders have thought for millennia.  I won’t pass off what I have to say as wisdom, but concern, followed by a suggestion.

            Concerns first.  Current work by those who study the physiology of perception and learning show the belief in efficacious multi-tasking to be a delusion, regardless of the age of the multi-tasker.  They demonstrate that we as a species really can do only one thing well at a time and that we have real trouble prioritizing when bombarded by digital options: YouTube, email, RSS feeds, blogs, tweets, IM, photos, songs, texts, Facebook and friends, phone calls,  We can work on multiple tasks simultaneously and make progress in most or all of them, but that progress inevitably comes at the cost of leveling, whereby complexity gets reduced, depth becomes shallow, and distraction rules the day. 

            I’m concerned that digital leveling and its effects on our ability to concentrate deeply and at length also tacitly condition us to believe that books as objects have less inherent value than in the past.  When so many of us use resources like, which enables me to have texts in my sizable virtual library that I have flown thousands of miles to read, that’s to be expected, probably even “a good thing,” to quote Martha.  But I am worried that we textual omnivores might come to regard their contents less highly because of their easy availability and that we might turn the activity of reading into something more akin to consuming fast food on the run than ruminative fine dining.

            I make myself anxious by deploying a pedagogy that privileges and expects students to engage in what Andrew Taylor calls “reading in slow time” in an age that doesn’t tolerate deliberateness, an age in which time seem to run faster than clocks allow, an age in which so much is of equal priority that nothing is.  I’m worried that what Albrecht Classen describes about reading in an earlier will no longer obtain: in the Middle Ages, “the book and the reading process were considered enigmatic and mysterious, powerful and seductive, informative and revealing, dangerous and promising.”  Reading provided the entrée, as he writes, into “some of the most powerful and significant secrets of life.  Those who were literate were empowered to understand the essence of human existence.”  Has the reading process lost the enigmatic and mysterious, the dangerous, and the promising?  Probably not, but I fear what will happen if we don’t reframe our conceptualization of it.

            And so, from gloom to suggestion via a bit of history and metaphor, medieval, of course.  As you know, book production before 1475 was laborious and accomplished by hand, from cow to codex.  Theophilus Presbyter’s twelfth-century account of parchment making reveals that just creating a page on which to write could take three weeks, a time when it was good not to be a calf, sheep, or, in this case, a goat:

Take goatskins and stand them in water for a day and a night.  Take them and wash them till the water runs clear.  Take an entirely new bath and place therein old lime and water mixing well together to for a thick cloudy liquid. Place the skins into this, folding them on the flesh side.  Move them with a pole two or three times each day, leaving them for eight days (and twice as long in winter).  Next you must withdraw the skins and unhair them.  Pour off the contents of the bath and repeat the process using the same quantities, placing the skins in the lime liquid, and moving them once each day over eight days as before.  Then take them out and wash them well until the water runs quite clean.  Place them in another bath with clean water and leave them for two days.  Then take them out, attach cords, and tie them to the circular frame.  Dry, then shave them with a sharp knife, after which leave for two days out of the sun … moisten with water and rub the flesh side with powdered pumice.  After two days wet it again by sprinkling it with a little water, and fully clean the flesh side with pumice so as to make it quite wet again. Then tighten up the cords, equalizing the tension so that the sheet will become permanent.  Once the sheets are dry, nothing remains to be done.

After the parchmenter created the requisite number of leaves, the scribe or copyist took over and, depending on the size of the book, or codex, he would take months, even years, to finish the job.  The process itself conferred high status on the book, to say nothing of the knowledge, magic, and mystery it held for the lucky reader. 

            So important were these texts, these comestibles, that occasionally their readers became their consumers, literally chewing, swallowing, and ingesting bits of the pages in order to embody, to incarnate, the knowledge the books held behind their boards, clasps, and locks.  This practice of reading-as-rumination, of chewing the cud, as the OE poem “Cædmon’s Hymn,” has it—or perhaps of re-chewing, depending on which animal provided the skin—was sourced from Scripture, as we hear in this passage from the book of Ezekiel:            

He said to me, “Son of man, eat what you find; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.”  So I opened my mouth, and He caused me to eat that scroll. And He said to me, “Son of man, feed your belly, and fill your stomach with this scroll that I give you. So I ate, and it was in my mouth like honey in sweetness. Then He said to me: “Son of man, go to the house of Israel and speak with My words to them. Moreover, He said to me: “Son of man, receive into your heart all My words that I speak to you, and hear with your ears.  And go … to the children of your people, … and tell them, ‘Thus says the Lord God.’”

The literal consumption of books, bibliophagy, generated metaphors like this one articulated by Sir Francis Bacon, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested,” which in turn was linked to a more common type of medieval reading.

            In the late twelfth century, the major European universities were founded—Bologna, Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, among others—and staffed by men who learned in cathedral schools meditatio et lectio divina, the method of reading, understanding, meditating on, and memorizing sacred texts, so as to be able to teach them to successive generations of clerics.  As used in these universities, which are the forebears of modern universities and colleges, the method involved reading “not as today, with the eyes, but with the lips, pronouncing what they saw, and with the ears, listening to the words pronounced, hearing … the voices of the page,” as Dom Leclerq describes it.  By reading aloud in a low, murmuring voice, figuratively chewing the words before ingesting their sense, men like Petrus of the University of Paris—who read so much that he was given the surname Comestor, thereby becoming “Peter the Eater”—sustained the depth of textual engagement that their bibliophagic predecessors experienced.  To a degree that we cannot comprehend today, they were able to make texts their own by picturing and making present their contents, by seeing with their mind’s eye the details offered by the texts.  Readers engaged their minds and senses to rehearse, revivify, and relive the experiences upon which they meditated and which they memorized.

            Hugh, the twelfth-century abbot of St.-Victor in Paris, theologian, teacher, mystic, cartographer, and memory scientist, recognized the value in deep, meditative reading.  Hugh wrote that “all who desire to advance in knowledge, must follow this route,” from which he knew that it is but a short step to what Brian Stock has called textual communities, like the one into which you are being inducted today.  Therefore, while I’m not advising you to turn off, tune out, and drop out, I am asking you to minimize distractions and to reframe the ways in which you think about your reading habits.  More importantly, I ask you to reimagine reading not as a task to complete but as a multisensory experience that best unfolds in slow time.  Think of it not as a snack you snatch and eat alone as you rush on your way but as a feast that you consume after joining what Dante called il convivio, the banquet, at which you establish profound communion with an author and, by extension, a world of absent readers, all masticating in slow time.