The Brothers Grimm

I’ve been meaning to look into the Brothers Grimm for quite sometime now. Today, feeling tired and indecisive, I could not decide on a blog topic. Then, about twenty minutes ago, my professor made a comment about the Brothers Grimm and I thought “of course! I’ll write about them.” As  a lover of both literature and Disney movies, I have to admit I’m curious about the depiction of these fairy tales in contemporary culture. In this same vein, the writing of these fairy tales was an attempt to capture elements of a dying popular culture.

I’ll begin with a brief biographical introduction. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, known conjointly as the Grimm Brothers, were the oldest siblings in a family of five brothers and one sister. Their father had been a lawyer and later a justiciary before passing away in 1796. Their father’s death brought social hardship to the family, which was further exacerbated by their mother’s passing in 1808. At this time, Jacob was 23 years old and left to care for his younger siblings.

With intentions of entering the world of civil service and following in the footsteps of their father, the brothers enrolled in law school at the University of Marburg. Here they were influenced by a number of figures who inspired their interest in folktales and folk poetry. Until 1816, and I won’t bother to go over the details, both brothers worked varying jobs ranging from private librarians to secretaries.

By this point the brothers decided to pursue a purely literary career, one they would pursue frugally and determinedly. Meanwhile, the 18th and 19th centuries were greatly shaped by Romanticism, primarily “Gothic” Romanticism, which as the name implies was deeply preoccupied with gloom and terror. They were not, it’s said, adherent to the fashions of their time and considered themselves more of realists than romantics. Their interests were therefore grounded less in their own era and more so in that of antiquity. Interestingly, their study of antiquity allowed them to form understandings and conclusions about the social institutions of their own day.

If you’re interested in their lives, you can read up on their later activities. While they are remembered for their collection of fairy tales they certainly made other contributions.

The Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales), or, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, was published several times. The first edition came out in 1812 and contained 86 stories but was then revised and enlarged seven times before 1857. The final edition contained 211 stories. Now, while these stories are fantastical, it’s important to note that they were not entirely conjured by the Grimm Brothers. Instead, they relied on oral traditions and other modes of research to unpack and examine existing stories. The stories compiled in Grimm’s Fairy Tales are in fact the culmination of a rich oral history, one to which they paid close attention. As society grew more industrial, these folktales began to fade and thus Jacob and Wilhelm set off on a mission to preserve and revive disappearing tales, relying, especially, on interviews. If you ever find yourself questioning the importance of oral history, just remember the gift they’ve offered the world! On that note, the lasting influence of these tales is remarkable. questions our modern fascination with fairy tales (a fascination that isn’t exactly modern… but the living always seem to believe that the world revolves around them) and writes: “whatever the reason, it’s as clear as Cinderella’s glass slipper that our entertainment owes a lot to the Brothers Grimm.” This is true (the part about entertainment) but if you read Cinderella you’ll find that her shoes were in fact gold and not glass as was depicted in the Disney edition. Meanwhile, these stories offer a glimpse into popular culture before our time. I’ve compiled a few lines from Cinderella to give you a taste.

Be good and pious, and then the good God will always protect you.

Piety used to play a far more central role in the lives of lay people. I was ruminating on how religion is depicted in other fairy tales and would love to investigate the role of witches who were, historically, associated with the devil.

It happened, however, that the king gave orders for a festival which was to last three days, and to which all the beautiful young girls in the country were invited, in order that his son might choose himself a bride.

I’m currently taking a course on religion and politics in early modern Europe and we’ve spent the past few days discussing the ways in which the Catholic Counter-Reformation attempted to “squash” various elements of popular culture, one of which was the presence of festivals. Festivals/carnivals were, to the Catholic Church, often associated with paganism, sloth and unscrupulous behaviour. Over time carnivals became less prevalent and so the enthusiasm exhibited by the characters in Cinderella is certainly reminiscent of medieval culture.

So her mother gave her a knife and said, cut a bit off your heel, when you are queen you will have no more need to go on foot.

To put this strange quote in context… Unlike the movie, which simply depicts the evil stepsisters attempting to squeeze a foot into Cinderella’s glass shoe, the stepsisters in the text version actually, as shown above, mangle their feet in an attempt to make them fit. I picked this line because, other than making me laugh, I feel it accurately reflects the gore and violence commonly attributed to Grimm fairy tales (again, probably a result of their exposure to Gothic culture.)

I am certainly intrigued by these writers and feel inspired to research their work in the future. The topics to explore are innumerable and include obvious choices like the role of gender, power and violence in folklore. For now, however, I must redirect my attention to the world of contemporary literature and scurry off to another class. Thank you for reading and please feel free to share any thoughts in the comment section below!


Mind Your Manners!

Should I have the desire or opportunity to personally address a cardinal, I now know that I’d greet him by saying “Your Eminence.” Should I write him by mail I’d write “Most Rev. John Cardinal Doe” then end said letter with the following words: “I have the honour to remain, My Lord Cardinal, Your Eminence’s devoted and obedient child.”

I also know that, should I be invited to join a game of cards, I should inquire as to whether the game is “serious or social or chatty.” Likewise, I know that kumquats (a small lemon-like fruit that grows on trees belonging to the flowering plant family Rutaceae) are to be “picked up in the fingers, bitten into or eaten whole, depending on the size.”

How on earth do I know such things? How do I know that perfume should be a “subtle, not overpowering reminder of the presence”? Well, I recently inherited a book called Mind Your Manners: A Complete Dictionary of Etiquette for Canadians by Claire Wallace, a Harlequin book that, in 1953, cost fifty cents. This book is a gem. I am absolutely in love, not only with its bewitching “old book smell” but with what the books represents… It provides a kind of portal that transports me to an earlier time. Today I know few women who would inquire (using an alphabetized etiquette dictionary nonetheless) how to eat frogs’ legs, serve fruitcake or candy (note: candy should be served in bon-bon dishes placed between candelabra at a formal dinner.)

While I’ll admit to getting a kick out of this book (who knew that one should pay attention to pedestrians?) this book offers my life a lot more than mere humour. I discovered this book on my dear Aunt Mary’s bookshelf (my great Aunt who, at 97, passed away only last week.) I felt as though I’d found a treasure chest. Why, you ask? Well, my first thought was the following: “this book is going to give me so many ideas for stories!” So I suppose it depends on what “treasure” means to you.

The book’s description begins with: “Every day you meet situations in which you are unsure of yourself.” This book was published to provide women (at least women were the targeted audience, especially considering the book is bright pink and the “i” in “mind” is topped with a curly heart) guidance when navigating everyday social situations. Meanwhile, I was born in 1994 so writing about the fifties is a tad outside my comfort zone.

You often hear people say “write what you know.” As many writers learn, this advice is rarely followed. Sure, I could write about topics I’ve studied or my own personal life, that of my family or friends, but eventually I’ll develop a desire to learn and grow as a writer. Writing what you don’t know, however, requires careful research and genuine curiosity. So while this book was published to guide Canadian women of the fifties, I, too, am benefitted. I am provided with the necessary tools to properly portray how a woman might react in those very “unsure situations” of which the book speaks. Meanwhile, if I may offer one small piece of advise… never underestimate the power of research and for those of you who imagine research as an act conducted solely in libraries and stuffy archive rooms, you are mistaken! This book is proof of that.

I may now write about a particular woman’s garden party, knowing how one should dress, act, eat etc. Thus, this book is, in many senses, a research tool. At the moment, it’s also a reminder of my wonderful Aunt who always dressed and acted in an appropriate, though incredibly loving and genuine, manner. I’m not quite sure what I’d like to write about yet but as I flip through the book’s pages (carefully as it’s beginning to fall apart) I am continually prompted and day-dream of writing a series of short stories about manners misused or parties gone awry.


Beatrix Potter: Her Life and Works

I’ve always loved Beatrix Potter. In terms of children’s authors, she’s always been one of my literary heroes. The movie, Miss Potter, was also one of my favourite films growing up. Her persistence as an artist and as a woman is inspiring. She was, ultimately, more than an illustrator and an author. She was a woman who carved out a space for herself in a male dominated world, made independent choices and investments.

She was, in some ways, a classically Victorian writer. In others, she was far from it. Born in 1866 to a wealthy family, Helen Beatrix Potter lived a life of privilege. Nevertheless, her talents were evident from a young age as she was said to have been restless, keenly observant and like the rest of her family, somewhat nonconformist.

Family holidays were tbeatrix_potter3aken in the countryside where nature fuelled her imagination and inspired her art. Her fascination with small creatures and various plants manifested itself in more than just her artwork.

The mycological aspect of her life has been greatly ignored, though given more attention in recent few years.

Historian Linda Lear wrote that Beatrix Potter:

“was drawn to fungi first by their ephemeral fairy qualities and then by the variety of their shape and colour and the challenge they posed to watercolour techniques.”

Her obsession developed beyond artistic interests and Potter’s investment in mycology (the study of fungi) led her to draw hundreds of specimens. By studying various specimens microscopically, Potter eventually became interested in spore germination. In 1897 she wrote a paper on germinating fungal spores. The paper was presented to the Linnean Society of London, the world’s oldest biological society.

So while Beatrix Potter is remembered as Jemima Puddleduck and Peter Rabbit’s creator, Potter was equally interested in the study of fungi. Historians and scientists have debated her contributions. Some claim that her contributions were subject to the patriarchal suppression commonly attributed to Victorian society while others described her work as ambitious, of lesser importance and given more credit than deserved. Her connections, in particular, gave her her standing. Nevertheless, she challenged the era’s gender stereotypes by developing and pursuing interests in the sciences.

p03jnc4gIn 1892, she met with Charles McIntosh, a naturalist she’d known since the age of four. With his support, Potter went on to produce some 350 accurate sketches of fungi and mosses. Later, McIntosh advised in a letter:

Since you have begun to study the physiology of the funguses you seem to see your drawings of them as defective in regard to the gills, but you can make them more perfect as botanical drawings by making separate sketches of sections showing the attachment of the gills, the stem, if it be hollow or otherwise, or any other details that would show the characteristics of the plant more distinctly.

Then, after being introduced to a mycologist at Kew’s Royal Botanic Gardens, George Massee, Potter began to further experiment with spore germination, using her microscope to measure growth. She considered her work groundbreaking despite Massee’s skepticism and advice. He advised her to read the work of an older German mycologist but she paid him little attention. 

That said, in March 1897, Massee agreed to submit Potter’s paper, “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae” to the Linnean Society. As the Society didn’t admit females until 1905, Potter was absent when her paper was discussed. Despite comments that it was “well received,” she withdrew the paper. It was never published and no copy exists today.

Her work is fascinating and I advise anyone interested to read more elsewhere. For now, however, I loop back to Potter’s social and artistic life.

In addition to challenging gender stereotypes in the wold of science, Beatrix Potter sought financial independence through her art. She began by seeking a publisher. Norman Warne of Frederick Warne & Co. agreed to publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1902. Four more of her books were published following Peter Rabbit’s story, including Potter’s personal favourite, The Tailor of Gloucester. What ensued was far more than the printing of a book. Within three years Norman Warne and Beatrix Potter fell madly in love. If you’re looking for a tear jerker, watch Miss Potter. The movie provides a heartfelt account of their love story and unless you have a heart of stone, you’re sure to feel moved.


Norman Warne

When Warne proposed in 1905, Potter accepted despite her family’s opposition. As a tradesman, Potter’s family scorned Warne and disapproved of their union. Their love, meanwhile, was a story unto itself, a love that was tragically cut short when Norman Warne died of Leukemia a month later. The following years of Potter’s life were thus characterized by intense grief, solitude and a flourishing of her creative side. In the wake of Warne’s death, Potter purchased a farm called Hill Top near Sawrey, Lancashire. She purchased the 34 acres as a single woman at 39 years old using the royalties from her books and a small inheritance from her aunt. It was the home she and Warne had planned to share. Thus, in purchasing Hill Top, Potter was, in a sense, memorializing their unfinished story.

Over the next years, Potter wrote and illustrated 13 new stories. The farm provided a sanctuary where she could write and paint in peace. As she embraced country life, The Tale of Tom Kitten, The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck and The Tale of Samuel Whiskers reflected joys derived from life on the farm. At Hill Top, though artistically productive, Potter’s endeavors were not limited to writing and painting. She’d become a woman of the countryside with a myriad of responsibilities such as tending to her many animals. Included in her initial stock were ducks and hens, sixteen Herwick sheep, collies, six dairy cows and some fourteen pigs. She’d later own sizeable flocks of turkeys and chickens.

Then, in 1909, Beatrix Potter purchased a second property. Aided by a local solicitor, William Heelis, Potter bought Castle Farm, a property across the road from Hill Top. In 1913, at the age of 47, Potter and Heelis married. Their relationship had developed companionably and steadily. Prior to their engagement, Heelis had become Potter’s principal legal advisor and managed her properties when she returned to London (for a period, she spent a significant amount of time in the city caring for her elderly parents.) Nevertheless, she married Heelis in 1913 and they would remain together for thirty years.

Linda Lear reflects on Potter’s two great loves:

She had loved Norman for his imagination and his humour, and she similarly delighted in William’s love of nature, his knowledge of the countryside and his zest for being out in it.

In 1914, Potter’s father passed away and she was further engaged with caring for her mother. Additionally, the onset of war added to her struggles. Labour and food shortages forced her to kill rabbits, something she particularly disliked having to do. Her favourite collie, Kep, also died and the loss added to her gloom. But of course the war came to a close and for the most part life at Hill Top reclaimed a normal pace. Over the course of her lifetime, Potter became committed to her community and various causes such as opposing hydroplanes on Lane Windermere or founding a nursing trust to improve local health care. Eventually her eyesight began to wear, making The Tale of Little Pig Robinson her last book.

Her contributions were enormous as her stories continue to thrill us today. Just last year I sat in my room making water colour paintings inspired by her characters. I feel delight upon revisiting her books and am certain they’ll continue to enchant following generations.


Sources/Further Reading:

Book Burnings

Book burnings…The ritual destruction of written work, tragic acts that are so often conducted communally and en mass. These burnings are the result of heavy censorship and represent an attempt to suppress opposing politics, cultures or religious beliefs. They are a part of our story, the dark underbelly of certain supremacist pursuits.

If you’re unfamiliar with the history of book burning, I’ll start by discussing what is (at least in the western world) the most famous book burnings to have ever taken place…

In May 1933 some 25,000 (perhaps more) so called “un-german” books were burned by German students in Berlin. Approximately 40,000 people gathered as Joseph Goebbels delivered a speech affirming Nazi Germany’s radical right-wing “values.”

Let’s rewind a bit. Remember Martin Luther? His 95 Theses? Luther is often accredited with having kickstarted the Reformation (though this is a general conception and scholarly debates regarding the Reformation’s genesis persist) but the memory of Luther tacking his Theses to a church door in Wittenberg held strong. The belief that these Theses spurred an intellectual revolution that spread across Europe was reflected in Theses presented by a group of German students. Their hopes were to stimulate a similarly revolutionary “purification.”

Beginning on April 6, 1933, the Nazi German Student Association’s Main Office for Press and Propaganda called for “Action against the Un-German Spirit,” a proclamation that would witness an attempt to “ethnically cleanse” Germany in the following years. On April 8th a group of students drafted their “12 Theses,” a deliberate evocation of Luther’s 95 Theses. In sum, these 12 called for the “purification” of German culture.

Fast-forward to Joseph Goebbels standing in front of 40,000 people in Berlin. He speaks:

“Yes to decency and morality in family and state! I consign to the flames the writings of Heinrich Mann, Ernst Gläser, Erich Kästner.”

The famous burning saw the written works of Ernest Hemingway, Karl Marx, Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann and Jack London burst into flames. The list extends far beyond these names. But while Nazi book burning are well known, having been photographed and documented, book burning have lived a much longer history.

To put things in perspective, check out Wikipedia’s list of book burning incidents.

Let’s consider the many complexities that accompany book burning. Obviously they infringe on civil and intellectual freedoms. They represent heavy censorship and in turn, are replaced by myriads of propagandist works. But I want to consider the power of the written word. It’s a topic I’ve thought deeply about and feel needs to be discussed.

I remember hearing kids chant “sticks and stones might break my bones but words will never hurt me.” As a child, unaware of how literacy shapes both an individual and a nation, I agreed. I thought, “sure, words can’t hurt me” and I imagined ghostly letters racing towards me, bursting through my skin, incapable of doing any harm. As I got older I started to consider this chant more critically and began to think “well… I don’t know, words inflict emotional wounds and emotional wounds disperse into people’s lives in varying ways.” So I began to disagree. Upon further thought, I came to consider historical events. Can words hurt a person? Well, yes, I realized, they can. They have. Words are far more powerful than we give them credit for. So powerful, in fact, that rulers have felt the need to burn books throughout history in order to protect given ideologies. That engaging with such works, words, could cost a person their life is proof enough that words can hurt.

I’m currently taking a class in Chinese military strategy. The first week we studied Confucian classics… We spoke about China’s tumultuous military history, the overturning of dynasties and in this conversation we touched on China’s history of book burning. The Qin dynasty controlled China from 221-206 BCE and under Qin rule, massive burnings destroyed nearly all copies of the Confucian classics. Emperor Qin Shi Huang is remembered as the man who unified China and developed one of the world’s first centralized bureaucratic empires. He is also remembered as a paranoid man who was responsible for the death of some 400 scholars and the burning of Confucian works. He feared the written word as he did the enemy’s sword.

Following the Qin dynasty, the Han dynasty was founded and ruled between 206 BCE and 220 CE. During these years, China witnessed a kind of classical revival. The re-introduction of Confucianism influenced educational standards and national values. Confucianism was easily targetable during Qin rule because it appeared to clash with Legalism, which encouraged strict laws and uniform justice in order to maintain civil order. Meanwhile, Confucianism encouraged deep thought and a philosophical approach to civil and military matters. The book ban was lifted in 191 BCE.

Meanwhile, burnings continue to reflect violent attitudes towards politics, religions or cultural ideals. These barbarous acts attempt to smother ideas that espouse beliefs opposing those of the “leaders.” We continue to witness burnings in the contemporary world. ISIS, for example, burned thousands of rare manuscripts in 2015. Ransacking the Mosul Library in Northern Iraq, ISIS proceeded to burn thousands of books, once again casting a light on what is, ultimately, a cultural and intellectual tragedy.

There have been many, many more incidents throughout history. My heart breaks to think of them but I believe that books are stronger than fire for they hold ideas and an idea may be condemned, argued, hated, but it cannot be burned. So despite the heinous nature of these crimes, I have hope that individuals will fight censorship, fight for their intellectual freedom and hold onto valuable ideas whether they exist in print or not.

“It hardly matters why a library is destroyed: every banning, curtailment, shredding, plunder or loot gives rise (at least as a ghostly presence) to a louder, clearer, more durable library of the banned, looted, plundered, shredded or curtailed.”
Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

I’ll conclude by encouraging you to acknowledge the power of words, to recognize their strength and use them wisely and bravely. They are a gift, a weapon and a shield. How you use them is up to you. 



The Great Library of Alexandria

Nowadays, we’re quite familiar with the concept of centralized information. We can browse the web with any given question or visit a public library, returning home with books ranging in topics from Mediterranean style cooking to plant care. We understand that libraries are centres wherein learning is facilitated and encouraged. In many ways, these gifts are a given. While access to information is still an ongoing discussion, especially in reference to politics, we expect access to information. We not only crave it, we see it as a right. Curious about knitting? The nature of fire? Why the sun rises and sets? Today, these questions are easily answerable. In fact, these answers are centralized and categorized within refined search systems in order to enable access.

The city in which I live has 18 public libraries in addition to private libraries, such as the many libraries belonging Calgary’s various educational institutions. When I walk through the library at school, the shelves are filled with volumes exploring every historical era, genetics, the psychology of love… There are more books than one could read in a lifetime. But while libraries are normalized, ingrained in our society, this wasn’t always the case. There were, supposedly, attempts to build such a massive library prior to the Great Library of Alexandria (hereafter referred to as the Great Library) but the near mythic institution built by the ancient Greeks was the first lasting attempt, an attempt that, in its grandness, persists within the cultural consciousness of modern societies. There were other libraries but drawing global works together made this endeavor unique.

The Great Library  is so well known that it’s become enshrouded by myth, even glorified. It’s said that Alexander the Great, upon witnessing the great library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh (a library established in the 7th Century BCE in Assyria, named after the last great king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire), felt inspired to combine the works belonging to the nations he’d conquered. He would have them translated and centralized. While the desire to consolidate information certainly played a role, the endeavor also speaks to Alexander’s desire to establish a multicultural empire unified under the influence of Hellenism. In other words, he wished to form a library combining the works of various nations as a way to bolster Greek authority.

Unfortunately Alexander died before he could create the Great Library, thus his successor, Ptolemy I, oversaw the beginnings of its creation. The Great  Library was a massive undertaking. For this reason, its construction would extend beyond the influence of a sole ruler. Speculations hold that Ptolemy I (a.k.a Ptolemy Soter) began its construction and his son, Philadelphius, contributed to its continued growth.

In a previous post, I spoke of the the strangeness surrounding book ownership, how some will go so far as to steal books to satisfy an innate craving. The ancient Greeks were no different. The Great Library had between 400,000 and 700,00 rolls in its collection. These rolls, however, were acquired in various ways, some of which might be considered immoral. The first three Ptolemies were bibliomaniacs. They contributed to the growth of the Great Library in ways that are undeniable. The following is one example of the lengths taken to acquire not only books, but the “the best, most original, most authoritative copies.” Under Ptolemy Eurgertes’ reign, the Great Library borrowed the official copies of plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides from Athens. They paid what would today be the equivalent of millions of dollars. Note the word “borrowed.” They paid to borrow the plays, ensuring their return. Scribes working for the Great Library went on to copy the plays using the finest parchment. They returned the newly made copies to Athens and kept the originals for the Great Library.


That a library with such a large, unique collection was destroyed is perhaps part of the reason the Great Library is mythicized. The story of the library’s destruction is in fact unknown, leaving four possible stories to account for its ruination. The most popular story involves a massive fire some 2000 years ago that destroyed the Great Library’s many works, including works by the likes of Homer, Socrates and Plato. Because it seems people want someone to blame, many have turned to point a finger at Julius Caesar. In 47 BCE a series of skirmishes were fought between Caesar, who’d entered Alexandria during the Roman Civil War in his pursuit of Pompey, and various figures, including Ptolemy VIII. The Siege of Alexandria ensued. It is around this time that the Library is thought to have been burned (if a burning was, in fact, the cause of destruction.) The story goes on to tell of Caesar’s occupation of Alexandria in 48 BCE wherein he found himself cornered by an Egyptian fleet in the harbour. He ordered his men to set the Egyptian fleet on fire and the fire is said to have lost control and spread into the city, destroying warehouses, depots and, perhaps, the Great Library.

Other possible causes of destruction include an event occurring in 272 CE wherein the Emperor Aurelian (the Roman Emperor from 270 to 275 CE) sacked Alexandria during his war with Queen Zenobia (Queen of the Palmyrene Empire in Syria). Another possibility is destruction in 391 CE during a series of religious riots or again, in 415CE during fights between Alexandria’s Jewish and Christian populations. The ultimate cause remains unknown and it is for this reason, perhaps, that the Great Library intrigues us so.

This is a very brief overview of the Great Library. Of course scholars have conducted in-depth research, much of which you can find by accessing online archives and searching various libraries! If you have any questions please comment below and I’ll happily get back to you with an answer. Likewise, if you have any comments or would like to expand on part of the Great Library’s story please feel free to do so.

Main Sources:
Phillips, Heather. “The Great Library of Alexandria?” Library Philosophy and Practice (2010). Academic OneFile (accessed January 23, 2017).

Perception and the History of Reading

“The keenest of our senses is our sense of sight”- CICERO

What does it mean to read? Nowadays, the answer might seem obvious. Reading begins with sight. One looks at a page and from that page a new idea, place or story bursts free. Of course we understand that reading and sight are inherently linked but centuries ago humans began to study the relationship between the eye and the page. The link between seeing and reading inspired anatomical advances, cultural and philosophical revolutions.

Today, we understand that seeing and comprehending aren’t synonymous. Reading fits into this notion because it requires comprehension and sight. It requires deciphering, analysis. When a child picks up blocks representing letters of the alphabet they see shapes but perhaps struggle to understand the shapes’ meanings. But as the child begins to understand that the shape represents something more, they may start moving the blocks around. In the same way that writing requires construction, reading relies on deconstruction.

I recently read “A History of Reading” by Alberto Manguel wherein Manguel introduces the reader to optical evolutions. In the fifth century BC, Empedocles, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, put forth the idea that fiery light streams from the eye making objects visible. Over a century later, Epicurus built on this idea. He proposed that these flames were in fact sheaths of atoms that ascended from the surface of a given object, thereby entering the eye. Of course these theories were riddled with enigmas. Various philosophers and physicians sought to solve these riddles. Perhaps my favourite theory is that of a Greek physician named Galen. Galen claimed that human senses fed into a general repository. This repository, often called the “common sense,” held memory, fantasy, knowledge and dreams. The medieval idea that the brain was compartmentalized is, actually, quite brilliant.

While a relationship between one’s ability to read and the physical eye grew all the more apparent, Ibn al-Haytham (known to the West as Alhazen), established himself as the father of modern optics. Born in 965 AD in Basra (Iraq), the scientist distinguished between “seeing” and “reading.” He explained that one’s perception of the outside world reached conclusions by drawing on our faculty of judgment. He followed Aristotelian arguments that what we see enters the eye through the air, but Alhazen pushed farther and highlighted the difference between “sensation” and “perception.” The first is involuntary. For instance, we might feel cold, or warm. But the second requires recognition. To take note, for instance, of how snow melts in one’s hand. In the 1980’s, Dr. Merlin C. Wittrock wrote: “to comprehend a text we not only read it, in the nominal sense of the word, we construct a meaning for it.” Alhazen laid the groundwork for Wittrock’s 20th century claim.

Of course our relationship to books has changed as well. It’s no coincidence that some people prefer to curl up by a fire with a hard-copy book instead of, say, a Kobo e-reader. The method of reading can inform our perception. I know that I tend to read PDF documents time after time, reaching the bottom of the page with little understanding. This is because I drift off. I see the words on the document but struggle to process them. Give me a book, however, and I’ll happily read for hours. The brain is a truly curious organ.

Meanwhile, I’ve begun to notice trends in how I read. For instance, I might seek out an article to further support an idea that’s come to me and the sheer fact of my “seeking” that article is likely to inform my ensuing perception of it. The way in which I deconstruct the text’s meaning is shaped by my excavating. This has been going on for ages. Slavery, for example, was long defended because the word “slave” exists in the Bible. Surely scripture did not intend to facilitate mass kidnappings or treacherous migrations but in that act of deciphering, which we’ve established as perception, we interpret.

eyesWhile writing this, I did some additional research on Alhazen and found the following picture. How strange, I thought to myself, that in researching the difference between sight and reading, I find an incredibly beautiful image that is, to me, indecipherable. I could draw meaning based on the fact that I, 1-Google searched it and 2- could interpret the illustration. But in this scenario, my perception was informed by context. If I’d found a flyer floating through the streets with the same image I’d likely have found myself feeling rather confused. Alas! Perception is informed by a great many things.

So here I leave you to ponder what reading means to you. What you read, why you read, where and how you read… Such strange questions to ask yourself and yet the answers might surprise you.