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11 - The Sound of Literature: Secondary School Teaching on Reading Aloud and Silent Reading, 1880–1940

Ton van Kalmthout
Affiliation:
Huygens Institute of the Royal Netherlands Academy
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Summary

In his History of Reading, Steven Roger Fischer suggests that written communication of the type already familiar in increasingly large parts of the world will eventually eliminate traditional methods of oral information transfer in their entirety. Moreover, ‘[T]his may be soon’. Where specifically literary texts are concerned, Fischer and other historians of Western reading habits believe that the switch to predominantly silent reading occurred as early as 1900. The latest historical example of this cited by Fischer and, before him, Alberto Manguel, is the use of lectors in North American cigar factories – people who were still being collectively paid to read aloud to labouring workers as late as the 1920s. The question is, however, whether this was indeed the last brief revival of the custom. Where the teaching of Dutch literature is concerned, the preference for reading aloud certainly survived in the initial decades of the twentieth century and this was, after all, how a large proportion of the new and future readership was trained to consume literature.

This paper questions Fischer's interpretation of developments and shows that the custom of reading aloud, which flourished in the nineteenth century, remained alive and well throughout the whole first half of the twentieth century. Indeed, it may even have remained the dominant practice. Surprisingly, it seems that the silent reading of literary texts was far from the general rule even as late as the beginning of the Second World War.

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Publisher: Pickering & Chatto
First published in: 2014

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