How the Ancients Read

Rome vs. today: My thoughts on readers’ access and attention

Visiting Rome’s Colosseum made me think about how our ease of accessing reading materials makes us less patient when we read.

Back in the days of classical Rome, people had to work at reading. They didn’t have books lying around their homes — at least not according to the exhibit about libraries that I saw at the Colosseum. They had to go out to reach their reading material at a library or gymnasium. Then, they had to unroll and re-roll long papyrus scrolls written without any punctuation, capital letters, or even breaks between words, according to a Colosseum exhibit about ancient libraries (see “How the Ancients Read” photo).

How the Ancients Read

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Can you imagine reading this blog post under such conditions? I had a somewhat similar experience—in terms of the lack of punctuation at least—when I studied classical Japanese at Harvard way back when. It took a lot of effort to work my way through edicts of the Tokugawa shogunate.

I think that the difficulty of reading in the days of Rome or classical Japan might have spurred me to abandon books even faster than I do now. These days I drop novels that don’t grab me in the first 40 pages. I may not go beyond the first paragraph of a blog that fails to sparkle.Rome Colosseum library exhibit

However, on the other hand, I imagine the scarcity of reading materials in classical Rome would have lowered my standards for what was worth reading and how long I’d read it. When I was a girl, I read all of my brother’s Hardy Boys and many of his science fiction books. They weren’t my favorites, but I was a voracious reader who couldn’t get enough books from the library.

Things sure are different today. My favorite smartphone app is the Kindle app that lets me carry a book everywhere. While it’s great that reading is more accessible, I’m a little sad that this makes reading less of a privilege.

What does the difference between ancient Rome and today mean for you as a writer? It’s a reminder that you must work hard to keep your readers’ attention because it’s so easy for them to take advantage of other options.