Monday, June 20, 2016

Quintilian on Reading

While working my way through Raffaella Cribiore's "Writers, Teachers, and Students of Graeco-Roman Egypt," I came across an interesting comment made by Quintilian (95 CE) concerning the act of reading a text.

"The syllables once learnt, let him begin to construct words with them and sentences with words. You will hardly believe how much reading is delayed by undue haste. If the child attempts more than his powers allow, the inevitable result is hesitation, interruption and repetition, and mistakes which he makes merely lead him to lose confidence in what he already knows. Reading must therefore first be sure, then connected, while it must be kept slow for a considerable time, until practice brings speed unaccompanied by error. For to look to the right, which is regularly taught, and to look ahead depends not so much on precept as on practice; since it is necessary to keep the eyes on what follows while reading out what precedes, with the resulting difficulty that the attention of the mind must be divided, the eyes and voice being differently engaged." (Inst. Or. 1.1.31-34)

It is interesting that Quintilian is describing a very difficult multi-tasking operation in reading. The eyes must always be looking ahead at the text that is about to be read out-loud, in order to decipher the text while the voice is "speaking" the previous sections that had already been deciphered. The labor and effort in practicing this is apparent as Quintilian states that reading "must be kept slow for a considerable time." It seems that most of this difficulty was caused by the format of the bookroll, that is, the scriptio continua and the lack of punctuation and reader's aids.
Closeup of a Mosaic Depicting Virgil Holding a Bookroll


Butler, H. E., trans. The Institutio Oratio of Quintilian. Vol. 1. LCL. Harvard University Press; New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1920.

Cribiore, Raffaella. Writing, Teachers, and Students in Graeco-Roman Egypt. American Studies in Papyrology 36. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996.

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