A History of Reading and Writing in the Western World by Martyn Lyons

Linda J. Van Netten


Lyons, Martyn. A History of Reading and Writing in the Western World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Print. 


Martyn Lyons’ A History of Reading and Writing in the Western World is as ambitious as the title suggests. This surprisingly slim book charts the evolution of reading and writing in Europe and North America, spanning just over two millennia from the ancient Greeks to the present. Lyons’ stated purpose is “to adopt a much-needed historical perspective on books, reading and writing in the West . . . [and to] show how the relationship of readers (and writers, too) with their texts has changed over time” (1). His primary objective is to provide a concise history of textual communication with the underlying motivation of challenging contemporary Western society’s impression that we are witnessing an “information revolution unique in history” (1). By documenting the historical trajectory of reading and writing, Lyons aims to reveal that aspects of our current computer-driven information revolution have precedent in the past and that many of our ‘new’ concerns and practices in the field of textual communication are simply revisions of former concerns and practices.

Lyons’ introductory chapter outlines the specific coordinates of his study, which are focused on key historical events and innovations in the history of the book. Using an integrative approach, he considers how both technological changes (such as the invention of the codex, printing, the industrialization of the book and the computer revolution) and social changes (such as the Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance, the French Revolution and the emergence of a public sphere) converged to transform Western society’s relationship with texts and with the practice of writing. Lyons further organizes his history to meet four key objectives: (1) uncover the targeted readers (the audience desired by the publisher and by the author); (2) recover the actual readers and their responses; (3) historicize the interaction between the reader and the text; and (4) document the gradual democratization of writing. In order to address these central concerns and to thoroughly investigate the implications of technological and social changes on the history of textual communication, Lyons draws on a wide variety of sources that include wills, testimonies, personal correspondences, works of fiction, government records, marginalia, business transactions as well as records from libraries, publishing houses, printers and booksellers. As his diverse pool of evidence suggests, Lyons’ study consistently stresses the importance of uncovering  the individual’s real experiences with reading and writing. This emphasis results in a nuanced approach that favors an evolutionary (gradual progression) rather than a revolutionary (instantaneous change) interpretation of the history of textual communication.

The History of Reading and Writing in the Western World is divided into thirteen chapters, beginning with the ancient and medieval world and proceeding chronologically up to the digital age. In the second chapter, Lyons delves into the history of reading and writing in the ancient and medieval worlds. He explores the tensions that exist between the oral and the written word and touches on the initial stages of the disintegration of restricted literacy. He also documents early advances in book history such as word separation, the codex and the growth of silent reading. Chapter three questions whether the invention of printing should be considered as revolutionary as various scholars such as Elizabeth Eisenstein and Marshall McLuhan have proclaimed. While Lyons agrees that the invention of the Gutenberg Press is an important moment in the history of reading and writing, he cautions against interpreting it as a decisive revolution in light of the perseverance of a vibrant manuscript culture, the continuance of an elite readership and the persistence of issues surrounding authenticity, standardization and uniformity.

Chapters four and five consider the impact of the Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance on the development of print. Lyons focuses primarily on German-speaking Europe and the vernacular Bible in chapter four, examining the extent to which the Protestant Reformation contributed to the development of textual communication and tackling the stereotypes of a progressive Protestant culture and regressive Catholic culture in terms of their relationships with print. He argues that the massive output of print propaganda and the practice of rigorous censorship by both Protestants and Catholics during the Reformation demonstrate the heavy investment of both religious groups in print culture while simultaneously suggesting their inability to predict and control their readers’ responses. Chapter five turns from the vernacular to Latin and from the Reformation to the Renaissance, exploring the reading practices of the humanist reader. Lyons highlights the importance of classical texts to humanist readers and briefly assesses the emergence of a new and discerning reading public, that included women and educated laymen, while also detailing changes in reading strategies (such as the reading wheel and the commonplace book) and transformations in the book (such as the development of new fonts and the appearance of small-format books). His assessment of reading and writing in the Middle Ages concludes with an investigation of print and popular culture in chapter six. Focusing on the porous relationship between elite and popular cultures, Lyons categorizes the dominant forms of popular literature (e.g., chapbooks, bibliothèque bleue, almanacs and so on) and reveals the socially diverse nature of their readership. He also discusses the increasingly varied nature of authorship as evidenced by the gradual appearance of ‘ordinary writers,’ which he uses to further support his conclusion that the literary culture of the Middle Ages was shaped and defined by the intersections and interactions between elite and popular cultures.

Chapter seven inaugurates the book’s consideration of the modern period, investigating the rise of literacy in the period between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, detailing the factors that both encouraged and hindered literacy. Lyons questions the narrative of an uninhibited rise in literacy, suggesting that while literacy did appear to be growing, it continued to be significantly impeded by entrenched power relationships involving issues of class, race and gender. In chapter eight, he then examines the role of reading and writing in the French Revolution and addresses the provocative question: “do books cause revolutions?” (104). Taking into consideration the Ancien Régime’s censorship laws and print networks, the limited literacy of the lower classes and the autonomy of the reader, he assumes a nuanced approach that ultimately minimizes the effect of Enlightenment literature on the Revolution. The ensuing three chapters cover the expansion of the reading public and industrialization of book production in the period between the mid-eighteenth century and the First World War. Lyons examines the rise of the newspaper press, libraries and reading rooms; he surveys the advances that revolutionized book production and distribution, and he considers the social problems generated by a new mass readership that included unprecedented numbers of formerly marginalized groups, such as women and the working class. His lengthy discussion of the transformations in print culture in the modern period eventually gives way to an exploration of the parallel evolution of writing practices in chapter twelve, where he emphasizes the democratization of writing from the nineteenth century onward by focusing on the burgeoning practice and function of ‘everyday writing’ (examples include letters, postcards, journals and graffiti). He concludes the book by examining the development and role of pulp fiction and the paperback novel in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and by considering the computer’s significant influence on Western society’s reading and writing practices.

Lyons’ book is exceptionally readable and provides an excellent introduction to book history. I would highly recommend this text for Book History courses; I believe that students will find Lyons’ style accessible, informative and provocative. His thoughtful approach to the history of reading and writing and extensive scope offers newcomers to the field sufficient insight into the central debates, interpretations and events that shape the study of book history. That being said, Lyons’ book is best described as an introduction to the history of reading and writing, not as a definitive history of textual communication. His ambitious range is certainly impressive, but his focus on scope occasionally compromises the overall quality of his argument by neglecting details. There are moments when the reader is forced to question Lyons’ conclusions based on a dearth of evidence and / or absence of an adequately detailed analysis. Readers hoping to find a comprehensive overview of reading and writing in a specific period (particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries) may be disappointed and would be best served finding a book that specifically addresses that period’s book history in greater detail. Moreover, the reader hoping to find a comprehensive history of writing may also be disappointed by Lyons’ book; his study tends to focus heavily on the history of reading with more or less appended observations on the evolving practices of writing. One further caveat that deserves mentioning is the book’s ostensibly ‘transnational’ perspective; although Lyons does, indeed, manage to mention most of the nations located in the Western world, he concentrates on Britain, France, Italy and, to an extent, Germany. Nations in the Western world such as Holland, Portugal and the Scandinavian countries are comparatively glossed-over or entirely absent. An explanation as to why he emphasizes certain countries over others would be useful. Overall, this book is certainly advisable for anyone interested in learning more about book history or for instructors searching for a text to use in introductory Book History courses.




Linda J. Van Netten is a docotoral candidate in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta. She researches eighteenth-century women’s travel writing and political tourism and is particularly fascinated by print culture in the age of the French Revolution.



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