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For the first time, the story of how and why we have plumbed the mysteries of reading, and why it matters today.
Reading is perhaps the essential practice of modern civilization. For centuries, it has been seen as key to both personal fulfillment and social progress, and millions today depend on it to participate fully in our society. Yet, at its heart, reading is a surprisingly elusive practice. This book tells for the first time the story of how American scientists and others have sought to understand reading, and, by understanding it, to improve how people do it.
Starting around 1900, researchers—convinced of the urgent need to comprehend a practice central to industrial democracy—began to devise instruments and experiments to investigate what happened to people when they read. They traced how a good reader’s eyes moved across a page of printed characters, and they asked how their mind apprehended meanings as they did so. In schools across the country, millions of Americans learned to read through the application of this science of reading. At the same time, workers fanned out across the land to extend the science of reading into the social realm, mapping the very geography of information for the first time. Their pioneering efforts revealed that the nation’s most pressing problems were rooted in drastic informational inequities, between North and South, city and country, and white and Black—and they suggested ways to tackle those problems.
Today, much of how we experience our information society reflects the influence of these enterprises. This book explains both how the science of reading shaped our age and why, with so-called reading wars still plaguing schools across the nation, it remains bitterly contested.
About the Author
Adrian Johns is the Allan Grant Maclear Professor of History at the University of Chicago. He is the author of Death of a Pirate: British Radio and the Making of the Information Age.
"Although there have been countless books written on the history of printing, there have been far fewer, curiously, on the history of reading. Johns is a distinguished historian at the University of Chicago; having written extensively about the culture of print (his Nature of the Book is a classic in this genre), he now turns his attention to understanding the science of how we read. . . . [He shows] how the production of books, and the practice of reading in the past have been dramatically influential. What happens next, how society will be transformed when algorithms do more reading than humans, is a phenomenon we are about to discover."
— Richard Ovenden
"If you’ve been following the debates on the 'science of reading' over the past several years, prepare to be surprised when you delve into Johns’s recent book on the subject. In its current incarnation, the term 'science of reading' is primarily used to refer to a substantial body of research showing that many children—perhaps most—are likely to experience reading difficulties unless they receive systematic instruction in phonics and other foundational reading skills in the early years of schooling. . . . The revelation in Johns’s book is that throughout most of the twentieth century the contemporaneous science of reading was firmly on the side of whole language. Johns, a professor of intellectual history at the University of Chicago, spends almost the entirety of his 500-page book on that era. For a reader whose understanding of the subject has been formed in the recent past, the result is a topsy-turvy, Alice-in-Wonderland experience. . . . A useful reminder that science can change radically over time."
— Natalie Wexler, author of "The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America's Broken Education System--And How to Fix It"
"Starting in the 1880s with US psychologist James Cattell, the experimental study of reading dealt in extremes, notes information historian Johns in his intriguing analysis. Researchers devised mechanical ways to measure quantities that were nearly imperceptible, such as pauses in motion as an eye scans prose. Yet they were certain that the work had vast consequences—that 'civilization itself depended on those measurements.' Today, scanners can measure brain activity, but the reading process remains mostly imponderable."
— Andrew Robinson
"Massive (and massively learned)."
— John Wilson
"'What was this practice, anyway?'—The Science of Reading takes up this question on both historical and scientific grounds. Readers meet modern pioneers in the science of reading, figures from the aforementioned Huey to, for instance, to the founder of the science, Émile Javal, to Samuel T. Orton, who did early clarifying work in the nature and prevalence of dyslexia while examining students from his positions at the University of Iowa at the beginning of the twentieth century. Johns is surprisingly skilled at fleshing out this large cast of characters. His subject is inherently interesting right from the starting block, but these character-driven portions are a delightful added bonus. . . . The sheer interest of studying at this in-depth a level something that all readers do without thinking animates The Science of Reading throughout. It’s likely that most of those readers might not be inclined to pull back the curtain quite so far on the magic that fills their leisure hours—but the die-hard inquirers among them will find this book irresistible."
— Steve Donoghue
"A multidisciplinary study of . . . the study of reading. How do we read? What is the origin of our written word and what happens to our brains when we read? University of Chicago scholar Johns has all the answers—or at least, a vivid write-up of all the ways we've tried to answer these questions over the last century."
— Book Culture
"This exhaustive outing by Johns . . . delves into how scientists have studied the psychological and physiological processes of reading. . . . Johns covers major developments in the field, including the invention of eye movement tracking devices in the early twentieth century, the 1960s hype around machines that promised to teach children to read, and long-standing debates about whether phonics instruction fosters literacy. The scope of the material is almost overwhelming—zigzagging between media theory, history, psychology, and educational policy—but readers will emerge with a deeper appreciation for the complexities of a daily activity many take for granted."
— Publishers Weekly
"From its inception, the science of reading has been intertwined with American anxieties about culture. . . . It's a mammoth subject, and Johns takes some detours to explore, for instance, mid-twentieth-century librarianship’s adoption of the tools of science to expand its mission. . . . Illustrations include laboratory photographs of subjects at formidable-looking testing apparatus and equally daunting diagrams that attest to researchers' efforts. A leggy, fascinating survey of a discipline that is often taken for granted."
— Kirkus Reviews
"The Science of Reading reminds us that the type of reading we have ‘taught’ machines to do is just one historically situated practice of reading, and that there are alternatives. Now may be the time to revive an understanding of reading that is formative and not merely instrumental, expressive and not merely extractive."
"In 1908 the psychologist Edmund Burke Huey wrote that reading ‘has become the most striking and important artificial activity to which the human race has ever been moulded.’ Huey was one of the earliest scholars seeking to understand what happens in the mind when we learn to read—a question scientists are still exploring today. In The Science of Reading, Johns chronicles the efforts of twentieth-century experimentalists to study literacy and the still-raging ‘reading wars’ over pedagogy, revealing yet unsettled questions about science and culture."
— University of Chicago Magazine
“If the science of reading can today teach us one thing, Johns states, it is that reading is not and has never been just one thing. It has been and remains many things. Its functions, forms, and purposes change over time and are shaped by history and cultures. Johns’s new book is attentive, erudite, imaginative, and enjoyable. (Reading about the science of reading makes for great fun. I promise.) It is also mind-bendingly revelatory. In TheScience of Reading, Johns radically historicizes reading itself.”
— Chad Wellmon, coauthor of "Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age"
“The Science of Reading unearths a previously ignored but important history. Starting with the science of psychophysics in the late nineteenth century, Johns traces how knowledge, disciplines, documentary practices, and models of the human mind and cognition all changed in relationship to the shift from an industrial to an information economy. He thus reveals that many of our contemporary debates about attention economies, fake news, and democratic crisis rest on historically contested concepts about what reading might constitute and what a literate subject is. This is a book with great pertinence to our present.”
— Orit Halpern, coauthor of "The Smartness Mandate"
“A mammoth and stimulating account of the place of print in the history of knowledge. . . . Johns has written a tremendously learned primer.”
— D. Graham Burnett
“Detailed, engrossing, and genuinely eye-opening. . . . This is scholarship at its best.”
— Merle Rubin
“Lucid and persuasive. . . . A work to rank alongside McLuhan.”
— John Sutherland
“Provocative. . . . Lively and insightful.”
— Michael Hunter