DRMacIver's Notebook

Death of the Reader

Death of the Reader

From Clear and simple as the truth by Thomas and Turner, page 138:

Word for word, Gallanda's version is the worst written, the most fraudulent and the weakest, but it was the most widely read. [...] Its orientalism, which we now find tame, dazzled the sort of person who inhaled snuff and plotted tragedies in five acts. [...] We, mere anachronistic readers of the twentieth century, perceive in these volumes the cloyingly sweet taste of the eighteenth century and not the evanescent oriental aroma that two hundred years ago was their innovation and their glory. No one is to blame for this missed encounter, least of all Galland.

Jorge Luis Borges, "Los traductores de las 1001 noches" [The translators of the 1001 nights]

I wrote before about the difficulty of understanding historical fact from historical records. This, I think, highlights another problem for understanding history: As modern readers, it is extremely difficult for us to understand how a text would have been read at the time.

I've encountered this problem with reading historical mathematics. It is very hard to read historical mathematics, because one tends to read them through the lens of modern mathematics. For example, reading texts from prior to the invention of modern mathematical notation, it's very easy to think of it in terms of its modern representation.

The thing is, that modern representation makes certain things very obvious that were not at all obvious to historical mathematicians.

In general, it is very hard to read a text without looking at it through the lens of culture that we have built since that text was written. That culture gives us ways of looking, and thinking, and feeling, about the contents of the text that make it impossible for us to read it as it would have been read at the time.

Sometimes that culture is even informed by the text. For example, I found reading 1984 very tedious, because I found its contents obvious and predictable, but a lot of why they are obvious and predictable is that everybody has read 1984.

I am reminded of people who read Lord of the Rings and find it laughable because all of the characters in it are fantasy cliches.