Forget it if you had assumed that live readings of poetry or short stories were a recent phenomenon. Go back a couple of thousand years, and public readings were the norm.

In its review of T. P. Wiseman’s The Roman Audience the TLS tells us that Wiseman’s “thesis is simple: all literature, thoughout Roman history, was first performed in front of public audiences, and only secondarily released in book form”. In the second volume of The Cambridge History of Classical Literature E. J. Kenney tells us that we can assume that all Roman literature was written primarily to be heard. He points out that it was difficult for Roman authors (in the absence of what we would recognize as a publishing industry) to correct errors in any works they had already sent out into the world, and that as a result authors were inclined carefully to test-run their works by reading them before small, perhaps friendly, audiences, and to use the resulting comments to revise and correct. Horace recommends that intending authors should keep their manuscripts by them for nine years before publication so that they can garner enough private criticism.

This process of reading your works before an audience was called recitatio. Professor Kenney continues, “In the first century A.D. the recitatio became a regular feature of the literary life of Rome, as numerous contemporary references indicate. Some of these occasions were private and were genuinely intended to elicit criticism final publication. However, for writers who were in any sense professional – i.e. who depended on writing for their living – the recitatio was primarily a form of advertisement or puffing.”

Public reading/chanting /singing apparently became all the rage in the early years of the Empire in Rome. The Believer has a piece by Tony Perrottet. Many of the contemporary references to recitatio are negative: it seems the élite quickly became exasperated by excessive public reading by no-talents. Anyone could get up on stage and perform, and apparently did, with the result that the quality on offer kept on declining. Cheerleaders were often employed to lead the crowd in acclamation. Perrottet tells us “The standard cry was Euge! Euge!—’bravo’ in ancient Greek, the favored tongue for Roman snobs.*” Private readings in private houses could still provide a less chaotic experience, but we cannot be surprised to discover that the very popularity of the form lead to its degradation. All this negativity may merely be a function of the accidents of survival: so much of what was written in Roman times has been lost. Of course if a reading of your work was an integral part of the editorial/revision process, this is perhaps something you might not publicize in the very work itself.

An embryonic publishing industry was getting going by the start of the 1st century A.D. Jerome Carcopino writes in Daily Life in Ancient Rome, “Scholars and men of letters in Rome knew nothing for two centuries of what we mean by ‘publishing’. Down to the end of the republic, they made copies of their own works in their own houses or in the house of some patron, and then distributed the manuscripts to their friends . . . The multiplication of public and municipal libraries resulted in the rise of publishers (bibliopole, librarii). The new profession soon had its celebrities: the Sosii, of whom Hoarace speaks, who had opened a shop for volumnia at the exit of the Vicus Tuscus on the Forum.”

The reading police seem to insist that we use our eyes only if we are to qualify for their special club. Having a book read to you apparently doesn’t count. This is of course nonsense. You read a book to access the information or enjoyment it contains. To say that hearing a book isn’t reading it, is a bit like saying eating a yoghurt is impossible, since consuming it is a non-chewing activity. Audiobooks are booming. Audible projects two billion hours of book listening for 2016, which is double the 2014 number. “According to a company spokesperson, Audible members on average listen to books about two hours a day, averaging 17 books a year” reports the Los Angeles Review of Books. Their review is mostly on the subject of a perceived decline in reading!


*One might note that such “snobbishness”, if that’s what it is, lives on — do we think “bravo” and “encore” have roots in ancient English?