The Science of Reading: Information, Media, and Mind in Modern America (Hardcover)
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.
"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
"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 Adrian 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
"'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."
— Open Letters Review
“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