The Power of Reading: From Socrates to Twitter by Frank Furedi (Book review)

This is a review of Frank Furedi’s Power of Reading: From Socrates to Twitter Frank Furedi is a sociologist and social commentator. He was formerly Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent in Canterbury. He is author of 17 full-length books including: Paranoid Parenting (2001), Allen Lane (The Penguin Press); Culture of Fear (2002), Continuum; Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability In An Uncertain Age (2003), Routledge; Where have All; The Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting 21st Century Philistinism(2005), Continuum; Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right (2005), Continuum; Invitation to Terror: The Expanding Empire of the Unknown (2007), Continuum; Authority: A Sociological History (2013), Cambridge University Press; and First World War: Still No End In Sight (2014), Bloomsbury.

Frank’s books and articles offer an authoritative yet lively account of key developments in contemporary cultural life. Using his insights as a professional sociologist, he has produced a series of agenda-setting books that have been widely discussed in the media. His books have been translated into 13 languages. He can be reached at and on Twitter @Furedibyte

Power of Reading: From Socrates to Twitter (2015), Bloomsbury Continuum, pp.288.

The aim of this book is to explore the historical origins and influences that inform how we think about reading in order to understand what is distinct about the way in which society regards this practice today. It questions the current tendency to devalue and de-authorize the reader, arguing that despite technological innovation and the influence of new media…

The book is based on the history of reading from the western perspective. Particularly the Anglo-American view of it. The author being an Emeritus Professor of Sociology addressed the book from a sociological perspective, looking at how – in human history – societies have reacted to the issue of reading historically.

Historical tensions that have always existed between the citizens’ agency to decide their interactions with books and the state’s structure in trying to limit the access people have to books, particularly books that are considered to be dangerous to readers or the society at large, are highlighted in the book. A chronological approach is used in narrating the history of reading and the similitude between the tensions in societies during the times of Socrates up to the renaissance period and eventually to present day’s social media era are masterfully elucidated by the author.

One of the first recorded attempts to warn readers about the distracting effects of books came in Seneca’s letter to Lucilius, which was written between AD 63 and 65…the reading of too many books ‘tend to make you discursive and unsteady’… Seneca warned that in ‘reading of many books is distraction’.

Concern with the distracting effects of reading escalated with the print revolution, the growth of mass market in publications, and the availability of relatively cheaply produced books and periodicals.

During the nineteenth century, the most important negative health impact of the novel was thought to be its toxic consequence for the exercise of cognition.

In the present day, distraction is rarely linked to reading. Indeed it is frequently claimed that people suffer from a deficit of the kind of attention required to read a book; and this is usually blamed on the digital media.

While there was a point in human history that reading was considered dangerous to people’s health as a result of excessive reading, the main challenge facing reading in this era is the perceived decline in reading due to the arrival of digital technology and this has further contributed to the medicalization of reading. However, the phenomenon of society’s apprehension on the state of reading or readers has been in existence for over two millennia according to the author.

Another issue that has become a burden on reading and readers is the idea of functional literacy or New Literacy. This idea shifts reading from the position of being an essential cultural act to an act that must be justified based on socio-economic needs of the society, hence, the primary essence of reading as a source of personal cultural engagement has been replaced with economic values that are not usually or always successfully justified by society.

The growth of religious heretical movements in the eleventh century coincided with the spread of silent reading…silent reading was increasingly identified by the church as very threatening and the subversive. The book was frequently castigated as a ‘silent heretic’.

The Protestant Reformation in the enlightenment of people by encouraging reading among them and the influence of Gutenburg in making available access to reading materials, particularly printed religious texts at the initial stage and the eventual tensions that this led to when the people decided to read books or materials that were considered dangerous to their moral uprightness were highlighted in the book.

The Protestant Reformation influenced the democratisation of reading in the western world, however, the reading revolution that took place during the renaissance period left the church in a dilemma due to people choosing to read books that the church found distasteful.

The professionalization of reading and the introduction of mass reading programs through education systems have led to a lot of adults and parents feeling incapable of teaching reading to the younger ones or themselves, even though historically there are evidence that in places like Sweden and England universal literacy were achieved at a point in time without any formal mass reading program.

The book frowns at the idea of intellectuals or thinkers suggesting that the ordinary citizens cannot determine for themselves which books are appropriate to read and questions the idea that there are different levels of readers or reading. Rather, it emphasises the position that what matters is the ability to read between the lines. However, I find the idea of “reading between the lines” in its general term to be susceptible to personal interpretations which can be very subjective. It suffices to say that the fields of neuroscience and psychology will probably have issues with the author’s questioning of the medicalization of reading or the issue of dyslexia.

Adler’s claim that reading is unnatural is coupled with a tendency to complicate the practice of literacy…

The ongoing attempt to distinguish between different reading habits and readers is integral to a wider process of constructing people’s identity through their literacy…

The way people construct their sense of self and identity through reading is subject to a variety of historical, cultural and social variations.  People do not simply read. Their approach towards reading is formed in the way this activity is practised in their community – especially family members and friends and by their social circumstances.

The author questions the idea of elitism in reading and cited the example of Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book, in which Adler categorised readers according to their purpose of reading and the amount of efforts they put into their reading. Adler’s book identifies four different levels of reading – elementary, inspectional, analytical, and syntopical reading. Furedi questions such an approach to determining reading and alludes to the view that – at the back of such an approach to reading and readers is the issue of agency and power, that is, such an approach suggests that readers lack the ability to determine how and what to read and this eventually will lead to a situation of structure against agency. Structure in the sense that certain institutions or individuals are in better positions to determine which books are to be read as against an individual’s personal choice of books to read.

The aim of Power of Reading according to the author was to promote the idea that

…the humanist ideal of the discriminating reader capable of autonomous judgement should serve as the cultural ideal of the present day.

However, such an aim remains an ideal to me but for the sake of pragmatism and realism I am of the opinion that good book guides do help a lay individual in any field to read progressively and harmonise the information and knowledge acquired in the process of reading such materials.

If you are the type that enjoys reading books on reading or generally interested in the act of reading and issues that relate to literacy, then, Power of Reading: From Socrates to Twitter is a definite read that is worth every second spent reading it and it is a well-researched book with references to further materials that can be consulted on reading and literacy related issues.

You can watch the video interview of the author’s biography of the book here.

*All quotes are from the book ‘Power of Reading: From Socrates to Twitter’.

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