The joy of reading Bristol Harbour


In this Post

      • On Reading
      • Printing on Paper
      • The Universal QWERTY Keyboard
      • A Very Short Introduction Series
      • What I Have Been Reading Lately
      • The Photography Connection
On Reading

I feel this post is a bit like a piece of writing a school child may have done in the nineteen fifties entitled “What I did on my school holidays”. This is because I am going to recount some of the reading I have done during the first lockdown. The summer for me is always a quiet period business-wise. Therefore, I had the time to continue reading into the autumn and second lockdown. Bear with me on this, because there is a connection to our photography and an influence of mine.


The joy of reading despite being a solitary activity is one of the greatest ways to connect with others. Hopefully, that is why you read this and other blogs. That connection may be across continents, centuries and divisions imposed by societies. Reading can in varying degrees: inform, inspire, console, emancipate, motivate and subvert.


How Did We Get Here?

Some of the reading I have been doing is around the idea and reasons for “how did we get to here?”. This post is a highly selective view of how reading and writing developed. It starts near the end, rather than the beginning in 3,500 BC with Mesopotamian Cuneiform. Then, it goes from China in the third century AD to the technology we all recognise today.

The Kish tablet, a limestone tablet from Kish with pictographic, early cuneiform, writing, 3500 BC. Possibly the earliest known example of writing.

Printing on Paper

Gutenberg was not the first to invent the printing press. Many European’s think the first movable type printing press was invented by Gutenberg in the 1440s. Interestingly, during the Northern Song Dynasty of China, movable type printing was first developed by Bi Sheng (990–1051). The Chinese woodblock printing presses were in service before 220 AD. Paper was also a Chinese creation again in the third century AD.  Printing was not applied to paper until the mid-seventh century AD. Also, for 500 years the Chinese printed on silk before the advent of paper.

The Gutenberg movable type printing press played a key role in the development of the: Renaissance, ReformationAge of Enlightenment, and Scientific Revolution. As well as laying the material basis for the modern knowledge-based economy and the spread of learning to the masses.

Reading and Attitudes 

The tradition of group reading aloud was first established over many millennia before the introduction of printing in Europe.

 Chinese Coloured Woodcut Buddha, 10th century

Silent reading did not become fashionable until well after Gutenberg. The first English one-off newspaper was published in 1603. One-off Newssheets and Gazettes were being published occasionally and literacy was growing well in Britain with Chapbooks (Cheap books). However, the cost books did not fall with larger print runs as the cost of paper was expensive.

Interestingly, in 1632 the greatly feared and despised Court of the Star Chamber prohibited all “news books”. This prohibition was due to complaints from Spanish and Austrian diplomats. Their complaint was that coverage in England of the current (Thirty Years’) War (1618 – 1648) was unfair! To explain, most of Europe, Britain had excluded its self from 1630, was fighting against Spain and Austria at the time. Therefore, these diplomats would have been in the country.

The first English daily newspaper “The Daily Courant” was published in 1702 by Elizabeth Mallet at her premises next to the King’s Arms Tavern at Fleet Bridge in London.

The Universal QWERTY Keyboard

You are now fashionably silently reading modern Latin Alphabetic script which is based on the combination of different alphabets from around ancient Europe.  The 20-character Classic Greek alphabet of c. 100 BC was gaining traction. With a few additions and simplification’s, over time it became the 26 letter Latin script we recognise from around 1050 AD.  The last two letters to be added to our alphabet were the J and the V.

Furthermore, upper-and lower-case characters were first introduced in Belgium in 1563 and moved to England in 1588 and France before 1723. The term “Case” refers to the box the type-setter held the characters in. Lower case Latin script was developed in the middle ages to be written with a quill pen.

The Typewriter

From the start of the nineteenth century, there were at least a dozen different global research and designs projects in this field. The first commercial typewriters were introduced in 1873 by Remington in the US. Remington bought the patent for $12,000 from Sholes & Glidden. As a sewing machine manufacturer, Remington had little to do with the development of the typewriters. These new machines, operated by Stenographers became popular in the mid-1880s.

The prototype of the Sholes and Glidden typewriter, the first commercially successful typewriter, and the first with a QWERTY keyboard (1873)

The layout of the now universal QWERTY typewriter keyboard was selected not to aid Stenographer speed or comfort. The keyboard layout was chosen to slow the Stenographer down. As with most other early typewriters, because the typebars strike upwards, the typist could not see the characters as they were typed. A slower typing speed was required by the layout of the keyboard to prevent the typebars from becoming enmeshed.  

Keeping Built-Up Knowledge

As I said at the start, those are the merest few routes to how we got to here in the writing department. Also, libraries had been around for a very long time if they could guard themselves against premeditated and accidental fires. The world’s first great library was that of Alexandria commenced in 285 BC by the Greeks in Constantinople. It contained a fusion of Greek and Egyptian knowledge. Several sources are confirming the fire started by Julius Caesar unintentionally destroyed 40,000 scrolls from the Library in 48 BC. At its height, the library was said to hold at least 500, 000 books.


I hope you found that very brief romp through some of the reason how we got to here with reading and writing.

A Very Short Introduction Series

I can’t remember where I recently learnt about the Oxford University Press – A very Short Introduction (VSI) series of books. The books are intended for a general audience but written by experts usually a professor guess from which university? Most VSI editions are under 120 pages long in an A6 vertical format. While authors may present personal viewpoints, the books are meant to be balanced and complete. The quality of the writing skills presented is variable. One or two titles I have read have been difficult to read due to overlong sentences. In general, they are well-edited and present information logically, as one would hope. However, they do not fall into the category of legacy computer manuals, usually written by geniuses for geniuses. This issue was helped greatly by the “Idiot’s Guide” and “For Dummies” series of books.


Currently, there are over 650 VSI titles published with around another 50 planned for the next five years. All human life is there from Abolitionism to Autobiography.


“Reading all the great books is like a conversation with the most honourable people of earlier centuries who were their authors.”

Rene Descartes – French Philosopher, Mathematician and Scientist

What I Have Been Reading Lately

My own eclectic choice of reading from the VSI series so far this year includes:

The Industrial Revolution, Applied Mathematics, The History of Astronomy, History, The History of Mathematics, The Tudors, The Future, The British Empire, Writing and Script, The Eighteenth Century, The Scientific Revolution, Reading, Measurement and The Enlightenment.


I find the easiest way to see if there is a VSI title on a subject of potential interest is to use the up to date searchable list on Wikipedia. Moreover, this is better than a book sales website because the list can be sorted alphabetically on one page. Once you know a title exists, then a search can be made at the bookseller of choice. Hopefully, not Amazon obviously, as they are yet to pay a fair share of UK taxes. I use with excellent results. Generally, there is a good price reduction over the OUP if purchased from the Hive website.


“Reading is precisely a conversation with men who are wiser and more interesting than those we might occasion to meet ourselves”.

John Ruskin – English Art Critic and Philosopher

Reading in Southern Spain 

The Photography Connection

The book “On Reading” by Hungarian photographer Andre Kertesz was first published in 1971. The reprint came out in 2008.



The oldest and one of my favourites of the sixty-five pictures was taken in 1915 at Esztergom, Hungary by the 21-year-old. It depicts three ragged boys, two with bare feet intently studying a book. The remainder of the book catalogues pictures of people reading from every decade to the 1970s taken all around the world.