We come into the world screaming for food and attention.  The scream is our first language, a vocalization that later becomes a cry, a coo, a pleasurable burble, and when the time is right, a first primitive word.  Unlike learning to read and write, which comes from being taught techniques, rules and sounds specific to a culture and a social milieu, language is learned from the environment.  Some children get very little stimulation from their environment, which is stressful, chaotic, noisy or stripped of meaning in other ways.  They grow without much of a vocabulary, or they learn early on that language is mostly a demanding or demeaning structure of power relations.  Other children are more fortunate and find large amounts of positive stimulation from parents or other adults, or even other children, who value words as something other than directions, instructions, demands and threats.  Around age five or six, most of us learn to read and write, instruction in both coming at us in schools, or home schools, at about the same time.  Learning the alphabet means learning to write words and to read those words, some of which may be strange or barely intelligible.  Prehistoric social groups had no writing, though they had a language surely.  Larger social groupings and the problems of food production, violence, power, hierarchy and the necessity for peace, brought about the need for writing.  Early writing was, thus, a means for listing the objects owned by the king.  Cave painting long pre-dated writing, which shows the longing in mankind for artistic expression.  Music, pottery, and weaving, each pre-dated writing.  Even the first literature, hymns and recited epic poems, was rendered from memory for an audience.  “Literature” in the sense we use the term now, doesn’t come along until papyrus and paper and, eventually, typesetting.  Even after the “invention” of literature as a body of work produced by a singular civilization according to more or less regular rules, most reading was, during the time of wide-spread illiteracy, done by a holy person, a leader, or a poet, who read to groups in sacred or semi-sacred situations of great significance.  In frontier America, most homes had only one or two books, one of them being the Bible.  Usually the patriarch would read to his family in the evening, after work was done.   These two books were read over and over.  Men and women learned poetry by heart, so that they could recite for their loved ones.  Thus, for most of human history reading was considered sacred.

Only after Don Quixote was published and books became more available (usually to affluent nobles or dignitaries) did reading become the province of individuals.  Novels, poems and stories were read in solitude, something entirely new to human history.  In the Western World the rise of individualism and limited political liberty, along with the scientific revolution, induced in citizens the idea that books were personal, rather than social, documents.  At the same time reading became solitary; arts like painting, took on a personal tone.  We know, or think, that Picasso was on a personal quest for self-fulfillment through artistic expression, unlike someone like Michaelangelo, who worked for the Pope and religion, though his personal quest was clear.

Consider what the great reader and critic Sven Birkerts says about reading and solitude:

“What is true of art is true of serious reading as well.  Fewer and fewer people, it seems, have the leisure or the inclination to undertake it. And true reading is hard.  Unless we are practiced, we do not just crack the covers and slip into an alternate world.  We do not get swept up as readily as we might be by the big-screen excitements of film…There is a metaphysics of reading that has to do with a good deal more than any simple broadening of the mind.  Rather, it involves a change of state and inner orientation, and if we contemplate the reading process in this light we can hardly get away from introducing the world soul into the conversation.  (From “The Gutenberg Elegies” by Sven Birkerts)

And so it seems that modern reading proceeds in solitude, exudes an imaginary other world of creation and expression, and develops the soul.  Its inner workings are determined by technique.  Real reading, deep reading, sounds more and more like an art.  If you take writing seriously, you should decide to accept this insight.  This means that in some sense the serious reader is involved in artistic self-expression.