Didascalicons, or What to Read and How to Read It

I have always been interested in education, and when I chose to study medieval Europe, it was a natural draw for me to see how they studied and what they valued in terms of learning. When relatively few people were literate, and most of those had strong ties to the church, reading was viewed quite differently from today. Texts were produced laboriously, often by many different artisans, even before one considered the text’s author. Reading was serious work—serious enough that people worried about doing it wrong—with bad intentions or just badly (reading that is superficial or frivolous, not reflective and enlightening). Thus there was a need for a Didascalicon.
Hugh of St. Victor wrote the Didascalicon as instructions toward productive study and correct reading. He includes directions on what texts to read, what areas to study, and what order of subjects leads to fullest understanding. We might presume that the idea of reading rightly may have had more clout when there were fewer readers and fewer texts, and most of them were associated with the church. One should read with the elevation of one’s soul in mind, of course. But I think we still fret about this.
There’s a shift, to be sure.  Dante writes in his Inferno (Canto 5) about a couple who fall in to the sin of lust while reading the tale of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere’s affair. He worries (not unreasonably) that his own books might lead people to sin if they were read badly—quickly, shallowly, or misdirectedly—if they were misinterpreted. The idea that his current book, which he intends to lead readers to salvation, might also lead some to Hell, hits him like a ton of bricks.
But Dante was writing in the Catholic Middle Ages. So was Hugh, a century before him. We live in the 21st century. Surely we don’t need people telling us how to read or what to read.
Or do we? The advantage that medieval readers had over us is the same thing I listed as a deficit above.There were far fewer texts, and the cost of producing a text meant someone had to really want to produce and disseminate that text. That means, if not quality control, at least quantity control was built right in to the system.
Hugh is worried about us reading so that we get maximum gain from what we read, but he’s not worried about our reading texts that are deliberately misleading. No “Alternative Facts” or propaganda in a medieval romance. No Buzz Feed lists and no satire sites that are so carefully crafted that readers have to check their sources to make sure they’re satire.
Face it. We still need help reading. Now we need help knowing what to read, what not to read, and what not to believe, if we do get sucked down a rabbit hole.  We worry about images we can’t “unsee” and spending too much time reading things that really upset us.  The context is different (I think the number of people afraid of being damned for reading something is down, at least per capita), but the result is the same—people worry about wasting time, being misled, and even being psychologically affected  by what they read.
What do we do to combat the overwhelming amount of text and image that we encounter on a daily basis?  We read lists that other people have compiled. Blogs are full of reading recommendations, as is Pinterest. We publish lists of bestsellers, and we award prizes for excellence. Some of us check the list of challenged and banned books for suggestions. We teach classes on how to tell reliable sources from biased or commercial ones, and our librarians teach us to use the CRAAP test to ferret out questionable sources. And I’m afraid we get pretty cynical and set our default on “mistrust” rather than believing what we read right away.

I admit, sometimes it would be easier to just take some well-meaning person’s word for what we should read and what we should get out of it. But we don’t do that anymore. We can’t afford to. Maybe it’s better. We all have to come up with our own Didascalicon.

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