Uses, abuses of the power of literacy

Mike Selby looks at what happens when books and reading are considered sacred

It was the morning of November 27, 1676 when an unattended candle and a strong wind sparked a fire which destroyed most of Boston. Merchant buildings, warehouses, and churches burned to the ground, as well as most of the resident’s homes.

One of the homes belonged to a Puritan minister named Increase Mather (who would later lead the Salem witch trials). Although his neighbours tried to hold him back, Mather raced into his house while it was completely engulfed in flames, rescuing his one true love: his books.

In what they called New England, thousands of Puritans migrated from England in the 1620s. And like Increase Mather, books meant everything to the settlers. Not only did they represent one of the most literate sections of English society, they were fanatically literate. The colonists had barely reached the shores before establishing Harvard College, as well as the first printing press. They also published the first book, “The Bay Psalm Book,” as well as the first Bible in all of North America. More written material from New England survives today than from any other part of colonial North America.

All of this reading and reverence for the printed word stems from the Puritan’s religious beliefs, which saw devotion only possible by reading the pages of the Bible. The colonists required everyone to be literate; including women, children, and even the Native Americans whose land they were stealing. Literacy was so important it was actually legislated, with fathers facing stiff penalties if they were found not to be teaching their children to read.

Books were also seen as totems, possessing spiritual and/or supernatural powers.  Instead of taking cover during an Indian raid, a colonist stood in the middle of a street, believing the Bible he was holding would protect him. Unfortunately he was the only casualty of the entire raid.

Literacy is an absolute good, so it is hard not to admire the New England settlers. Yet this picture of benevolent colonists spreading literacy has a few cracks in it. For the Puritans, reading was one thing — writing was something else altogether. Although hard to fathom now, reading and writing were taught separately. The Puritan leaders didn’t want anyone but themselves to be able to write. In fact, they only wanted reading to extend only to those books they proscribed, and then to be read only passively. Their New England was the ultimate model of information control.

John Eliot’s Bible is a good example. The first Bible printed in North America, Eliot’s bible was printed in Massachusett, the language spoken by the Algonquins. Surviving copies contain notations and thoughts written in the margins by their Algonquin readers, revealing a new concept for those who spoke Massachusett: racial self-hatred.

War broke out between the settlers and Wampanoag Indians in 1675, which created an unusual book competition, described next week.


Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public LIbrary

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