Literacy, podcast, reading

The History of Eyeglasses: What Venice, Monks, and Syphilis Have to Do with Seeing Clearly

Hello Book Nerds!

It’s Episode 8 and this time we’re taking a peek at the amazing combination of historical events that turned eyeglasses from a luxury item used only by the wealthy to a household commodity.

From imprisoned Venetians to curing syphilis, the history of eyeglasses is more intriguing than it might seem at first glance (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

Quick Update

In the update portion of the episode I mention that I’ve reworked Episodes 2 & 3 to try to improve the sound quality. Well, I’m happy to say, that all previous episodes have now been updated.

Again, they’re still not perfect, but they are a bit better. I’ve just gotten a new, highly recommended microphone, so hopefully my sound quality issues will continue to fade away.

Thanks for sticking with me during this learning process!

Behind the Scenes

I’ve had the idea for this episode since the show started, and I honestly hadn’t planned for an episode on eyeglasses to match up to an episode whose number (on its side) looks like a pair of eyeglasses.

But that’s just another of the happenstance events that kept cropping up as I researched the story of eyewear.

I’d heard about the Venetian glassmakers from the writer Steven Johnson, and I recalled something about glasses and paper making from James Burke in his book The Day the Universe Changed.

But as the research continued, I couldn’t believe the way the dates from an Arabic text to the printing press fell into place one after the other, leading to glasses being such a common item. More than once it left me thinking, “Wow, that is a crazy bit of luck.”

Anyway, I hope you find the episode as fascinating as I did researching it. Enjoy!!!

As usual, clicking the image below will take you to the episode’s web page where you can listen, or you can use the links just under the image to find plenty of other listening options.

Listening links…

Links mentioned…

Images…

I usually save images as bonuses for my newsletter subscribers, but since they’re getting something extra special this time around, I thought I’d include photos with this post to help give you a better idea of a few things mentioned in Episode 8.

Of course, if you’d like to join the flock and get regular bonus tidbits, be sure to sign up today to get the Book Owl in your inbox every other week.

A stylish pair of an example of the first eyeglasses. (Image from the California Optometric Assoication)
Tommaso da Modena’s painting of Cardinal Hugh St. Cler wearing his spectacles. (Image from Wikipedia, public domain)
Stylin”!!! (Image from Wikipedia, public domain)

The (Rough) Transcript

Hey everyone, this is Tammie Painter and you’re listening to the Book Owl Podcast, the podcast where I entertain your inner book nerd with tales of quirky books and literary lore.

It’s episode 8 and if you turn the number 8 on its side, what’s it look like? Okay, it kind of looks like a drunken snowman who’s toppled over, but it also resembles something that makes reading possible for about 65% of the population.

Before we jump into this episode I just want to remind you that if you have been enjoying the show, you can help keep the episodes coming in several inexpensive ways. Whether it’s buying the Book Owl a virtual cup of coffee or sending the owl a monthly snack, your support is very much appreciated. So, if you have an extra couple dollars or euros or pounds, please head over to thebookowlpodcast.com/support. And yes, that link will be in the show notes.

Alright let’s get a closer look at toppled over snowmen. No, wait, sorry. Take two. Let’s take a look at eyeglasses.

Okay, you’re probably thinking, “Wow, how boring and off topic can you get. Isn’t this show supposed to be about books.”

Well, okay, to look at them, glasses aren’t the most exciting things on the planet (although Elton John’s collection might be the exception), but glasses happened to coincide with a couple of other inventions to truly boost literacy and people’s love of the written word.

But the first glasses, kind of like Elton John’s, weren’t used for reading. It was all about style. See, the Emperor Nero, he liked to wear emerald lenses, and that’s emerald the actual gem, not emerald tinted. Anyway he wore these to gladiator fights because he believed they offered some sort of health benefit. And if the emperor did it, the masses soon followed, so Nero may have started the first optical wear fashion trend.

But that has nothing to do with reading.

The idea of using a curved lens to magnify things probably came about soon after glass was invented. I mean it doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to picture a glassmaker setting a piece of work down and noticing whatever was underneath looked bigger, right?

And back in the 2nd century Ptolemy was already writing about this very phenomenon, but it wouldn’t be put to much use until the Arab scholar Ibn al-Heitam in the 10th century first suggested that glass could be used to aid with visual problems as people aged. Unfortunately, he didn’t push this idea and it wasn’t until his book of optics was translated into Latin in the 1200s that the idea took hold.

Now this was back when monks would spend their entire days in scriptoriums copying books letter by letter, often very tiny letter by letter. If you’ve ever seen these manuscripts. So, once a monk reached a certain age, his vision would be fried and he could no longer do this work. When al-Heitam’s book of optics was translated, older monks quickly adopted the idea of using reading stones so they could continue to scribble away and feel useful. And when I say quickly I mean quickly because within only a few years of al-Heitam’s book being translated, people were already writing of using lenses “to read the smallest letters.”

But to start, as I said, these lenses weren’t true lenses, they were just reading stones. And these things were about an inch thick and maybe four inches in diameter and made of rock crystal and quartz that was curved on one side and flat on the other. You would then place flat side on a page and move along enlarging the words underneath as you read.

Meanwhile, right about this same time over on the islands that make up Venice, a renaissance of glassmaking was happening. And competition was fierce between the glassmakers to come up with the best techniques to make the best glass possible. That competition was so strong the guild masters kept their glassmakers, or cristalleri, basically as prisoners on the island they happened to work on. This kept the cristalleri from flouncing around on gondolas spilling trade secrets to the cristalleri on another island.

The rules were so strict that if a cristalleri left his island, he could face death. It was a bit over the top, but this forced isolation meant intense collaboration and their glassmaking skills skyrocketed.

This boon in glassmaking not only meant clearer glass, but also thinner glass that could be shaped more precisely. No source I could find knew who first took that better quality glass, stuck it into a wooden holder, and used it it help people see better, or exactly when but most sources are certain it happened in Italy. What we do know is that in 1306, Giordano of Pisa gave a sermon in which he’s quoted as saying, “It is not 20 years since there was found the art of making eyeglasses.”

And I’m going to guess that this probably happened near Venice because by the time this sermon was given there already were records on the books in which the Venice guilds regulated the sales of eyeglasses.

These glasses weren’t what we have today that fit neatly on your face. Instead, two lenses were set in two separate wooden frames. These frames were then attached at the base to kind of pivot so you could open them to fit the width of your eyes. Which is probably why we say a pair of glasses.

Anyway it’s a monk who was the subject of the first painting to show someone wearing these glasses. The painting dates from 1352 – I know, so many dates, sorry. The painting was done by Tommaso da Modena and it shows Cardinal Hugh St. Cler with a pair of these glasses balanced on his nose as he’s working away on a document.

And it’s kind of significant that we’ve got a cardinal in the painting. See, glasses weren’t cheap. There was no $49 special being offered at the Lenscrafters or anything. Glasses were a luxury item that signified wealth and power and were owned only by a few of the elite.

But, remember Giordano of Pisa? Well he had a colleague by the name of Friar Alessandro Della Spina who didn’t think this was fair. I mean, literacy rates were pretty low, but those who did read really needed to read even after they managed to live to the ripe old age of forty when many peoples’ eyes start getting wonky. Of course, mine have been wonky since I was three, but that’s a whole issue in itself.

Anyway Alessandro somehow dipped his hands in the lens making business and made pairs of glasses for whoever needed them. And Giordano, while delivering a good bit of marketing for his friend, also proved he was a bit snarky because he said, “Glasses were first made by someone who didn’t want to share. Spina made them and shared them with everyone with a willing and cheerful heart.” Good on you, Spina!

Glasses still weren’t owned by the masses, but they were being seen and used more frequently.

So this is all happening in the second half of the 1300s. That’s also right about the time when Europeans were figuring out how to make paper cheaper and more efficiently. Since books had been made with parchment or vellum, which was expensive and laborious to make, this paper making set up things perfectly for things to come. Because when the 1400s role around, our friend Johannes Gutenberg invents his printing press. Books and journals, which had all been hand copied before and were insanely expensive, suddenly dropped in price and became more plentiful.

People wanted that printed material. But they also wanted to be able to read it, and thanks to the eyeglass business loosening up, glasses were also more plentiful and soon became a household commodity.

I just love it when history things like this fall into place like that. I mean think about how amazing this blend of events is. You’ve got an Arabic book on optics being translated, monks latching on to the idea of being able to keep working into old age, the lockdown of glass makers forcing them to improve their craft, the invention of glasses, a more efficient way to make paper, and the printing press all coming together.

If any one of those things hadn’t happened, maybe the printing press would have needed longer to take off and maybe reading would have languished behind another couple hundred years, which might have delayed the Renaissance and other leaps in thinking. Who knows, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that only a couple decades after the printing press was first invented that the first eyeglasses shop opened up in Strasbourg….the city where the printing press was born.

So just to wrap up a couple more moments in glasses history, up to this point people knew lenses needed to be convex to do their trick, but no one really understood why. In 1604 Johannes Kepler – he’s the guy who figured out the planets travel in elliptical orbits – also figured out the different properties and uses of convex versus concave lenses, and about 20 years later in Spain someone figured out how to create different grades of lenses for different vision problems.

Of course through all this we’re still stuck with the pivoting style frames you’d have to balance on your nose or hold in front of your eyes. It would be the 1700s before glasses got arms and were held together by a bridge across the nose. Yeah, they didn’t exactly rush into that invention.

And now comes my favorite bit of glasses trivia… in the 1800s lenses were tinted green, not in honor of Emperor Nero’s fashion sense, but because they believed it cured syphilis. Who knows, maybe that’s why Nero wore his emerald lenses.

Okay, back to what this has to do with books. Some of you lucky listeners may not need glasses to read, but 75% of adults need some sort of vision correction and 65% of those wear reading glasses. We know that kids with undiagnosed vision issues are resistant to reading, lag behind in school, and may never learn to enjoy books. I personally wouldn’t be able to read anything but the largest of large print books without my glasses. So, in my opinion, glasses are a vital part of literacy and enjoying books and in being a life long reader.

And let me wrap up with a little public service announcement. If you have old eyeglasses sitting around in a drawer you can clear out that drawer by donating your glasses to several charities including Unite for Sight, Eyes of Hope, the Lions Club, and many others. Usually your optometrist will have a drop off box as will eyeglasses shops.

Okay everyone, that is it for the show. If you want to stick around for my update, that would be great, if not, thanks for listening and I will hoot at you next time!

As far as podcast news goes, along with episode 3 which I told you about last time, I have now updated episode 2 and tried to fix an issue I had with the volume level. The trouble I have is that some of these sound issues don’t come through on my audio software and are only apparent after the file is uploaded onto the podcast sites. So, it’s kind of a nightmare to hunt down these problems. Anyway, it’s still not perfect, but until I get motivated to completely re-record these first episodes, it’ll have to do.

In my writing world, I have finished the edits on both my short story I wrote in June and on the first book of my Cassie Black trilogy. I’ll be reading over the book this week for what I hope is the last time. I also have a bunch specials going on this month, including some half price deals on my box sets, so if you want to try out my work and save some money, I’ll have a link in the show notes that will direct you to a post where I’ve listed all my deals for the month.

Alright, that really is it. Thanks so much for listening and be sure to get your eyes checked!!

The book owl podcast is a production of daisy dog media, copyright 2020, all rights reserved. The theme music was composed by Kevin Macleod.

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From thrillers to romance, ebooks to audiobooks, over 100 books are making their debut this month. Check out what’s new and exciting for July! 

libraries, Literacy, podcast

What’s That Dog Doing in the Library?

Hello Book Nerds,

I can’t believe we’re only three episodes in and the show has already gone to the dogs.

This time on The Book Owl Podcast we delve into that age-old question, the quandary that has stumped philosophers and scientists for centuries, the issue I’m sure has been keeping you up at night….

Do dogs know how to read?

Spoiler alert…no, they don’t, but they can listen which is why our canine buddies are regularly invited into libraries to help build better readers. How does this work? Who came up with the idea? How can you get involved? Find out in this latest episode.

To round out this library-centric episode, I share an unbelievable, absolutely-head-shaking tale from a library in Newcastle, UK.

Enjoy the episode!!

Note: Clicking on the image below takes you to the Book Owl’s Podfollow page where you can listen to the episode. If you’d like to download the episode or subscribe to the show, simply search for The Book Owl Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the links just under the image. 

Listening links…

Links mentioned in this episode…

This episode is sponsored by my own books and stories. If you enjoy imaginative short fiction or historical fantasy novels, you’re bound to find something you’ll enjoy on the shelves of my Payhip Bookstore.

Listeners can take 10% off their entire purchase by using coupon code BOOKOWL10 at checkout.

https://payhip.com/TammiePainter

Episode Transcript (or roughly so)….

Hey everyone, this is Tammie Painter and you’re listening to the Book Owl Podcast, the podcast where I entertain your inner book nerd with tales of quirky books and literary lore. 

It’s only episode three and the show has already gone to the dogs.

Before we begin chatting about literary pups, if you’ve been enjoying the show, and I know we’re only a couple episodes in, but if you have been enjoying it, one of the best ways to support the show is to just tell someone else about it. Whether that’s leaving a review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, sharing on social media, or just turning to the person next to you…sorry, six feet from you…turning to that person and saying, “Hey, you might like this too.”

And since I’m mentioning reviews, I just want to give a big thanks to Tierney of TierneyCreates.com for recommending The Book Owl Podcast on her blog recently. Yay. I encourage you to check out her blog because she really is creating some amazing stuff over there. I also have to thank user PatLav over on Podchaser for reviewing each episode so far. How cool is that?

As ever, any links mentioned in this show will be in the show notes so you don’t have to worry about scrambling to jot them down.

Alright onto the age old question, the quandary that has stumped philosophers and scientists for centuries, the issue I’m sure has been keeping you up at night…do dogs read?

Now while I can’t find any research papers on this I’m going to guess that the answer is, No dogs cannot read. So stop making them fetch the paper.

However, dogs can listen…except when you’re telling them not to chase the cat. In fact, they love a good yarn. Which is why libraries across the U.S. have programs where our canine buddies come in to listen to kids read. And really, besides the fact that it is the cutest thing ever, it really is beneficial for building confident and high engaged readers.

So why would you want to stick your child in a room with a dog and a book? Well first off, most kids love dogs and spending time with one, especially if they can’t have one of their own, is a big old lure to get them into the library. 

If you tell a kid who isn’t that into books that you’re going to the library, he or she isn’t going to be that thrilled about the excursion. But you tell that same kid there’s going to be a dog there, and I bet you most of those kids are racing toward the car and strapping themselves in eager to go. That kid who hates to read at home and sees it as a chore now sees it as fun because he’s reading to a dog.

Hey, whatever it takes right?

The second reason is that dogs don’t care what you say to them. Now I really like dogs, but I have to tell you cats are probably a little bit smarter than dogs. If you read to a cat, there’s a high likelihood that it’s going to give you that judgmental stare and if you mess up a word, the cat is going to walk out of the room. 

Not a dog. Dogs love attention and they will listen to these kids read no matter how much they stumble over the big words. And that builds a huge amount of confidence. The kid continues to read to the dog, the dog continues to listen, and the more the kid reads the stronger his reading abilities become. And the stronger, more comfortable a kid is with reading, the more he or she will do it. Basically the dogs are a way to bribe the kids into being life long readers.

Thanks doggies! Good boy!!

So, while this all sounds utterly adorable, does this program actually make a difference or is it just good PR for libraries? Well, it is good PR, but reading to dogs or other animals also has been proven to improving reading. In one study by UC Davis, they took two groups of readers, one who read to a dog and another who didn’t. How Long? The readers with a canine audience saw anywhere from a 12 to 30 percent improvement in their reading fluency.

In another study, this time by Tufts University, they found that kids who read to dogs showed an improved attitude toward reading which correlates to a better attitude about schoolwork and learning in general.

How does this spill over into the kid’s future?

As sad and unbelievable as it sounds, the American Library Association estimates that there are 27 million functionally illiterate people in the U.S. Illiteracy starts young. In general, and of course there are exceptions, people who don’t get a handle on their reading skills by third grade will never really show much improvement. That leads to disinterest in learning, which then leads to lower paying jobs, which then leads to lower income, which then leads to poor health. And above all, Learning and reading lead to critical thinking which is so so SO important in these days of political interference and outright lies to gain votes and manipulate facts. Seriously people, the pen, and being able to read what that pen wrote, is mightier than the sword.

But let me get off my literacy soap box and back to the dogs.

What clever person came up with this idea? I know I read to my pets as a kid, and I’m sure kids have been doing that for ages, but it was a woman named Sandi Martin from Utah’s Intermountain Therapy Animals who observed how well people responded to therapy dogs and thought, “Hey, how would this work for kids who are a bit wonky in their reading skills.” That’s not a direct quote, by the way. 

Anyway, she started a new branch of the therapy group called Reading Education Assistance Dogs – or READ. In the late 90s, the group ran a pilot program in the Salt Lake City library and it was an immediate hit. Since then, the idea of reading to dogs in libraries and schools has jumped like fleas across the country.

So who are these dogs? There’s no one central Read to the Dog agency, it’s a program that’s run by whatever organization wants to undertake the work of managing the program and it’s almost always run by volunteers. In the Portland area that organization is Dove Lewis who is mainly known as an emergency vet service.

Now, don’t worry, the dogs aren’t being pulled out of their hospital beds and hauled in to hang out at libraries. Instead, people sign up with their dogs who have received therapy dog credentials. These people then make the effort to drive out to libraries across the area to help build a new generation of book nerds. So let’s pause a moment and give a little Hoot to those volunteers, right! 

Anyway, it might be a little bit of canine profiling, but these programs do want dogs who will appear friendly and approachable to kids to encourage the little ones to get in there and start reading. The dogs obviously have to pass a temperament test…no word on whether the kids do as well…and while mellow labs and goofy golden retrievers might be the first dogs that come to mind, but from pictures I’ve seen in programs across the country there’s also greyhounds, terriers, pugs, mutts, and really any well-mannered dog who has proven themselves calm, good with kids, and loves a good story. 

If you have a dog that might fit the bill and if you have time to help build a better reader, just search for Read to the Dog along with your city, county or state’s name and you should find an organization in your area that’s running something similar. If you don’t have a dog, consider making a donation to your local group. There’s also a link in the show notes to donate to READ.

That’s I’ll I’ve got about dogs, but before we wrap up I have to share one quick news item that caught my eye and gave me a good laugh and I thought it would fit in perfectly there since we’re talking about libraries. So apparently a library in Newcastle (that’s in the UK) had a service come in to do a deep clean, probably for coronavirus, but I’m not sure. Anyway, to do this cleaning job, the cleaner was required removed all the books and then put them back when the job was done. Well, the cleaners put the book back alright, not in the order they were, but in order by size. Yes, by size. The library director supposedly took a good attitude and said, “well at least we’re closed right now and will have plenty of time to set things right.”

Thanks for listening everyone, I’ve got a personal update coming up, but if you enjoyed this episode be sure to let me know, You can leave a review or contact me at the book owl podcast dot com slash contact. If you want to get even more out of each episode, be sure to subscribe to the book owl podcast newsletter on that same page.

Cheers everyone, I’ll hoot at you next time!

So just a couple personal updates. I’ve just finished the third draft of the first two books in a trilogy I’m working on. It’s sort of an urban paranormal story with plenty of magic, but also a couple of zombies and a little bit of mystery. There’s no official title yet, so for now I[‘m just calling it the Cassie Black trilogy. The second bit of news is simply that I’m gearing up for the launch of the final book in the Osteria Chronicles, a historical fantasy series in which the Greek gods come to life as you’ve never seen them before. The book comes out on 19 May, so I’ll be telling you a bit more about it next time.

That’s it for me. Have a great couple weeks!

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The Book Owl Podcast is a production of Daisy Dog Media, Copyright 2020, All rights reserved.

Theme Music “Monkeys Spinning Monkeys” by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com). Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0 License