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Pictures: A Century of Reading Around the World

Pictures: A Century of Reading Around the World

The Printed Word Two men in Liulin, China, stand before shelves of printing blocks in 1925. Woodblock printing in China dates back to at least the ninth century, though it likely originated centuries before that.

The earliest examples of writing are clay counting symbols from approximately 8000 B.C. Several thousand years later, the Greek philosopher Socrates feared that reading and writing would destroy the practice of memorization and recitation—which is, ironically, an opinion we know he held because his student Plato wrote it down.

Because early writing mimicked speech, people read long, unbroken chains of words by sounding them out aloud. The practice of placing spaces between words in written texts evolved over time, and the act of reading silently, without speaking or moving one’s lips, was not common until later.

Now that kids worldwide have taken up their schoolbooks (or computer laptops) once again, our editors went into the archives to find images of reading captured by National Geographic photographers over the past century. (Related: “Back-to-School Pictures: Exploring Education Around the World.”)

—By Becky Little, Photo editing by Sarah Leen

Photograph by Dr. Joseph F. Rock, National Geographic Creative


  Reading Dervishes  
A Persian holy man reads from the Koran while two others listen in what is now Iran, in this 1921 National Geographic photo.

As reported in a 1921 article on Persian caravans, these men are Muslim dervishes, or members of a religious order who have taken a vow of poverty. According to the photo caption, they alternated between silent meditation over their holy book and cries of “Ya Hakk! Ya Hakk!” (O truth! O God!) as people walked by. The caption also said that the holy men sometimes offered a lemon or a flower to those who passed them, expecting a gift in return. (Related: “National Geographic Photography Milestones.”)

Photograph by Harold Weston, National Geographic Creative


Stopping for Directions

In this 1926 photograph by Luis Marden, a man passing through Questa, New Mexico, stops to ask a policeman for directions. (Related: “Pictures: 1950s Family Retraces Lewis and Clark’s American Journey.”)

Marden pushed for color photographs to be printed in National Geographic, introducing his colleagues to Kodachrome before it became a regular feature in the popular press.

Photograph by Luis Marden, National Geographic Creative

The Bottle House

Lewis Murphy reads about a St. Patrick’s Day nuclear test in the Los Angeles Times on his porch in 1953. The photograph ran in the article “Nevada Learns to Live With the Atom,” in which National Geographic reported on U.S. nuclear testing.

Murphy lived in a so-called bottle house, in Rhyolite, Nevada. Built using 51,000 glass bottles, the structure remained standing after the nuclear blast took place less than 50 miles (80 kilometers) away. (See: “Quiz: What Do You Know About Nuclear Power?”)

Photograph by Volkmar Wentzel, National Geographic Creative

Voyage of the Enterprise

In this photo from a 1963 National Geographic article, bunk mates relax on the U.S. aircraft carrier Enterprise, then the world’s largest ship and the first nuclear carrier.

Instead of traditional Navy hammocks, these triple bunk beds with individual lights allow the man in the middle to get some sleep while the others stay up reading and writing.

Photograph by Thomas J. Abercrombie, National Geographic Creative

Silent Night

An Augustinian nun of the Hôtel-Dieu Hospital in Quebec City, Canada, reads silently while another prays.

This picture was featured in a 1971 National Geographic article about the life of French Canadians in Quebec.

Photograph by James L. Stanfield, National Geographic Creative

Story Time

An eight-year-old girl curls up with her mother as she reads a fairy tale in Russia in 1995. (See “Fairy Tale Physics: Myths and Legends Explained.”)

Photograph by Lynn Johnson, National Geographic Creative

Following Along

Two schoolboys in Ewoku, Ghana, hunch over a book in 1997.

Their teacher points to the text as they read the words out loud, following along with their fingers.

Photograph by Lynn Johnson, National Geographic Creative

Morning Prayers

In this 2000 photo, a man cradles the Ramayana in his hands during morning prayer in Dhading, a district in Nepal.

Photograph by Maggie Steber, National Geographic Creative

I Love You

For a 2006 National Geographic story on the brain chemistry of love, photographer Jodi Cobb traveled the world looking for images of romance.

In Florence, Italy, in 2005, she was struck by this woman reading a newspaper in a restaurant. She began taking pictures, thinking that they had nothing to do with her assignment—until she realized that the newspaper was actually an elaborately crafted greeting card, topped with a special phonetic message: “AI LOV YOU.”

Photograph by Jody Cobb, National Geographic Creative

Marriage En Masse

Two children sip their drinks while the man next to them reads a wedding program, which lists the names of 47 couples to be married that day in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

The accompanying 2007 article explained that Dubai’s government financed mass weddings to encourage native-born men and women to marry each other.

At the time, foreign workers in Dubai outnumbered native-born citizens by eight to one.

Photograph by Maggie Steber, National Geographic Creative

Basking in Her Glory

In Humboldt County, California, 93-year-old Mary Coppini enjoys a book while surrounded by ribbons she won in gardening competitions at the local county fair.

The photograph was featured in a 1997 National Geographic article on U.S. county fairs. (See National Geographic’s photos of international festivals.)

Photograph by Randy Olson, National Geographic Creative


In this 2010 photo, a Kyrgyz shaman in Mongolia reads cards to tell someone’s fortune.

Before the Soviet Union fell in 1991, its ban on all religion extended to shamanism. After the Soviet disintegration, Mongolia experienced a revival of shamanism.

Photograph by Carolyn Drake, National Geographic

Passing Time on the TrainA woman traveling from Baghdad to Karbala, Iraq, in 2011 reads a prayer book.Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic CreativeLanguage Lessons

In a 2013 National Geographic article, Peter Hessler wrote about his return to Fuling, China, a town on the Yangtze River where he had taught English in the Peace Corps a decade and a half before. Here, two college students practice their foreign language lessons by reading aloud.

Photograph by Anastasia Taylor-Lind, VII


The Big Day

Bridesmaids read wedding programs while waiting for a marriage ceremony at an evangelical church in Kano, Nigeria.



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