Painted Literacy: Lens and Light, Celebrating the Tools that Help Us See Text

By Sarah Dowhower, PhD.

Summary: This academic paper explores the relationship of light, lens, and literacy; weaving together the history of early vision aids, spectacles and artificial illumination with that of reading and writing as told through the eyes of artists. Over the centuries, paintings as well as other art forms whisper an untold story of the evolution of these optical artifacts that enhanced sight and battled diminished vision from both failing eyesight and poor light.

Paintings with literacy at their heart, tell of early reading stones, mirrors, single and double lens reading glasses, as well as light sources from ancient lamps to electricity that made written text accessible to all. Over thousands of years, paintings depict the development of sight-enhancing tools as often defying linearity and certainly agonizingly protracted; and suggest that, indeed, the spread of literacy and need to extend one's literary life were the major catalysts for the invention and ensuing technological advances of vision aids.

Note: The manuscript is an expanded version of a Keynote Address given at the American Reading Forum (ARF) Conference in December, 2010, Sanibel Island, Florida and can be retrieved at (Note: this file is about 98 megabytes in size and might take a while to download, but it is definitely worth the wait.)

This chapter on vision aids is the third in a series on literacy in paintings published in the ARF Yearbook by Sarah Dowhower:

(1) Picturing the Word: A Literacy Odyssey in Paintings of Children, Youth and Families (2002) retrieved from

(2) Painted Literacy: Reading Aloud Rituals (2006) retrieved from

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