Mary Magdalene with a Book and an Ointment Jar
If you can read this sentence, you know how to do something that just a few people could do in Europe 500 years ago. Back then, only wealthy people and church leaders received enough education to be able to read.

Today, nearly everyone is taught to read in school. There are other big differences between then and now.

Until the 1500s or so, groups of people listened to stories read aloud. Though you might read in groups at school, today most people read to themselves. Today, books are printed on printing presses, and there are public libraries that lend them to everyone.

Back then, all books were made by hand, and many contained beautiful hand-painted pictures. There were no public libraries—only church libraries and personal book collections.

Look at the woman in this picture, which is from a book made in the early 1500s. Do you see how carefully she holds her book? It's a prayer book with a cloth cover. With care, such a book might last for hundreds of years.

Although there are many differences between the way people read hundreds of years ago and today, one thing remains the same: Being able to read opens a window onto the world.

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