I've been wondering what "a recent iteration" mean here in the following? I think the word "iteration" generally mean a repetition, a different form or version of something, and so on. I've been trying to translate the first sentence below into my language and understand it, but I can't.

We take books and mass literacy for granted, but in reality, they are a recent iteration, going back not even a millennium. Less than four hundred years ago—barely a century and a half after Gutenberg—John Milton could still pride himself without exaggeration on having read every book then available, the entire history of written thought accessible to a single mind.

—From the the fourth paragraph of the article "Is Literature Dead?" at the Paris Review, as excerpted from The Lost Art of Reading by David L. Ulin.

2 Answers 2


You are correct in your definition of "iteration" as a repetition or version. In this usage, it might be helpful to imagine a series of chess games. In each game, the player learns a little more and becomes a stronger player. We might say that by the twentieth iteration, the player was getting quite good.

This author is using iteration in a similar way, to describe the progress of humanity. The author is reminding us that widely available books and literacy have only become part of the game recently.

If I were going to translate this, I would begin by substituting "development" for "iteration". This is a less confusing word that keeps the intended meaning.

  • Thank you very much. Your advice is very helpful, and insightful. Commented Sep 24, 2018 at 22:42

I agree with you that it isn't the best use of the word iteration. What the author is trying to say is that we act like people have been literate forever, when we've only had meaningful literacy for a thousand years, and even then, with such a limited number of books that one man could read them all.

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