Secret Lives of Readers

We can read readers through the books they have read

BIBLIO

JENNIFER HOWARD

Books reveal themselves. Whether they exist as print or pixels, they can be read and examined and made to spill their secrets. Readers are far more elusive. They leave traces—a note in the margin, a stain on the binding—but those hints of human handling tell us only so much. The experience of reading vanishes with the reader.
How do we recover the reading experiences of the past? Lately scholars have stepped up the hunt for evidence of how people over time have interacted with books, newspapers, and other printed material.
It's a tricky business. A bibliographer works with hard physical evidence—a manuscript, a printed book, a copy of the Times of London. A scholar seeking to pin down the readers of the past often has to read between the lines. Marginalia can be a gold mine of information about a book's owners and readers, but it's rare. "Most of the time, most readers historically didn't, and still don't, write in their books," Price explains.
But even a book's apparent lack of use can be read as evidence. "The John F. Kennedy Library here in Boston owns a copy of Ulysses whose pages—other than a few at the very beginning and very end—are completely uncut,” she says. “This tells us something about the owner of the copy—who happens to be Ernest Hemingway."
"The history of reading," Price says, "really has to encompass the history of not reading."
Anyone who has ever displayed a trophy volume on the coffee table knows that people do many things with books besides read them. A book can be deployed as a sign of intellectual standing or aspiration. It can be used to erect a social barrier between spouses at a breakfast table or strangers on a train. It can be taken apart and recycled or turned into art. Price's recent work recreates Victorians' many extra-textual uses of books.
Earlier work involving reader-reception theory and book history helped point the way toward current investigations of readers and reading. In 1984, a prominent literary critic and cultural-studies professor, Janice Radway, published a groundbreaking study, Reading the Romance, which investigated how reading genre novels helped a group of contemporary women in the Midwest cope with the demands and strictures of their lives. Radway, a professor of communication studies at Northwestern University, went on to write A Feeling for Books, about the Book-of-the-Month Club and middle-class literary sensibilities, and co-wrote a volume of a multipart history of the book in America.
Since Reading the Romance, the ethnography of reading has taken off among scholars. Radway points to Forgotten Readers, Elizabeth McHenry's study of African-American literary societies, Ellen Gruber Garvey's Writing With Scissors, about scrapbooking, and David Henkin's City Reading, about signage in the urban environment, as strong examples. "People have become very creative about trying to figure out how groups of readers interact with the text as it's embodied in various forms," she says.
Historians of the book have had a substantial influence on the development of the history of reading. For instance, in 1996, Robert Darnton, a historian of 18th-century France, published The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, in which he argued that surreptitious reading of banned books helped set off the powder keg of the French Revolution. Darnton, now the director of libraries at Harvard University, has published a number of other influential works on publishing history and the uses of books.
Then as now, devaluing the object sometimes creates more emphasis on content. "Going back to the 19th century makes you realize that a phenomenon we tend to blame on digitization actually happened a century earlier," Price says. "Once you can throw it away, the value of books comes to reside in the words they contain rather than their potential for reuse."

(The Chronicle)

Lastupdate on : Wed, 9 Jan 2013 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Wed, 9 Jan 2013 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Thu, 10 Jan 2013 00:00:00 IST




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