reading readers reading: what can we know?

The book I’m writing is about the uses of speech, manuscript, and print in the eighteenth century, specifically within the Methodist movement, which began in this period before turning into what we now know as the Methodist Church. I’m still wrestling with geographical limits: England? Britain? Britain and America? I’m wrestling with a lot of things.

I find myself seduced by the simple claims of “history” as against “theory” and then reminded that you can’t have one without the other. Almost all that we know about the past comes through written documents that are subject to many of the same complicated conditions of interpretation as the self-consciously literary texts that we know refuse to submit to easy readings.

My initial focus was on sermons because in this period they are spoken (by preachers, by readers reading them out loud), they are written (by their orators, but also by note-taking auditors), and they are printed (with and without the permission of the purported author). I am turning, however, to other genres: letter writing, diary keeping, marginalia, hymns. All of these linked to the (imagined, on my part? or on their part?) rich, interior life of those who said they stridently wanted something more spiritually satisfying than what was being offered to them. How to get at that interior life? What believers chose to reveal in the evidence that is left behind is no less self-consciously constructed (I think) than the entries we are all posting on our blogs. Even as you write a diary for no one but yourself you perhaps imagine a changed later self reading and you adjust the posture of your current, unchanged self accordingly.

Maybe the interior is forever untouchable by outsiders. Maybe there is no interior, only an imagined one, constructed through the correct outside expressions of faith and doubt.

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4 thoughts on “reading readers reading: what can we know?

  1. You said: ” What believers chose to reveal in the evidence that is left behind is no less self-consciously constructed (I think) than the entries we are all posting on our blogs.”
    And I wonder if that is really so. Which is not to say that 18th century writers, journal keepers, and so on did not have a particular kind of self-consciousness, but I wonder how – for instance – the technologies and forms of writing alter such a state.
    18th century writers (whose names did not rhyme with Samuel Johnson), for instance, likely did not think that their diary (or Ramblings) would but latched into a network that would *potentially* allow thousands of people (and more) to read their work. In other words, I wonder how historical issues of privacy, of survelliance, and of technologies of writing and reading might inform different constructions of self-conscious writing across the centuries.
    So, sure, *no less* self-conscious perhaps, but certainly after a different fashion?
    In any case, I agree – the interior of the writer and reader is nigh impossible to perceive in the best of circumstances, without the weight of history. Narratology circumvents this slightly through the so-called “narrative transaction,” boxing out the “real” to speak towards the implied, as illustrated by this handy scheme – the type of thing narratologists *love* (this line might wrap, but imagine it on a single, long line):
    real author [ implied author — {narrator– story –(narratee)}—implied reader ] real reader

  2. Here’s the thing: I know there must be a body of scholarly literature out there about, for example, diary writing. I just have not yet done the literature search (but will be doing it very soon). This is new stuff, pushing my research beyond what I did for my diss.
    Regarding diaries, we know that many who kept diaries for “spiritual discipline” would share them with each other, so they are not necessarily the secretive records that we imagine them to be today. One of my colleagues tells me that this kind of diary-keeping (personal, secretive) does not develop until the 19th century.
    Your assertion that we should attend to the ways that “historical issues of privacy, of survelliance, and of technologies of writing and reading might inform different constructions of self-conscious writing across the centuries” is well put and spot on.

  3. So far, Francois, I have not come across anything like that. However, it’s a very interesting thought, and I appreciate the suggestion and the link. I can imagine a community collection of sermons taken in shorthand by auditors, for example, but I’ve found no references to such a thing … yet.

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