darnton on reading

Robert Darnton, “First Steps Toward a History of Reading

Both familiar and strange, [reading] is an activity that we share with our ancestors yet can never be the same as what they experienced. We may enjoy the illusion of stepping outside of time in order to make contact with authors who lived centuries ago. But even if their texts have come down to us unchanged – a virtual impossibility, considering the evolution of layout and of books as physical objects – our relation to those texts cannot be the same as that of readers in the past. Reading has a history. But how can we recover it?

Darnton suggests that scholars writing the history of reading pursue answers to these five questions: How was reading discussed or portrayed at different times and in different places? How was reading learned? What did readers write about their reading either in diaries or as marginalia? How was meaning construed by readers? How did the typographical features of print direct or at least influence the experience of reading? These are, of course, very basic questions, but they are ones we do not yet know the full answers to.

The history of reading is something I’ve been doing a bit of work in, myself.

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