reading: the state of the discipline

Each issue of the SHARP journal Book History (subscription required) includes an overview essay on the “State of the Discipline” of book history with regard to a specific topic.

  • 2003 – “The Politics of Print: The Historiography of the Book in Early Spanish America”
  • 2002 – “The Epistemology of Publishing Statistics”
  • 2001 – “Sacred Texts in the United States”
  • 1999 – “Terra Incognita: Toward a Historiography of Book Fastenings and Book Furniture”
  • 1998 – “The Rise and Decline of Book Studies in the Soviet Union”
  • 1997 – “Booksellers and Their Customers: Some Reflections on Recent Research”

The 2004 volume features “Reading,” by Leah Price. The essay begins with an amusing quote from William James concerning the distance between the experience of the world from a human and a canine point of view: humans fail to see the appeal of bones and smells, while dogs are surely puzzled by the act of reading, during which a human sits frozen for hours on end, staring at a handheld object. Price writes

James’s example points to one of the central difficulties of a history of reading: how to analyze an activity that’s too close for critical distance, and perhaps for comfort. What’s “alien” here is not simply the relation of readers to illiterates (human or canine), but also one reader’s relation to another. Writers on reading have lamented its unknowability or savored its ineffability as far back as Wilkie Collins’s 1858 essay “The Unknown Public.” This is the assumption that book historians have come to combat, either in practice (by uncovering the physical gestures and material artifacts that can make one reader knowable to another), or in theory (by tracing the origins of a Cartesian dualism that severs reading from the hand and the voice).2 For all the polemics that have shaped the fieldóabout extensive reading, about technological determinism, about whether to determine the texts read by a particular demographic group or to define the audience reached by an individual textóhistorians seem united in the urge to contest James’s characterization of reading as a literally “senseless” act.

This doesn’t, however, imply any agreement about what the history of reading is. As David Hall has pointed out, different scholars have understood the term to encompass enterprises as various as the social history of education, the quantitative study of the distribution of printed matter, and the reception of texts or diffusion of ideas.

Read the whole thing (as they say) for a report on, well, the state of the discipline.

I regularly teach Robert Darnton’s essay on studying the history of reading in an attempt to encourage students not to project their own reading habits and tastes upon readers who lived in previous centuries. As the work of Walter Ong reminds us, writing is a technology, thus artificial. Yet we have so internalized the acts of reading and writing that they seem natural, an essential part of being human. Literacy is a recent phenomenon in human history, and in fact, wide-spread literacy has existed in the Anglophone world for only 300 or 400 years. My position is that we should take this understanding and

  1. Avoid engaging in ahistorical romantic swooning over the power and beauty of literature. This is not to say that we shouldn’t swoon, just that we should not project our feelings across time.
  2. Lose our fear of (but retain our intense interest in) new technologies’ impact upon what it means to be human. Clearly our lives are enveloped by digital media, and while some observers see this development as a recent and radical break with the past, others view it more properly as part of a long history.

Last fall, a capacity crowd attended a local panel discussion of the NEA Reading at Risk report. (You can read my notes on this discussion here.) When the report came out, Matt K produced a response , the arguments of which are spot on, for the Electronic Literature Organization. There was also a panel discussion at the University of Maryland and other locations around the country. It’s heartening that so many are concerned about the fate of reading and writing. But let’s not forget that reading and writing have (long) histories that are much more complex and much more surprising than most of us realize. When we detect a shift taking place among contemporary readers, our first reaction should not be one of fear (words like “crisis,” “problem,” “risk” crop up regularly) but curiosity. Of course reading habits will change. They always have, and we would be foolish to expect to live in an age of stasis.

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