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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sharp bible-reading inquiry

Here’s a link to the archives of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing listserv. An interesting discussion is taking place regarding habits of Bible reading.

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it’s sharp, eh!

This just in:

The Preliminary Programme for the upcoming SHARP (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing) conference in Halifax, Nova
Scotia on July 14-17, 2005 is now available for viewing at the conference
website
. An exciting line-up of papers, international
panels, keynote speakers, receptions, and other events awaits registrants. The
2005 conference will be a memorable meeting where scholars from around the
world will address and debate many aspects of “Navigating Texts and Contexts.”

Four people from my institution will be there: two professors, and two current or former grad students.

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various book history items

Rare Book School:

With one possible exception, the roster of courses offered by Rare Book School in 2005 on our Web site is now complete.

Continue reading

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suggestions for primers on book history

In response to an emailed question about foundational texts on the history of the book, I wrote the following response, and I would be glad to hear other suggestions readers might have:
I would recommend that you start with Robert Darnton’s “What Is The History of Books?” in his collection of essays entitled The Kiss of Lamourette. (There is a reply to Darnton in the first essay of A Potencie of Life: Books in Society.) If you’re the journal browsing type, take a look at Book History, an annual that has been produced by the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing for the last several years.
As the starting point with foundational texts, go with Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, which is an abridgement (accessible, but with the footnotes removed!) of her much longer work, The Printing Press As An Agent of Change. If you have time and/or are a fast reader, go with the longer work.
Appearing earlier than Eisenstein’s work, Marshall McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy was influential for a time, but I have found his work unsatisfying. Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy is a good synthesis of the extant work on a topic tangential to book history proper; the study of orality and literacy is a different field, although there are significant intersections.
D. F. McKenzie’s Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts is an important set of essays arguing for the importance of considering not only the material nature of texts themselves but also the environment in which they are produced, circulated, and received.
Most recently, Adrian Johns’ The Nature of the Book is seen as, in part, a reconsideration of many of Eistenstein’s assertions. Not everyone agrees, however, that he has really successfully refuted what she has to say. A relatively recent issue of American Historical Review has an interchange between the two scholars.
You might also check out The Book History Reader (ed. by Finkelstein and McCleery) and A Dictionary of Book History by John Feather.
The field has tended to take slightly different directions depending on the area of specialization, but the above are pretty important texts. If you were to tell me that 19th-century America is what you’re most interested in, for example, I might make a different (or additional) set of recommendations.

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