Examining the evidence of reading: three examples from the Reading Experience Database, 1450-1945

Towheed, Shafquat; Crone, Rosalind and Halsey, Katie (2010). Examining the evidence of reading: three examples from the Reading Experience Database, 1450-1945. In: Gunzenhauser, Bonnie ed. Reading in History: New Methodologies from the Anglo-American Tradition. The History of the Book. London: Pickering and Chatto, pp. 29–45.

URL: http://www.pickeringchatto.com/monographs/reading_...


This chapter will open with a brief introduction to the Reading Experience Database, 1450-1945 (RED), an AHRC funded project that seeks to recover and collate as many evidences of reading of British subjects over the five centuries since the advent of printing. The chapter is divided into three sections (see below), each looking at a particular source or methodological approach.

I: Working with the Evidence: how do we interpret reading diaries?

How can we know what historical readers thought about their reading? Since its inception as a discipline, the history of reading has wrestled with the problem of finding evidence about the reading habits and practices of historical readers. Research in the field has uncovered a plethora of different types of evidence: publication and sales statistics, lending library records, informal reading lists, educational syllabi, the notes of reading groups, and also the notes left by individual readers: marginalia and annotations, diaries and journals, letters, autobiographies and memoirs. This section is concerned primarily with the question of how to interpret diaries that discuss reading, focussing closely on two case studies from the 1820s and 1920s. In both case studies, the readers in question read widely and voraciously. They both comment on their reading on a daily basis, and keep yearly lists of the books they have read. One reader is a male autodidact, the other, a female writer. They are different in class, gender, education and regional identity, and divided by a period of 100 years, but their reading habits, and the comments they make about their reading are surprisingly similar.

II: Mapping the Evidence: how do we interpret marginalia?

Reading is not just in intellectual activity, but a physical one too. The act of reading often leaves traces: folded corners of pages, drips of wax, creased and broken spines, bookplates, marks of ownership, and various signs of use both intellectual and material. Reading also often precipitates writing. The most immediate and the most important mark left by any reader of a text is another mark upon the page itself – usually in the form of marginalia, typically, but not always, a textual and not only a graphic response to the act of reading. But how can we interpret the marginal marks of readers, and what can it tell us about their reading practices?
This section offers an overview of the extensive marginal marks of a remarkable reader, writer and annotator: the aesthete, art historian, novelist, critic and author of over 40 books, Vernon Lee (pseudo, Violet Paget, 1856-1935). Some 425 books in Lee’s own library have survived, and are housed in the archives of the British Institute of Florence; the vast majority of these books are encrusted with considerable textual marginalia, in the four languages (English, French, German and Italian) that Lee read. Lee marked her books in lead and ink, in a variety of colours, often leaving extremely detailed responses to specific points in the text being read; in some cases, the material evidence of a progressively blunter pencil mark offers us compelling substantiation of a single, intensive reading experience. In a considerable number of her books, the volume of marginalia is astonishing, and represents the fullest written response that Lee ever made to a specific book or writer, while in many other cases, her comments offer the first intellectual engagement with a particular idea, which is then copied out into her commonplace books or notebooks, and eventually finds a published outcome in her journalism and essays. Some books have marginal marks from more than one hand (and in more than one style), offering valuable evidence of a shared reading experience, while others bear the trace of scrupulous re-reading, demonstrated through intertextual references in the glossing. Some books offer a wealth of readerly disagreement, while others are surprisingly unmarked, even when there is evidence elsewhere that the book has indeed been read. Especially when reading German works in psychology, aesthetics, and the social sciences, Lee’s marginalia engenders the first translation of a key concept into English; the marginal mark is effectively a liminal point between languages, texts, and the interpretation of ideas.
Existing in the world between private and public, between manuscript and print, and between immediate and considered responses to the process of reading, marginalia offers us a wealth of interpretative possibilities. Using evidence from the Reading Experience Database and drawing upon archival work, this section offers us a compelling micro history of a single elite individual’s reading practice and response, and demonstrate the extent to which marginalia can map a reader’s engagement with an entire body of work or subject matter.

III. Revising the Evidence: where do we find the common reader?

Over fifty years ago, Richard Altick published his seminal work, The English Common Reader (1957), in which he sought to uncover the reading practices of ordinary people in the past. Yet in piecing together the rare gems of evidence of actual reading experience that he could find, Altick recognised the limits of his work, exclaiming ‘if only we had an autobiography of [a] pork butcher.’ But we do. Historians and literary historians readily took up Altick’s challenge, uncovering a wealth of autobiographies of lower-middle and working-class men and women in which the writers described their reading experiences. Studies by David Vincent and Jonathan Rose, to name just two, have contributed substantially to our knowledge about the common reader in that past. But such research also has its limits. For the most part, ordinary men and women who kept diaries and wrote of their reading experiences were a tiny minority. Moreover, as many were autodidacts desirous of rising in society, we may wonder whether their reading habits were at all representative and we may, with some validity, even question their extensive and intellectual reading lists.
With such questions in mind, this section explores new methods for the discovery and analysis of the common reader from the opening of the eighteenth century until the early twentieth century. Working from the assumption that the common reader did not always, or even usually, keep a personal record of what he or she read, or openly discuss his or her reading habits, this section demonstrates how evidence of reading experiences may be harvested from a range of inquisitorial and observational sources, including court records and social investigation studies, in which ordinary people were compelled either directly or indirectly to reveal this information. A small portion of this evidence does support some of the conclusions made by Jonathan Rose in his influential study, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class (1998), that a significant number of working people did have access to and enjoyed great works of literature, and also complements that work by illuminating strategies employed to obtain such literature and various reading practices. But the bulk of the evidence takes us in two rather different yet certainly welcome directions. On the one hand, sources compiled by the establishment which inquire directly into the reading habits of the lower orders provide a rare glimpse into the use and manipulation of both illicit and prescribed reading experiences by working people. On the other hand, sources which indirectly inquire about the potential reading practices of ordinary men and women draw our attention to the reading of more ephemeral texts, including newspapers, broadsides and playbills, which were arguably more accessible and figured more prominently in the everyday life of the common reader.

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