Readers: Books and Biography

Colclough, Stephen and King, Edmund G. C. (2020). Readers: Books and Biography. In: Eliot, Simon and Rose, Jonathan eds. A Companion to the History of the Book, 2nd. ed. Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture, 1. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 157–171.



This chapter investigates how book historians have used autobiographical records and documents – diaries, notebooks and commonplace books, and marginalia – to uncover the place of books and reading in everyday life from the early modern period to the late nineteenth century. It aims to provide a survey of the field while also drawing on individual case studies of particular readers. It demonstrates how readers used their books and shows how the individual act of reading was embedded within a larger web of social, economic, and educational contexts. Attending to autobiographical documents can provide information about how reading practices were shaped and influenced by the book trade, social and correspondence networks, and institutions of reading such as subscription libraries. The material forms of autobiography, meanwhile, show how reading in the past has been shaped by social practices, such as commonplacing, letter writing, and marginal annotation.

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