History of reading tutorial 1: Finding evidence of reading in the past
History of reading tutorial 1: Finding evidence of reading in the past

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History of reading tutorial 1: Finding evidence of reading in the past

2.1 Diaries, journals, autobiographies and memoirs – the anecdotal sources

Let’s start with those sources most commonly used to study reading experiences and which are often most rich in evidence: diaries, journals, memoirs and autobiographies. There are slight but crucial differences between these types of sources. Journals and diaries vary widely: some list events in a very methodical way; others are more creative personal texts, composed of reflections on events or encounters that have captured the attention of the diarist. Both, however, are written near the time of the event they record.

Conversely, autobiographies and memoirs are often written many years later and therefore bring the benefit (or not) of hindsight to the events recollected. Memoirs are a ‘subclass’ of autobiographies. In other words, while autobiographies are meant to be a narrative of one’s life, from the cradle to the grave (or almost), memoirs often focus exclusively on one aspect of an individual’s life, covering, for example, one’s professional life but not his or her personal life. Memoirs are therefore thought to be more selective than autobiographies.

If reading has been a key part of someone’s life, reference to it is likely to show up in that individual’s autobiography or memoir. However, the mention of reading in these sources is likely to represent a partial account of one’s entire encounter with text – probably only those works believed to have had a marked impact on thoughts or actions will be referred to by the writer. Favourite novels might be described at length, but the habit of reading, say, The Times, each morning at the breakfast table may not be judged significant enough to record. But where books or other texts are mentioned in these sources, the reader’s response to them is often detailed and invaluable. Depending on the style of the writer, diaries and journals may contain the same level of detail about reading response, but because they form a daily record, are also more likely to include references to everyday reading habits.

Private Collection/Bridgeman Art
Figure 4 Waiting for the Times, 1831, by Benjamin Robert Haydon

UK RED contains evidence from a large number of manuscript and published journals, diaries, autobiographies and memoirs. Many are from famous individuals, such as Pepys. But the database also contains evidence of reading from a large number of diaries and autobiographies written by ‘common’ men and women, especially in the nineteenth century.

Scholars often wonder how representative the reading tastes and habits of the famous, or the literary-inclined actually were. We can use the evidence in RED to put this to the test. Let’s compare the reading list of a famous nineteenth-century female writer with an ordinary working man of the same period.

Activity 1

Go to the UK RED home page [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (right-click on the link to open it as a new tab or window) and select browse from the navigation bar, or use the quick search/ browse box on the right-hand side. Select to browse by readers with surnames beginning with ‘E’. Scroll down the list until you find George Eliot, and click on her name. You should have arrived at Eliot’s profile. Here you will see Eliot’s personal details; if you scroll down you will be able to see a list of books and other titles that Eliot read. For the most part, these have been derived from Eliot’s diary (remember that some have not – we will come back to this in just a moment!).

I want you to keep that window open, and open a second alongside it using this link. What we have here is a profile page for a male diarist of the same period as Eliot. Thomas Burt was a pitman in the north east who eventually became an MP. Burt was born a little later than Eliot, but as readers they were contemporaries. The list of texts that Burt read has been derived from his autobiography: we have, at this point, few diaries of working men in UK RED, as such a large number. However it is useful to compare Burt’s later recollections of his reading with the more contemporaneous record kept by Eliot.

  1. Take a look at the lists side by side (you can resize both windows so that you can look at the lists in this way). Is there any similarity – are there texts that both have read? I notice that both read a good deal of Shakespeare. And both read Thomas Babington Macaulay’s History of England. Burt also read Eliot’s novel, Adam Bede.
  2. Find a text that both read, and then for each click on the evidence to see how they responded to that text. How much detail about the reading do they provide? Were the circumstances in which each read that title similar or very different? Were their reactions to the text similar or different?


I clicked on Macaulay’s History of England for both. I was struck by how differently the experience was described. I think this is in large part to do with the difference in the source type: Eliot’s diary entry is very short and to the point (UK RED: 7234), while Burt mentions the impact of the text on him – he read it with excitement and to his educational advantage (UK RED: 6870). They both read the text around the same time: Eliot in 1855 and Burt during the next decade. But while Burt read History of England in his mining town in Northumberland, Eliot read the book in Berlin. As well as reading a portion of History of England, Eliot also read two other texts that evening, one of Shakespeare’s plays, and the manuscript of an unpublished essay by her partner, George Henry Lewes. Burt does not mention if he read any other texts at the same time, or whether he read History of England all in one sitting, or over a stretch of time.

As you will have noticed from the amount of detail we were able to extract from the activity above, diaries, journals, autobiographies and memoirs are very useful for studying the history of reading. However, it might be a good moment to sound a note of caution with respect to these sources. Diaries, journals, autobiographies and memories could well be unrepresentative sources. It takes a certain degree of self awareness, not to mention time and materials (very important considerations when thinking about the working classes in history), for an individual to commit themselves to writing a diary or journal. Similar constraints apply to writing an autobiography, and memoirs are most often compiled by those who have enjoyed fame in their lifetime.

Also, especially with regard to those diaries and autobiographies which are published, we must ask whether the account tallies with the reality, or in other words, does the author have an interest in telling us a particular story? Remember I said earlier that not all the titles on the list of George Eliot’s reading were derived from her diary. For example, this experience was extracted from one of her letters. Did she record that reading experience in her diary as well? Take a moment to check now. Select the title from the list of texts that Eliot read, and check the individual reading experiences associated with that text.

The possibility of selective memory has often been raised by those who look at the writing of nineteenth-century autodidacts: these men (there are very few women autodidacts) may well have claimed to read things they did not, or neglected to mention various low publications which they did read and enjoy, in the pursuit of a self-image dictated by the establishment. And even when these men (or women) wrote sincerely about their reading experiences, we must be aware in the case of autobiographers and memoirists that the passage of time between the event and the recording of it may well have had an impact on the truth of their recollections.


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