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

1 Debates about where to find readers

Debates about ‘the reader’ – from his or her importance in the life of a text, to means of identification – have raged for some time. At first, this field was dominated by theorists who looked to the text to provide clues as to its audience. So, looking at the arrangement of the text in manuscripts and later printed books, Paul Saenger argued that in Europe during the Middle Ages, there was a great shift in reading practice from reading aloud to reading silently. In 1970, Hans Robert Jauss suggested that readers brought to texts a ‘horizon of expectations’: this was created by a reader’s encounter with other texts that gave him or her an understanding of literary conventions and thus determined his or her response to the text in question.

At the same time, the emergence of the field of ‘book history’ brought new perspectives and research methods to the history of reading. So-called ‘hard evidence’ relating to texts was introduced to determine the size of the readerships of given works. Publishers’ archives have been mined for print runs, sales and circulation figures for books and newspapers; public and circulating library borrowing records have been uncovered to demonstrate how often various titles were requested; the contents of private libraries have been catalogued; and even literacy rates have been used to estimate the size of the reading public. This evidence is considered to be ‘hard’ because it is measurable or quantifiable: knowing how many copies of a particular title were sold over a defined period of time can tell us something about peaks and troughs in the desire of readers to own such a book. This kind of evidence has led to the construction of grand narratives about the practice of reading over the longue durée: for example, both the increasing size of libraries and the growth of print runs for books and magazines during the eighteenth century encouraged some scholars to suggest that men and women began to read more widely but less intensively.

But – did the men and women who bought a copy of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations actually read it? If they did, what did they think of it? These are two major questions that cannot be answered accurately by the ‘hard’ evidence of book history. However, there are other, more personal historical records, documents which captured moments in time when men, women and children felt the need or were forced to disclose information about their reading habits. Journals, diaries, memoirs and autobiographies are the most obvious sources for this type of research and over the last fifty years there have been many detailed and illuminating studies on the reading tastes and practices of individuals who left behind such personal accounts.

At the core of UK RED rests the notion of a ‘reading experience’, that is, a recorded engagement with a written or printed text beyond the mere fact of possession. The evidence collected in UK RED is therefore mostly anecdotal or personal. But contributors have gone beyond the traditional sources used for studying reading, such as diaries and autobiographies, and found a plethora of reading experiences in a range of other observational and inquisitorial records. Moreover, the sheer quantity of data collected in UK RED, combined with its diversity, is eventually intended to highlight key patterns in the history of reading over the longue durée.


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