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History of reading tutorial 3: Famous writers and their reading - Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Vernon Lee
History of reading tutorial 3: Famous writers and their reading - Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Vernon Lee

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4 Conclusion

Writing is a reflexive business, and before they ever put pen to paper, writers are themselves, readers. Studying the recorded evidence of a famous writer’s reading can offer us wonderful insights into his or her intellectual development through time. By gathering together responses to reading, we can begin to piece together the pathways of both influence and resistance through the act of reading. We can find out how an author was influenced by reading a particular book over a period of time, tracing the changing nature of their responses through their notes, correspondence, and marginalia. We can also map out where certain authors, books, or ideas were resisted, even after being read: reading and commenting on a book may sometimes obviate or even prevent a particular borrowing or influence from appearing in a published work. Examining the reading of writers allows us to illuminate the chain of sequences in literary composition from reading to publication. And more than anything else, we can begin to flesh out the intellectual universe of a specific writer, and the wider cultural concerns of a period, by scrutinising their reading.

The burgeoning number of recent publications on famous writers and public figures as readers, from Alan Bennett’s fictionalisation of Queen Elizabeth II’s reading in The Uncommon Reader, to James Carley’s excavation of royal marginalia in The Books of King Henry VIII and His Wives, and from Robert DeMaria’s study Samuel Johnson and the Life of Reading to Thomas Wright’s examination of Oscar Wilde’s reading (including in Reading Gaol), Oscar’s Books, tangibly demonstrates the value of records of reading in literary criticism, biography and life writing: invariably, we are what we read. Reading after all, is not a singular activity, but rather a complex series of negotiations and interpretations between reader and text: our views of a book can change with time.

The changing recorded responses of British writers’ to their reading, as increasingly catalogued in UK RED, offers us an alternative way of mapping the ‘Great Tradition’: not simply through the influence explicitly visible through authors’ published writings, but also in the private and often unpublished (and uncompromised) responses in letters, commonplace books, and marginalia. This is a process that is far from complete, and UK RED welcomes volunteers wishing to work on the reading of a particular writer. Perhaps the evidence of your favourite British writer’s reading has not yet been published, researched exhaustively, and entered into UK RED. If that is the case, we would like to hear from you.

You can find information on contributing to the project, and our simple online contribution form, here. [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]