Secret Reading Lives, Revealed
Illustration by Stephen Doyle for The Chronicle
Books reveal themselves. Whether they exist as print or pixels, they can be read and examined and made to spill their secrets. Readers are far more elusive. They leave traces—a note in the margin, a stain on the binding—but those hints of human handling tell us only so much. The experience of reading vanishes with the reader.
How do we recover the reading experiences of the past? Lately scholars have stepped up the hunt for evidence of how people over time have interacted with books, newspapers, and other printed material.
"You're looking for teardrops on the page," says Leah Price, a professor of English at Harvard University and the author of How to Do Things With Books in Victorian Britain (Princeton University Press, 2012). "You're looking for some hard evidence of what the book did to its reader"—and what the reader did with the book.
Price's work perches at the leading edge of a growing body of investigations into the history of reading. The field draws from many others, including book history and bibliography, literary criticism and social history, and communication studies. It looks backward to the pre-Gutenberg era, back to the clay tablets and scrolls of ancient civilizations, and forward to current debates about how technology is changing the way we read. Although much of the relevant research has centered on Anglo-American culture of the last three or four centuries, the field has expanded its purview, as scholars uncover the hidden reading histories of cultures many used to dismiss as mostly oral.
It's a tricky business. A bibliographer works with hard physical evidence—a manuscript, a printed book, a copy of the Times of London. A scholar seeking to pin down the readers of the past often has to read between the lines. Marginalia can be a gold mine of information about a book's owners and readers, but it's rare. "Most of the time, most readers historically didn't, and still don't, write in their books," Price explains.
But even a book's apparent lack of use can be read as evidence. "The John F. Kennedy Library here in Boston owns a copy of Ulysses whose pages—other than a few at the very beginning and very end—are completely uncut,” she says. “This tells us something about the owner of the copy—who happens to be Ernest Hemingway."
"The history of reading," Price says, "really has to encompass the history of not reading."
Anyone who has ever displayed a trophy volume on the coffee table knows that people do many things with books besides read them. A book can be deployed as a sign of intellectual standing or aspiration. It can be used to erect a social barrier between spouses at a breakfast table or strangers on a train. It can be taken apart and recycled or turned into art. Price's recent work recreates Victorians' many extratextual uses of books.
Earlier work involving reader-reception theory and book history helped point the way toward current investigations of readers and reading. In 1984, a prominent literary critic and cultural-studies professor, Janice Radway, published a groundbreaking study, Reading the Romance, which investigated how reading genre novels helped a group of contemporary women in the Midwest cope with the demands and strictures of their lives. Radway, a professor of communication studies at Northwestern University, went on to write A Feeling for Books, about the Book-of-the-Month Club and middle-class literary sensibilities, and co-wrote a volume of a multipart history of the book in America.
Since Reading the Romance, the ethnography of reading has taken off among scholars. Radway points to Forgotten Readers, Elizabeth McHenry's study of African-American literary societies, Ellen Gruber Garvey's Writing With Scissors, about scrapbooking, and David Henkin's City Reading, about signage in the urban environment, as strong examples. "People have become very creative about trying to figure out how groups of readers interact with the text as it's embodied in various forms," she says.
Historians of the book have had a substantial influence on the development of the history of reading. For instance, in 1996, Robert Darnton, a historian of 18th-century France, published The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, in which he argued that surreptitious reading of banned books helped set off the powder keg of the French Revolution. Darnton, now the director of libraries at Harvard University, has published a number of other influential works on publishing history and the uses of books.
In 2001, Jonathan Rose, a professor of history at Drew University, upended assumptions about what nonelite Britons did and didn't read in The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. Rose, who co-founded the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing, is now at work on a study of Winston Churchill's reading, how it shaped him, and how reading Churchill in turn influenced younger politicians, including John F. Kennedy.
Scholars have also been moving the history of reading beyond the Anglo-American context. In 2003, Isabel Hofmeyr, a professor of African literature at the University of Witwatersrand, in South Africa, published The Portable Bunyan, which examined Pilgrim's Progress as a "transnational book" that found readers around the world, including in sub-Saharan Africa. This year Archie L. Dick, a professor of information science at the University of Pretoria, published The Hidden History of South Africa's Book and Reading Cultures (University of Toronto Press).
While the history of the book is well established, the history of reading has really come together in the last two decades, according to Shafquat Tow­heed, a lecturer in English at the Open University in Britain and director of the Reading Experience Database, or RED. "We're beginning to get students studying it as an option at the graduate level and the undergraduate level," Towheed says.
The existence of online resources such as RED has helped push the field along. The brainchild of Simon Eliot, another influential figure in the history of reading, RED dates back to the 1990s but was revamped as an online resource in 2006.
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"The Travelling Companions," by Augustus Leopold Egg (1862)
Its scholarly team has trawled libraries and archives for mentions of reading recorded in published works and in manuscript materials. The database draws on letters, diaries, commonplace books, published accounts such as biographies and memoirs, and less obvious resources such as prison and court records. The researchers have asked authors' societies for help in finding references to specific writers. Since the database moved online, they've thrown it open to crowdsourcing, asking volunteers to contribute records, too.
The open-access database collects accounts of British reading experiences from 1450 to 1945, and has gathered about 31,000 records so far. "British" includes anyone born or living in Britain during that period. Users can search by keyword, reader, or author. Each entry gives the date of the reading experience, as closely as it can be pinpointed; where it took place (in London, in a house, etc.); who was reading (age, gender, occupation, and so forth); what they were reading; whether they were alone or in company.
One especially rich source has been the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, London's central criminal court, whose records from 1674 to 1913 have recently been put online. Another important source is Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, an epic multivolume account published by the journalist in 1851 based on his investigations into how the city's working and poorer classes lived.
Roaming through such material brings the experiences of past readers alive. In a Reading Experience Database-related essay on "Reading Culture in the Victorian Underworld," Rosalind Crone, a lecturer in history at the Open University, recounts a couple of anecdotes from Mayhew's forays among less fortunate Londoners: "The crippled penny mousetrap maker, 'for an hour's light reading,' turned to Milton's Paradise Lost and Shakespeare's plays. And a sweet-stuff maker bought unwanted printed paper to wrap his wares from the stationers or at the old bookshops—as he read the text before he used the paper, 'in this way he had read through two Histories of England.'"
The largest amount of data in RED comes from the 19th century, an era richly represented in writings and archives. The archive is pushing beyond that period, though, as well as "internationalizing," Towheed says. RED projects have been established in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the Netherlands.
Edmund King, a research associate with the project, oversees the daily operations of the database. He joined RED in 2010 to hunt down references to World War I reading—a RED research priority, with the centennial of the conflict almost upon us.
"I've had quite a broad remit to go to various archives and libraries in Britain and basically read through letters and diaries and see what I can find," King says. He's amassed some 2,000 World War I records so far, which have already produced glimpses of reading in the trenches. Contrary to some stereotypes from the 1920s and 1930s suggesting that soldiers at the front were reading propaganda or jingoistic tracts, King says, "My sense of reading soldiers' diaries is that they were looking for something escapist, a reminder of home."
Families would send hometown papers to the boys in uniform. "Reading local newspapers was extraordinarily popular," he says. So was fiction that reminded them of childhood and let them escape, if only into the pages of a book. "Teenage adventure fiction becomes a big part of their lives."
Katie Halsey, now a lecturer in 18th-century English at the University of Stirling, also worked as a research fellow on the RED project. That stint led to a book, Jane Austen and Her Readers, 1786-1945 (Anthem Press), published this year.
Halsey wrote her dissertation on Austen. "I wanted to find information on her readers, and it had been incredibly difficult to do," she says. Before RED, "there was just nowhere to start."
"Nobody had been interested in that kind of thing," she says, "possibly because it was just so difficult to do" or because academe hasn't always cared what ordinary people said about books.
During Halsey's time at RED, a colleague gave her a tip about a Quaker reading group in Reading that had been meeting since the 1890s. "The fantastic thing about it was that they had kept written records of every meeting," Halsey says.
Studying the responses of Jane Austen's readers over 200 years confirmed what Halsey had suspected: "Janeites" tended to feel a great personal affinity for the author and "to build communities around her." The Quaker reading group did a dramatic reading of Austen the first time they read her, Halsey reports, and returned to her work over the decades.
RED's emphasis on recovering the experience of general readers has a lot to do with Simon Eliot, a professor of the history of the book at the University of London's School of Advanced Study. Eliot says he got the idea for RED 20 years ago in a car park in Coventry. He'd been to a conference on reading where most of the papers trained attention on a single, notable reader, he says. "I was worried that too much of our work was based on these rather anomalous, rather extraordinary, and therefore unreliable cases."
For every Pepys or Johnson or Woolf there were thousands of people just ... reading. Where were they? Eliot wanted to know more about what he calls "the reader on the Clapham omnibus." What, where, and how did the average Joe, however defined, actually read?
Of special interest were commonplace books, Eliot says, referring to the miscellanies or scrapbooks people often kept to help them remember intriguing or useful tidbits they'd read. Commonplace books were especially popular in the days when paper was still scarce and expensive, before a mid-19th-century revolution in papermaking technology caused manufacturers to switch to cheaper, readily available wood pulp. "Sometimes people just copied out huge chunks of a novel, because they couldn't afford to buy it," Eliot says.
The scholars involved with RED didn't want just lists of reading matter. "It wasn't enough to record a reading experience. We wanted to know where it took place," Eliot says. So they took pains to make sure the database record forms could capture other kinds of descriptive information about the reading experience. Did a reader's encounter with a book or newspaper happen in daylight or by candlelight? Was the book read out loud or in solitude? On the move or in bed? Eliot talks about a kind of punctuated reading dictated by stagecoach travel, in which a reader jolted along rough 18th- or 19th-century roads might snatch a few minutes with a book at inns whenever the coach stopped to change horses, kind of like how travelers now might read in the airport lounge before boarding.
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Soldiers in World War I, like these Australians in 1917, read hometown newspapers and adventure stories.
Today's readers, at least in the West, tend not to fret about having something to read and light enough to read by, "because books are so cheap and light is so cheap," Eliot says. British readers of earlier eras were not so lucky. Unless they could afford oil lamps or beeswax candles, they had to deal with messy, smelly candles made from tallow. Those imperfect sources of light required frequent trimming and were a fire hazard. Under such circumstances, "reading has to be choreographed," Eliot says. "You have to stop and trim" the wick as well as avoid setting yourself on fire.
British newspapers have turned out to be sources of valuable information about reading circumstances and how they could turn deadly. "One account in the Times describes a woman in her bedroom, dressed for bed, reading a play, and the candle caught her hair, and she was found severely burned," Eliot says. "In fact it was suggested she wouldn't survive the day."
The play text found by the woman's chair was popular, budget-friendly reading material at the time: a kind of 19th-century proto-paperback, marketed to the reading masses long before Penguin came along. "They were usually 20 to 30 pages long," he says. "They were paper-covered. They would sell for sixpence, often as cheap as a penny or twopence."
Accounts of crimes sometimes include revealing details. For instance, Eliot mentions descriptions of pickpockets benefiting from the distraction of people "clustering around the latest poster" for a theatrical event. Such accounts, along with photographs and illustrations of Victorian cityscapes, and novels—Dickens describes paper blowing through the city—bring everyday experience back to life. "People in the 19th century are walking in a forest of print," he says.
That kind of "ephemeral reading" is exactly what people don't record in their diaries or commonplace books or in letters to friends. "Even if you're writing a quiet, secret diary, are you going to reveal that you spend time reading cornflake packets?" Eliot asks. "My guess is not."
One of the most vexing and intriguing aspects of studying the history of reading is how to recover acts and responses that were never deliberately recorded in the first place.
As a literary scholar, Leah Price is in the business of interpreting texts. In her latest book, How to Do Things With Books in Victorian Britain, Price cares not just about the content of books but how Victorians used them to create or control social relations. Books "can be used both as a bridge between people and as a wedge between people," she says. She turned to Victorian novels and stories to unearth evidence of how Victorians used books to woo and to repel. She also consulted nonfiction sources, including comportment guides, newspapers and magazines, and Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor.
Price sketches out a broad, shifting range of uses for books that go beyond just reading. Because paper was expensive and therefore precious in early 19th-century Britain, people reused and recycled it. Books might be unbound and their pages used to make dress patterns, line trunks, or wrap pies. What began as text might end up as toilet paper. As a result, Price says, "even people who are illiterate for reasons of rank or sex still have a very sophisticated, fine-grained taxonomy of paper." Mayhew reports, for instance, that food vendors preferred certain newspapers because of the absorbent or repellent characteristics of the newsprint.
As texts circulated, they triggered class and social anxieties. An upper-class employer might worry that if she touched a book her maid had touched, she'd be sullied by the implied contact. "There have to be as many intermediaries between the master's body and the servant's body" as possible, Price explains. Think of the ritual of delivering letters on a tray.
After 1850, the rise of public libraries brought readers of different classes into closer contact. It set off debates about what reading matter was suitable for the public, Price says. Some libraries blacked out the racing pages of newspapers so as not to promote gambling, for example.
Victorians also worried about books as vectors of disease—"that question of where has that library book been," Price says. Proposals circulated for book-disinfecting machines to be installed at libraries. "It was mainly, if you pardon the pun, vaporware," she says. "But there were a lot of prototypes designed."
Easier access to reading material created other class-related strains, too, though not the ones Price expected. "I had expected, going into the project, that middle-class gentlemen would be worrying about their servants getting their hands on political tracts," she says. She discovered they were more concerned about time theft. Hours spent reading, even something like the Bible, were hours not spent dusting or doing other chores. Conduct books for women and girls, too, warned their readers against letting books distract from caretaking duties.
Sometimes employers inflicted unwelcome reading matter on their servants. A mistress might press a religious tract on her maid. "These are offers that you can't refuse," Price says. "One of the things that surprised me about the kinds of human relationships that are brokered by books in this period is that you see a pretty dramatic shift from the beginning of the 19th century." Early on, there was the sense that books were a precious commodity. By century's end, she says, there's a feeling "that books are something foisted or forced on inferiors by their social superiors."
Texts might be invitations to unwelcome contact, or markers used to define household boundaries. In romantic relationships, books played the part of matchmakers or match-breakers. "On the one hand, you have the book being used in courtship—a gentleman giving a copy to a lady that he's picked out for her, perhaps with certain passages underlined for her particular attention," Price says. "But on the other hand, you have the book as a wedge—the husband and wife who are ignoring each other at the breakfast table," one buried in her novel, the other in his newspaper.
In Anthony Trollope's novel The Small House at Allington, Price finds an especially harsh example of domestic distancing. Badly matched honeymooners, riding together in a railway carriage, feel more warmly about their reading material than they do about each other.
Trollope describes the scene: "He longed for his Times, but resolved at last, that he would not read unless she read first. She also had remembered her novel; but by nature she was more patient than he, and she thought that on such a journey any reading might perhaps be almost improper."
Victorians used texts to keep each other at arm's length in nonromantic spheres, too. With the spread of public transportation, "the newspaper grows up with the commuter rail as a way of avoiding eye contact," Price says. Like modern subway or bus riders losing themselves in their iPhones, 19th-century commuters could virtually escape the madding crowd by putting up a wall of paper between other people and themselves. "The Victorians were using books very much the way we use smartphones," as a kind of "Do Not Disturb" sign, Price says.
As the century wore on, paper itself became something to escape. "If someone is standing on the street corner handing out religious pamphlets, you don't want to take it," whereas in earlier decades you might have welcomed any free scrap of paper, Price says. She points out that, along with the shift from rag-based to wood-based papermaking, changes in the British tax system made paper much cheaper. That in turn made it more economical for publishers of books, newspapers, and pamphlets to print and sell their wares.
Reforms in the mail system midcentury also made it cheaper to distribute the new abundance of paper. The postal reformers "wanted to democratize knowledge," she says. But they "didn't foresee that this wonderful new postal system would be used primarily to distribute catalogs" and other ephemera. As Price says, the Victorians "really invented what we now call spam."
Echoes of Victorians' shifting attitudes toward text carry over into this era of digital reading. The 19th century had its cheap paper; we have ever more electronic content. As it did with the Victorians, abundance changes how we as a culture treat the physical book. For every bibliophile who worships the physical codex as an objet d'art, there's someone waiting to turn it to novel or irreverent purposes. Price points to the whimsical repurposings that turn up on sites like Etsy, as craftspeople turn books into purses and other objects with little connection to reading.
"There's such an increasing awareness today of nontextual uses of books," she says. "Now that the textual meaning of books is migrating online, all that's left is an empty shell."
Then as now, devaluing the object sometimes creates more emphasis on content. "Going back to the 19th century makes you realize that a phenomenon we tend to blame on digitization actually happened a century earlier," Price says. "Once you can throw it away, the value of books comes to reside in the words they contain rather than their potential for reuse."
Correction (12/18/2012, 11:11 a.m.): This article originally quoted Price as saying that Herman Melville owned a copy of The Natural History of the Sperm Whale that was pristine, indicating he had not read it. After the article was published, Price learned that the book had in fact been heavily annotated by Melville, and asked that The Chronicle replace her original example with the example of Hemingway’s copy of Ulysses. The article has been updated to add that example.

Jennifer Howard is a senior reporter for The Chronicle.