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How Historians Study Reading

How can the historian recover something so private, so evanescent as the inner experience of the reader? Darnton conceded that documentary evidence was hard to come by, but he did not consider the problem insurmountable. In fact, since 1986 innovative historians of reading have located and used a broad range of primary sources, including memoirs, diaries, personal correspondence, library borrowing registers, wills (which often list books owned), booksellers' ledgers, reports filed by book peddlers and salesmen, minutes kept by literary societies, authors' fan mail, oral interviews, sociological surveys, marginalia, and iconography (the portrayal of readers in medieval manuscripts can be remarkably illuminating). Especially for the nineteenth century, when many newspapers were largely reader-written, one can look to published letters to the editor (and, more revealing, letters that were never published). Exceptionally valuable are the records of inquisitors and secret policemen, who obligingly asked precisely the questions that intellectual historians want to ask—questions about how individuals select, obtain, interpret, share, and discuss books. In The Cheese and the Worms, Carlo Ginzburg used the proceedings of the Inquisition to investigate the reading habits of Mennochio, a sixteenth-century Italian miller.

Mennochio was a strikingly idiosyncratic reader. Somehow he acquired a vernacular Bible, Giovanni Boccaccio's (1313–1375) Decameron, travel books, and perhaps the Koran. From these texts he drew highly independent conclusions about metaphysics, religion, the origins of the universe, social equality, and the economic basis of the Catholic Church. This is what Roger Chartier has called appropriation: the tendency of readers to interpret and adapt texts to serve their own interests and uses. Other historians of reading, along similar lines, make use of Erving Goffman's "frame analysis," where a frame is defined as a set of interpretive ground rules adopted by the reader. Either approach recognizes reading as a creative act rather than the passive absorption of the author's intended message. Thus the general thrust of the historiography of reading has been very different from Frankfurt School, Marxist, semiotic, and feminist criticism, which tended to treat the common reader as the passive victim of mass culture, capitalism, or patriarchal discourses.

Historians of reading inevitably take into account the influence of race, class, and gender, but often with unexpected results. Female readers are more likely than male readers to choose and identify with female authors: that appears to be a broad tendency, which cuts across time and culture. But beyond that, most recent studies have revealed that men and women read less differently than many researchers imagined. In Victorian Britain prison inmates devoured sentimental fiction, while Kate Flint found middle-class women who were tackling philosophy, politics, and the hard sciences. In the fan letters received by middlebrow Canadian novelists, Clarence Karr discovered that men as well as women were moved to tears, and women as well as men were inspired to rational critical analysis. After a generation of critics dismissed the traditional literary canon as elitist, Jonathan Rose revealed a large and passionate audience for the classics among the British working classes, and Elizabeth McHenry recovered a tradition of African-American literary clubs that discussed established white authors as well as new black authors. Priya Joshi found that readers in colonial India enthusiastically embraced the English novel, though the novel as a genre was not indigenous to the subcontinent. This was not a matter of the colonized slavishly mimicking the colonizer: Indian readers selectively read novelists that resonated with them, including some (notably G. W. M. Reynolds) that metropolitan critics considered hopelessly trashy.

Some historians of reading, such as Carlo Ginzburg, intensively study the experiences of a single reader. Others reconstruct the literary life of entire communities, as Christine Pawley did for Osage, Iowa, in the 1890s, or as William J. Gilmore did for a corner of rural Vermont in the early American republic. Still others show how print communicates the information needed to negotiate urban life (see David M. Henkin's City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York and Peter Fritzsche's Reading Berlin 1900). Historians of literacy once merely measured whether people could read; more recently David Vincent has explored the actual uses of reading skills in nineteenth-century England. Ronald Zboray explained how reading habits in antebellum America were transformed by a vibrant market economy, which called into existence new methods of printing, illumination, transportation, marketing, book distribution, and literacy education. On the other hand, Stephen Lovell has described the very different impact of a command economy on reading choices in the Soviet Union, explaining why it created an extraordinary demand for classic literature.

"Reception histories" track the critical responses to individual texts or authors, a method particularly useful for historians of ideas. James Secord's Victorian Sensation treated the controversy surrounding Robert Chambers's Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, a popular precursor of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. John Rodden reconstructed the intellectual history of the Cold War through responses to George Orwell, showing how liberals, conservatives, neoconservatives, Marxists, social democrats, anarchists, New Leftists, Jews, Catholics, Germans, and Russians variously appropriated his work.

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