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Some Models

Many historians have used Jürgen Habermas's (1929–) model of the "public sphere" to explain the dissemination of ideas among eighteenth-century readers. The vast body of research on this subject has been synthesized by James Van Horn Melton in The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment Europe. The general assumption behind these studies is that only Western societies with mature printing industries could develop true public spheres, but C. A. Bayly questions that. In Empire and Information, Bayly argues that eighteenth-century North India nurtured what he calls an ecumene, similar to what Habermas observed in Europe, except that it arose in a preprint culture. Relying on circulated manuscripts and oral performances, Indian readers were able to follow and participate in public debates about politics, religion, law, society, literature, history, and aesthetics.

In addition to borrowing historical models, historians of reading have invented some of their own. In 1974 Rolf Engelsing argued that a "reading revolution" (Leserevolution) swept through the North Atlantic world around 1800. This involved a threefold shift: from reading aloud to private reading, from predominantly religious reading to predominantly secular reading, and from "intensive reading" (close and repeated study of a few canonical texts, such as the Bible or Pilgrim's Progress) to "extensive reading" (rapid and continuous consumption of a large intake of ephemeral texts, mainly newspapers, magazines, and novels).

Engelsing's hypothesis is still widely debated. Though the shift to private reading clearly did take place, it has come to appear much more drawn out than he suggested. Cecile Jagodzinski contends that in England reading became more private during (and as a result of) the religious conflicts of the seventeenth century, and reading aloud was still common in working-class households as late as 1900. Nevertheless, it may be that the "reading revolution" may be treated as researchers have learned to treat the Industrial Revolution: as a rough generalization about a ragged and uneven process, a concept that has some usefulness as long as it is borne in mind that reading habits (like industrialization) evolved along different paths in different societies.

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