¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Scholars working on areas of material culture studies such as the history of the book, as well as those literary critics focused on reader reception, have long included among their interests this social network and its effects on both the dissemination and the reception of texts.1 On the one hand, as Leah Price notes in a review essay exploring the vast number of approaches to the study of reading as a cultural activity, some scholars trace an historical trajectory from “the open spaces of antiquity (gardens, porticoes, squares, streets) to the closed sites of the Middle Ages (churches, monks’ cells, refectories, courts),” while also noting that the act of reading itself in fact “carved out privacy within communal institutions such as the coffee shop, the public library, and the railway carriage” (309-10), both trends suggesting an increasing privatization of the act of reading. However, Price also notes that even at its most solitary, reading has always had communal aspects. These social aspects of reading have been explored by scholars ranging from Robert Darnton, who in his essay “What Is the History of Books” focuses on books’ circulation as a manifestation of a “communications circuit,” to Elizabeth Long, whose “Textual Interpretation as Collective Action” argues that, in Price’s words, “readers need others to set an example, to provide a sounding board for reactions to texts, to recommend and criticize and exchange books” (306), to, of course, Stanley Fish, who has argued most famously for the role of “interpretive communities” in shaping readers’ potential responses to texts.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Texts have thus never really operated in isolation from their readers, and readers have never been fully isolated from one another, but different kinds of textual structures have given rise to and interacted within different kinds of communications circuits. Newspapers and pamphlets, as most famously studied by Jurgen Habermas and Benedict Anderson, developed their influence in close concert with the rise of coffee house culture, in which the events and polemics of the day were discussed and debated, giving rise not simply to a Habermasian sense of the “public sphere,” but to a sense of the public inhabiting that sphere, the “imagined community” of the nation.2 Books, similarly, moved within a set of social and communal structures that greatly affected their reception and comprehension, including libraries and reading groups, which not only assisted readers in the selection of texts but also provided space for their discussion. That said, the technology of the book, and the literate public with which it interacted, produced a general trend toward individualizing the reader, shifting the predominant mode of reading from a communal reading-aloud to a more isolated, silent mode of consumption.3
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 It is this isolated mode of reading that overwhelmingly dominates our understanding of book-reading today, and particularly the form of reading done by scholars. The library model of textual circulation, once understood to be a communal enterprise, now comes to seem profoundly individualistic: books are checked out and read by one person at a time, in retreat from interaction with the world. Indeed, when we imagine scholarly interactions with the bulk of printed texts today, particularly within the humanities, the primary images that arise are of isolation: individual scholars hunched over separately bound texts, each working individually, whether in their separate offices or even collectively, in the silent reading rooms of the major research libraries. Scholars of course need to read and reflect in relative silence and retreat, in order to understand and process the texts with which they work, as well as to produce more texts from those understandings. But the isolated aspect of this mode of reading has come to dominate our sense of the practice of reading as a whole, and in so doing the scholar has come to partake of the myth of individual genius, in which the great man produces noble ideas wholly from his own intellectual resources.4 As Walter Ong has suggested,
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Writing is a solipsistic operation. I am writing a book which I hope will be read by hundreds of thousands of people, so I must be isolated from everyone. While writing the present book, I have left word that I am ‘out’ for hours and days — so that no one, including persons who will presumably read the book, can interrupt my solitude. (100)
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 What such an understanding of the operation of scholarship ignores, of course, is the ways that the communal lingers in the circuit, if only in submerged ways; the scholar alone in his or her office with a book is never wholly alone, but is always in conversation with that book’s author. Similarly, the products of this scholar’s readings are likewise intended to contribute to an ongoing conversation with the other thinkers in the field. This conversation takes place at an often glacial pace, as years elapse between thought and utterance, in the form of the book’s publication, and between utterance and response, in the form of reviews of or responses to that book, but it is a conversation nonetheless.
- ¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0
- What follows is a series of wholly inadequate attempts to summarize a vast field of work, in the service of a particular point about the social networks involved in reading; please see some of the sources cited for more thorough, and no doubt more accurate, explorations of their arguments. ↩
- See Anderson and Habermas. There are certain obvious criticisms to be leveled at both theorists, most notably that the public sphere that they describe somewhat overstates its universality, given that only those admitted to the coffee houses — white men of a certain economic standing — were able to become part of that public. It is nonetheless key that the technologies of reading played a crucial role in developing that public’s sense, however faulty, of itself. ↩
- See, in addition to Price as cited earlier, Darnton: “Reading itself has changed over time. It was often done aloud and in groups, or in secret and with an intensity we may not be able to imagine today” (78). ↩
- See Carla Hesse, who in “Books in Time” ties the individualism associated with the book and its author not to the technologies of print or the codex but rather to the philosophical and political debates of the Enlightenment, which were staked upon understanding the individual thinker as the origin of knowledge. ↩