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The Book as a Reader's Experience: The Reader

Who is the audience for books? Who chooses to pick up and read a book? Why?

readRead!
Read Rose, Jonathan (Jan-Mar 1992). Rereading the English common reader: a preface to a history of audience. Journal of the History of Ideas, 53(1), 47-70. IUPUI students can view the article online.

How are audiences and readers alike and different?

A reader is a person who reads from a book or other source. This reading may be done silently or aloud. Jennifer Howard (2012) in her article The Secret Lives of Readers states that

"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."

In The Order of Books: Readers, Authors, and Libraries in Europe Between the Fourteenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Roger Chartier 1994, (viii) has stressed that it's the reader that makes books meaningful. He states that

"works - event the greatest works, especially the greatest works - have no stable, universal, fixed meaning. They are invested with plural and mobile significations that are constructed in the encounter between a proposal and a reception. The meanings attributed to their forms and their themes depend upon the areas of competence or the expectations of the various publics that take hold of them. To be sure, the creators (or the 'powers' or the 'clerics') always aspire to pin down their meaning and proclaim the correct interpretation, the interpretation that ought to constrain reading (or viewing. But without fail reception invents, shifts about, distorts."

Readers come in all shapes, sizes, genders, and social classes. For instance, children are a specific category of reader. While they may have read books designed for adults, depending on the time period they would also be reading books geared to them as an audience.

readRead!
Read McDowell, Kathleen (2009). Toward a history of children as readers, 1890-1930. Book History, 12, 240-265. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Homemakers of the late nineteenth century is another specific category of reader. Domestic guidebooks are a category of book often aimed at this group.

try itTry It!
Explore The Making of a Homemaker. Spend some time exploring the collection of books a home maker might be reading during the late nineteenth century.

Think about another very specific category of reader and the books designed for this audience. Create a collection of books from this period that might have been read by this type of reader. Justify your conclusions. What kinds of primary source materials could help support your conclusions? Can you find any evidence that these readers actually read these books.

Reading Preferences

While some people prefer to read comics and novels, others prefer works of subject area books or reference materials. Readers may have preferences for particular format such as books or magazines, genre such as fiction or nonfiction, subjects such as romance or crime, and authors such as Stephen King or Mark Twain.

Some books are geared for particular reading preferences. For instance, women are more likely to choose to read mystery and romance titles, while men more frequently select adventure novels. Age is also a factor in book selection.

Reading format is another consideration. For instance, some people prefer reading on paper while others prefer an electronic screen.

readRead!
Read Revelle, Andy, Messner, Kevin, Shrimplin, Aaron & Hurst, Susan (September 2012). Book lovers, technophiles, pragmatists, and printers: the social and demographic structure of user attitudes toward e-books. College & Research Libraries, 73(5), 420-429.

What kind of e-book reader are you?

Psychology and Readers

Bibliopsychology is the study of the relationship among authors, books, and their readers. Nicholas Rubakin (1862-1946) coined the term and directed the International Institute of Bibliopsychology founded in 1916. According to the Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science (1969), readers can be classified into types and this classification be used by the readers' advisor to match books and readers. A catalog using bibliopsychological principles classifies a book by subject, psychological type, and the demands the book places on the reader. Little work has been done in the area since the 1960s.

Bibliotherapy is the use of books as part of the planned treatment for mental illness. Having been used successfully to treat depression, it is commonly used as a therapy with children. The idea that reading books can have psychological and spiritual value dates back to the ancient Greeks. The approach has been used in the United States throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

Bibliotherapy involves a number of stages. Patients are encouraged to connect and identify with a specific character in a book. This connection should lead to a psychological catharsis. Finally, the patient gains personal insights by creating a rational connection between the book character's experience and their own experience. While the technique has been found to be useful in some situations, much more research is needed in the area.

Uses for Books

book wheelEach user decides how a book will best be used. Active readers may read many books at once as show in the Renaissance image from Agostine Ramelli. Like a Ferris wheel, the device allows a reader to enjoy books without lifting or moving them individually.

The book wheel image on the right is from The Various and Ingeniou Machines of Agostino Ramelli (1588).

William H. Sherman (2008) notes that the term "reading" doesn't adequately describe all of the uses of books by their holders. Howard (2012) states that

"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."

Leah Price (2012) in her book How to Do Things With Books in Victorian Britain described many uses for books that go beyond reading. People used book pages to line trunks, wrap pies and fish, make dress patterns, and even as toilet paper.

readRead!
Read Davidson, Cathy N. (March 1988). Towards a history of books and readers. American Quarterly, 40(1), 7-17. IUPUI students can view the article online.

This article provides an introduction to an American Quarterly issue devoted to "Reading America". Davidson attempts to place reading and readers in the context of the study of book history as well as introduce some key questions.

Book collectors aren't necessarily readers of books. They may collect books for many reasons. In "Furnished" for action: Renaissance books as furniture by Todd Jeffrey Knight (2009, 41), Knight notes that it's possible to separate

"books as information... from books as objects or things. By privileging the former through models of Renaissance reading that emphasize content over form, intelligibility over sensibility, the mental over the physical experience of owning and handling texts, recent work on the history of the book has left largely unexplored the forms of use that might lie outside, or before, these modern binaries."

To learn more about this idea of categories of book use, skim Knight's article. IUPUI students can view the article online.

The Study of Reading

doreBecause reading is a cognitive activity, it's difficult to study. Trying to understand readers of the past is even more difficult. In trying to explain the difficulty in trying to study the history of reading, Price (2004) quotes William James who provides a dog's eye-view of a human's preoccupation with reading.

"What queer disease is this that comes over you every day, of holding things and staring at them for hours together, paralyzed of motion and vacant of all conscious life?"

Although interviews, surveys, reading logs, and even brain scans to help understand a reader's experience, it's impossible to enter a reader's mind.

The image on the right by Gustave Dore is from Miguel De Cervantes' Don Quixote. The caption reads "A world of disorderly notions, picked out of his books, crowded into his imagination".

According to Cavallo, Chartier, and Cochrane (2003, 2), the study is reading involves and examination of the encounter between the world of the text and the world of the reader.

"If we are to reconstruct the process in its historical dimensions, we have to begin by considering how the meanings of texts depend on the forms and the circumstances through which they are received and appropriated by their readers or listeners... we need to hold that forms produce meanings, and that a text is invested with a new meaning and a different status with every change in the support that makes it available to reading. Any history of the practices of reading is thus necessarily a history of both written objects and the testimonies left by their readers"

readRead!
Read Price, Leah (2004). Reading: the state of the discipline. Book History, 7, 303-320. IUPUI students can view the article online.

AND

Miall, David S. (2006). Empirical approaches to studying literary readers: the state of the discipline. Book History, 9, 291-311. IUPUI students can view the article online.

This article explores the study of reading and the current status of research in this area.

Understanding Readers through Primary Sources

By analyzing personal correspondence, journals, and marginalia left by readers, book historians can gain insights into the lives of readers and the books they read. For instance, in the article In the margins: regimental history and a veteran's narrative of the first World War, Janice Cavell (2008) describes the marginalia made by a veteran in a regimental history book.

Small Books and Pleasant Histories by Margaret Spufford (1981) is an excellent example of a book that uses a range of documentary evidence to support her claim that reading was common in a wide range of classes in the 17th century. She includes documents from diaries and memoirs as well as publishing records and even popular rhymes of the time to support her hypothesis.

try itTry It!
Browse the preview of Small Books and Pleasant Histories by Margaret Spufford (1981) available at Google Preview.

Think about how primary source materials can be used to study reading and literacy through history. Select a passage from Spufford's book to support your ideas.

Currently including over 31,000 records, the online database RED: Reading Experience Database (UK RED) collects accounts of British reading experiences between 1450 and 1945. The entries explore who, read what, where, and when. The database has led to publications such as the book Jane Austen and Her Readers, 1786-1945 (2012) by Katie Halsey.

try itTry It!
Watch the short video about the project, then browse RED.
Select three examples you find particularly compelling. How are these types of databases useful in book history research?

Read!
Choose ONE of the following articles to read. Each article explores readers in a different way.

Baggs, Chris (2001). How well read was My Valley?: Reading, popular fiction, and the Miners of South Wales, 1875-1939. Book History, 4, 277-301. IUPUI students can view the article online.
Cavell, Janice (2008). In the margins: regimental history and a veteran's narrative of the first World War. Book History, 11, 199-219. IUPUI students can view the article online.
Keralis, Spencer D.C. (2010). Pictures of Charlotte: the illustrated Charlotte Temple and her readers. Book History, 13, 25-57. IUPUI students can view the article online.
Pawley, Christine (2002). Seeking "significance": actual readers, specific reading communities. Book History, 5, 143-160. IUPUI students can view the article online.
Ripp, Joseph (2005). Middle America meets Middle-Earth: American discussion and readership of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, 1965-1969. Book History, 8, 245-286. IUPUI students can view the article online.
Towsey, Mark R. M. (2008). "Patron of infidelity": Scottish readers respond to David Hume, c. 1750-c1820. Book History, 11, 89-123. IUPUI students can view the article online.

 

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