History of reading

What Was a Reading Community?

by guest contributor Edmund G. C. King

It’s just after 10 am on a dingy December morning in London as I approach Canada Water underground station. The morning rush hour crowds have receded, leaving only their wet footprints on the platform leading into the station. The outside sheet of a copy of this morning’s Metro, the free London commuter newspaper, has been pulped and trodden into the pavement near the entrance. A single word of the front-page headline is still legible: “Aleppo.” Inside, I walk down the escalators and turn right, onto the westbound Jubilee Line platform. A train arrives almost immediately. I get into the first carriage and stand inside the doors facing away from the platform. To my left there are twelve people sitting, facing each other in two rows of six. Exactly half of them are reading. A woman scrolls through her Facebook newsfeed on an Android phone. A couple in their 30s read copies of The Metro. Opposite them, an older man is skimming an article in the personal finance section of a tabloid newspaper headlined “The Hell of Middle Age.” Two women sit opposite each other, each absorbed in a book. One is reading management theory. The other has a thick, tattered pop-psychology paperback with subsections headed in bold and diagrams illustrating interpersonal relationships. Next to them, a woman sits, headphones on, reading a Spanish novella. No one in the carriage acknowledges the existence of anyone else, not even the couple with their matching copies of The Metro. Each reading surface has become what Erving Goffman calls an “involvement shield,” a way of demarcating personal space and signalling social “non-accessibility” in a shared environment. Seats free up at Southwark. I take one, pull out my iPhone, put my headphones on, load up Spotify and a cached copy of a Jacobin article, and prepare to immerse myself in my own media cocoon.

For the past year, I have been Co-Investigator on an AHRC-funded project, “Reading Communities: Connecting the Past and the Present.” The purpose of the Reading Communities project was to reach out to contemporary reading groups in the United Kingdom and encourage them to engage with the historical accounts of reading in the Reading Experience Database. But the experience of working on a project like this has also changed my own academic practice as an historian of reading. I find myself paying more attention to the everyday scenes of reading unfolding around me than I might have done otherwise, looking for the elusive connections between reading practices and reading communities in the past and the present. Of course, a random collection of readers in a London tube carriage does not in itself constitute a “reading community.” We, in our Jubilee Line media cocoons, might all be using books and other forms of reading material in avoidant ways, as coping mechanisms to deal with the intensities and demands of occupying shared spaces in a large city. Some of us may even be consuming the very same text—this morning’s Metro—simultaneously. These acts of textual consumption form part of our social imaginary; they are props for performing our roles as commuters and as Londoners. But simultaneity and a shared habitus are not sufficient in themselves to bind us together into a specific reading community. For a reading community to exist, the act of reading must be in some basic way shared. Readers need to interact with each other or at least identify as members of the same reading collective. The basic building blocks of a community are, as DeNel Rehberg Sedo observes, a set of enduring and reciprocal social relationships. Reading communities are collectives where those relationships are mediated by the consumption of texts. But how can we define the social function of reading communities more precisely? What relationship do they have with other communities and social formations beyond the realm of text? What can examples taken from historically distant reading cultures tell us about the social uses of shared reading experiences?

In Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire, William A. Johnson interrogates ancient sources for what they can reveal about reading and writing practices in elite Roman communities. The scenes of reading preserved in ancient sources provide detailed glimpses into the place of shared reading and literary performance in daily life. In Epistle 27, Pliny describes the daily routine of Titus Vestricius Spurinna, a 78-year-old retired senator and consul:

The early morning he passes on his couch; at eight he calls for his slippers, and walks three miles, exercising mind and body together. On his return, if he has any friends in the house with him, he gets upon some entertaining and interesting topic of conversation; if by himself, some book is read to him, sometimes when visitors are there even, if agreeable to the company. Then he has a rest, and after that either takes up a book or resumes his conversation in preference to reading.

In the afternoon, after he has bathed, Spurinna has “some light and entertaining author read to him,” a ritual house guests are invited to share. At dinner, guests are entertained with another group reading, “the recital of some dramatic piece,” as a way of “seasoning” the “pleasures” of the evening “with study.” All of this, he writes, is carried on “with so much affability and politeness that none of his guests ever finds it tedious.” For Johnson, this reveals Pliny’s belief that shared literary consumption forms a necessary part of high-status Roman identity. “Reading in this society,” he writes, “is tightly bound up in the construction of … community.” It is the glue that binds together a range of communal practices—meals, exercise, literary conversation—into one unified whole, a social solvent that simultaneously acts as an elite marker. Shared reading experiences in this milieu are a means of fostering a sense of group belonging. They are ways of performing social identity, of easing participants into their roles as hosts and house guests, clients and patrons.

Another externality that impels the formation of ancient Roman reading communities is textual scarcity. To gain access to texts in the ancient world, readers needed social connections. Literary and intellectual culture in such a textual economy will necessarily be communal, as both readers and authors depend on social relationships in order to exchange and encounter reading material. As Johnson shows, the duties of authorship in ancient Rome extended into the spheres of production and distribution. Genteel authors like Galen retained the scribes and lectors who would copy and perform their works for a wider coterie of friends and followers. This culture of scarcity in turn imprinted itself onto reading practices. In the introduction to his treatise On Theriac to Piso, Galen describes visiting Piso at home and finding him in the midst of reading a medical treatise, an act of private reading that readily segues into an extended social performance for Galen’s benefit:

I once came to your house as is my custom and found you with many of your accustomed books lying around you. For you do especially love, after the conclusion of the public duties arising from your affairs, to spend your time with the old philosophers. But on this occasion you had acquired a book about this antidote [i.e., theriac] and were reading it with pleasure; and when I was standing next to you you immediately looked on me with the eyes of friendship and greeted me courteously and then took up the reading of the book again with me for audience. And I listened because the book was thoughtfully written … And as you read … a great sense of wonder came over me and I was very grateful for our good luck, when I saw you so enthusiastic about the art. For most men just want to derive the pleasure of listening from writings on medicine: but you not only listen with pleasure to what is said, but also learn from your native intelligence …

As Johnson notes, this passage is striking precisely because of its unfamiliarity, for what it says about the gulf that separates “Galen’s culture of reading” from “our own.” Specialised texts in the Roman world were so scarce—and hence so valuable—that it was axiomatic to readers like Piso and Galen that the “good luck” of mutual textual encounter should be maximised by an act of shared reading, not simply of a small extract, but of the entire work. The result is a precisely described scene of reading that baffles us with its strangeness.  What these anecdotes indicate is not only that, as Robert Darnton puts it, “reading has a history,” but that reading communities everywhere bear the unmistakable imprints of that history.

In early Victorian London, juvenile pickpockets reacted in their own way to the externalities of textual scarcity. As Henry Mayhew records, literate gang members would read their copies of Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Calendar aloud in lodgings during the evenings to those in their networks who couldn’t read. These acts of shared reading not only fostered group identity, but enabled gang members to maximise their communal resources, to make literacy and textual possessions go further. The reading communities in early twentieth-century New Zealand that Susann Liebich has studied are similarly embedded in wider networks of friendship and group belonging. Sharing books and reading tips was, as she demonstrates, a means of “fostering connections,” a way for “readers to connect with each other and with a world beyond Timaru.” What each of these examples shows is that the social function of shared reading differs according to the needs and norms of the wider communities and cultures in which that reading community is embedded. At the same time, however, attending to these differences encourages us to consider what is distinctive about norms and practices within contemporary reading communities, helping us limn what Rob Koehler elsewhere on this blog identifies as “the intimate and complex relationships between individuals, texts, and lived experience” across time and space, within history and our own present moment.

Edmund G. C. King is a Research Fellow in English Literature in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at The Open University, UK. He works on the Reading Experience Database and is currently researching British and Commonwealth reading practices during the First World War. He is co-editor (with Shafquat Towheed) of Reading and the First World War: Readers, Texts, Archives (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

Mandatory Reading: The Novel and the College Course in the Early American Republic

by guest contributor Rob Koehler

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Daniel Tompkin’s collegiate essay. Image courtesy of the HathiTrust Digital Library.

Like a lot of college students today, Daniel Tompkins (1774-1825) spent much of his four years at the newly named Columbia College [now University] writing essays.  Foreshadowing his later political commitments as New York Governor from 1807-1817, he wrote about topical issues, pressing problems of social justice, and more abstract problems like the persistence of prejudice. Tompkins proved to be quite liberal in most of his sentiments, as in his arguments for the abolition of slavery, the end of capital punishment, and the demotion of the classical curriculum in the collegiate course.   Yet, for the purposes of this essay, Tompkins most interesting piece is “On Novels,” in which he defends fiction reading as a valuable part of an education.  Tompkins begins his essay by noting he was taught that novels were “solely for the amusement of puerile minds” but eventually came to realize that simply accepting this opinion was like being a child who “by [his] catechism [was] taught to admit principles as true without being convinced of the truth of them as [he] ought to be by [his] own reason”.  And Tompkins’ reason taught him to enjoy novels; in fact, he was willing to go so far as to relate the reading of novels to that of his own formal education at Columbia, writing:

It is further remarked, that novels have a bad tendency, by possessing a power of alluring the reader and cause him to devote his whole attention to them.  Mathematicks it is observed have the same tendency to those who have a relish for the pleasure arising from that study, yet in my humble opinion, this is not a sufficient demonstration to shew, that Mathematicks ought to be avoided.

Writing after having completed the mandatory two years of Mathematics required of Columbia students, Tompkins had the academic experience to make the comparison. It seems unlikely that most young men—who would have studied arithmetic as an effort to better their employment prospects during apprenticeship or after the work day had ended—would have shared Tompkins’ perspective on the subject and its more than practical purposes. It was his privileged position as a college student that made the comparison both sensible and useful.

In the early United States and in the Anglophone world more generally, criticism and praise of novels centered around their moral qualities and their impact on young women, not on young men.  In her magisterial study of early American novels and novel readers, Cathy Davidson focuses almost exclusively on the uses of novels as an informal—and somewhat subversive—education for young women in the dangers and possibilities of heterosociability, courtship, sexual relationships, and marriage.  A wealth of letters, diaries, and other sources back up Davidson’s claim, showing how female characters and the narrative frameworks of novels were taken up by young women to discuss their misgivings, fears, and hopes about their futures.  Yet, how did novel reading impact the intellectual lives of young men?

After all, no early American cultural pundit decried the deleterious impact of novel reading on young men or espoused his or her fear that it would lead to their seduction, ruin, and premature death.  This gap emphasizes the sexist and overtly regulatory functions of this kind of criticism of the novel, but it does not answer the question of whether young men read novels as avidly as young women, or what exactly that activity meant to them.  Some scholars—such as Bryan Waterman and Robb Haberman—have noted that, like young women, young men also used the literary language of the novel when engaging in romantic and sometimes sexually charged relationships and thus it became one mode of conducting a romance in the early Republic.

Based on Tompkins’ essay though, I suggest that the novel was also a part of the informal education of young men that became for many a lifelong interest.   The records of the New York Society Library from 1789-1792 document the reading of nineteen unmarried young men—all of them, like Tompkins, students or recent graduates of Columbia—who all checked out and read novels in addition to the history books, Latin translations, and reference books that they were likely using to accompany or supplement their courses. This cohort of young men such as John L. Norton, Samuel Jones, and James Parker showed many of the behaviors decried by critics of young women’s novel reading.  They regularly selected the newest rather than the best, they read salacious scandal fiction like Retribution or The Convent, and they read very quickly, often returning a volume of a novel the day after they checked it out.  But, they did all of this while also taking out a steady stream of works like Robertson’s History of America and Adam Ferguson’s History of the Roman Republic.  These habits show that, just like teenagers today, college students in the early Republic were multi-tasking, moving fluidly between various tasks and types of reading.

This is not to say that reading novels was not important but to say that it took place in a larger context of engagement with the printed word; for these privileged young men of the early Republic, novel reading was, as much as Mathematics, a part of a liberal education. What is perhaps most interesting is that for readers in this cohort, novel reading remained a pursuit after the end of their educational careers in a way that the reading of other types of works, many of which had been required for their educations, did not.  Because the library’s records between 1792-1797 are lost, there is a particularly jarring difference in borrowing for many of these men between their college days and their adult reading.  In their adult years, novels predominate in almost every reader’s record. While this might be evidence that a wife or child is using the account, the preponderance in so many accounts suggests that it is the men themselves.

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Governor and Vice President Daniel D. Tompkins. Image courtesy of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library.

And this returns me to Daniel Tompkins and a peculiarity in his comparison of reading novels to studying Mathematics.  Tompkins ends by commenting that “Mathematicks. . . have the same tendency to those who have a relish for the pleasure arising from that study, yet in my humble opinion, this is not a sufficient demonstration to shew, that Mathematicks ought to be avoided.” Tompkins is as much complaining about the dullness of Mathematics for most students as he is highlighting the enjoyability of reading a novel.  As the reading habits of others his age and background suggests, higher education did not generally invoke a passion in early American students to pursue learning for the love of it, instead they embraced novel reading as both educative and pleasurable. More generally, I think Tompkins’ defense of novel reading makes clear that whatever their more intimate and immediate purposes for young people during this period, novel reading often became—and still becomes for many young people—a steady habit, one that continued after  reading required for other purposes fell away. None of these men—unlike Tompkins himself who later became a Governor and then Vice President—would become particularly famous or well known in a field of endeavor in the early Republic, and most would lead lives that left little trace.  They all, however, seem to have made separate yet unquestionably linked decisions to embrace the reading of novels over other forms of improving intellectual pursuits that had formed a part of their formative education.

In an earlier post for this blog, I suggested that as scholars we have yet to consider what it would mean to develop a history of reading for pleasure instead of for purpose, or to develop a history of reading that did not place these two objectives in tension but, as these Columbia students did, instead in purposive relation.  Reading for pleasure is not an act of non-purposiveness but an act of a different purpose altogether.  The life of the mind does not solely originate in planned study and courses of reading, in the aggressively organized, disciplinary spaces of universities and learned sociability; it also develops in the intimate and complex relationships between individuals, texts, and lived experience that persist as much because of their often inexplicable enjoyability as their expressed purpose or lack thereof.

Rob Koehler is a PhD. candidate in English at New York University. He works at the intersections of education, literature, and publishing in early America, examining the political, legal, and cultural origins of schools and libraries as public institutions.

(Prison) Note(book)s Toward a History of Boredom

by guest contributor Spencer J. Weinreich

Act III, scene iii of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (c.1596) sees the imprisoned Antonio following his creditor, Shylock, through the streets, in hopes of mercy. Unmoved, Shylock expostulates, “I do wonder, / Thou naughty gaoler, that thou art so fond / To come abroad with him at his request” (III.iii.8–10).

But sixteenth-century English audiences would not have been surprised at Antonio’s freedom, for early-modern prisons “were not hermetically sealed sites of discipline; they were instead physically and socially enmeshed with the surrounding city” (Freeman, “The Rise of Prison Literature,” 135–36). Friends, relatives, and servants could come and go with relative ease. Moreover, prisoners might purchase from their jailors whatever luxuries they could afford: the Catholic printer Stephen Vallenger’s cell contained, inter alia, “a feather bed, silver and pewter spoons, money, jewelry, and a library of 101 books” (141). Texts circulated within and through prison walls—even into printing presses.

Faced with such evidence, it is understandable that the abundant recent scholarship on early-modern prisons sees these institutions as defined by contact, both personal and textual. Peter Lake and Michael C. Questier regard the prison as “the venue for the most exciting and imaginative battles” between Catholics and Protestants, whether in interrogation, proselytization, or disputation (196). Molly Murray and Thomas S. Freeman have both gone so far as to call it “a site of culture, one that ought to be considered alongside the court and the university as a place of significant textual, and literary, production” (150).

If we regard the prison as characterized by contact, we are predisposed to regard prison writings as the products of contact, and as fundamentally discursive. That is to say, as communicating something to someone, some audience beyond the author’s cell. Thus, scholars have concentrated on letters, life-writing and other forms of self-presentation, and polemics or apologetics. Even ostensibly private or non-discursive forms of writing, such as personal poetry or graffiti, are interpreted along these lines, as directed (if obliquely) to jailers, future inmates, or God.

Yet to normalize the prison as a site of cultural production risks glossing over a critical feature of its intellectual landscape: constraint. Rivkah Zim identifies constraint as the commonality unifying “prison writings” as a category: “though the experience of different centuries and regimes varies greatly and there is no single category of space implied […] being a prisoner or captive in any period means being cut off and kept apart from the continuities of normal life” (2). Even the most lenient carceral regimes included controls on communication and the movement of texts and persons, circumstances absent at court or within the universities. But if we take seriously the isolation Zim places at the heart of the carceral experience and look for its presence in the early modern English prison, new approaches to literary history, and the history of ideas more generally, become possible.

My case study is Stephen Gardiner, Tudor bishop of Winchester. In the reign of Edward VI, Gardiner was twice imprisoned for resisting the radical Protestant agenda of the young king’s regents. In September 1547, he was confined to the Fleet, probably to prevent him attending the coming parliamentary session. Released in January 1548, Gardiner was not to enjoy his freedom for long: in June, after months of more or less open defiance, he was again arrested and sent to the Tower,

“a dankish and uncomfortable house,” as his servant Wingfield called it, for one ‘much given to rheums’—and lodged for the first month “in a place called the Garden Tower… fast locked in, without coming abroad in all that space.” Then […] he was removed to “a place in the same Tower called the King’s Lodging.” Here he was kept no less closely, not even being permitted to exercise in the gardens. For eleven months more he saw no one save the Lieutenant of the Tower, the jailors, a physician who came when he was sick of a fever, his chaplain, William Medowe, who was permitted to visit him once in his fever and again on Easter Day, and two servants of his household, who waited on him and who were not allowed to leave the Tower confines. (James Arthur Muller, Stephen Gardiner and the Tudor Reaction, 183)

As we have seen, this was severity entirely out of keeping with sixteenth-century English norms. In October 1549, Gardiner protested to the Privy Council,

[I] have continued heere in this miserable prison now one yeere, one quarter, and one moneth, this same day that I write these my letters, with want of aire to relieve my bodie, want of books to releeve my minde, want of good company, the onely solace of this world, and finally, want of a just cause, why I should have come hither at all. (442)

Although eventually permitted occasional walks in the gardens, Gardiner’s systemic isolation continued. He was to be denied books, paper, and writing implements, but this stricture, at least, was not observed—as evidenced by the six treatises and numerous letters produced during his captivity. Gardiner also kept notebooks, two of which survive as Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, Parker MS 127, fols. 167–342. He filled page after page with quotations from Desiderius Erasmus’s Adages, Plautus, Martial, Juvenal, and Virgil, as well as his own Latin elegiac verses (mostly biblical paraphrases).

These notebooks are not easily read as the product of interpersonal contact and or as a medium of communication—they do not cohere into a message or reveal an intended audience. To take the pages of Plautus as an example, to all appearances Gardiner is simply copying out lines from the playwright’s collected works, as edited by the French humanist Robert Estienne and published in Paris in 1530 (identifiable by textual variants). The quotations are ordered according to their appearance in each play, the plays according to the arrangement of the edition. As a result, adjacent verses seem to bear little relation to one another. An excerpt from folio 177, drawn from Pseudolus (191 BCE), gives a sense of the organizational incoherence:

“Imbrem in cribrum gerere” (“pouring water into a sieve,” l. 102)
“supercilium salit (“my eyebrow is twitching,” l. 107)
“dictis facta suppetant” (“your deeds support the words you speak,” l. 108) (all translations by Wolfgang de Melo).

Some lines could be interpreted as responses to Gardiner’s situation (“Animus equus optimum est arumne condimentum” [“That’s why self-possession is the best seasoning for sorrow,” Rudens, l. 402]), but others seem irrelevant at best (“meas opplebit aures sua vaniloquentia” [“she’ll fill my ears with her idle chatter,” Rudens, l. 905]) (fols. 172, 185). Some quotations are abbreviated past the point of potential relevance: from the line “so that I’d be treated a little bit more neatly at last” (Pseudolus, l. 774), Gardiner has copied only the word “gnitiudscule” (“a little bit more neatly”) (fol. 179).

Perhaps the apparent absence of a message simply is the absence of a message; perhaps the content of these pages was of no more than incidental interest to Gardiner. Instead, I suggest the key to understanding these compilations lies in the prisoner’s own words: his continued “want of books to releeve my minde, want of good company, the onely solace of this world.” Gardiner was a celebrated scholar of canon and civil law, the master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, a distinguished diplomat, and, until his deposition in 1551, a prominent bishop. He was a man at the center of English intellectual and political life. And, locked away in the Tower, he was bored. Copying out quotations occupied his eyes, hands, and mind, at once ameliorating the tedium of endless hours alone and distracting him from the frustrations and anxieties of his isolation. In this instance—and in many others as yet unidentified—the act of writing was more important than what was written.

Apart from renewed attention to the isolation that did exist in early-modern English prisons, Gardiner’s notebooks beckon toward the possibilities of a history of boredom. Scholars are not unnaturally attracted to the firmly-held conviction, the engrossing passion, the fascinating and the fascinated. But these are often exceptional cases, and their more ordinary fellows are no less deserving of our attention. What of the listless student alongside the prodigy, the listless churchgoer alongside the zealot? Disinterest, tedium, and rote are the mirror images of intellectual history’s more usual fare, and offer a very different way of thinking about the production, dissemination, and uses of knowledge.

Spencer J. Weinreich is an M.Phil. student in ecclesiastical history at the University of Oxford, where he is an Ertegun Scholar. His dissertation examines the prison writings of Stephen Gardiner in the context of early modern intellectual history. His work has appeared in Early Science and Medicine, Names, and The Journal of Ecclesiastical History.

Reading for Pleasure and Shelf-Satisfaction: The Reading Sheffield Oral History Project

by guest contributor Elizabeth Ott

Debates about the proper function of public libraries—what readers they should serve, what kinds of reading they should promote, what sorts of books should stock their shelves and (perhaps most importantly) how those books and shelves should be paid for—have dogged discussions of public libraries since their first inception. These debates have never been politically neutral, yet they have been particularly charged in recent years, as conservative economic policies have forced the closure of many libraries around the United Kingdom. In this climate, libraries, librarians, and library users are charged to articulate what value public libraries offer to offset the cost of their operation.

Often these articulations rely upon the rhetoric of moral improvement: reading becomes synonymous with education, a safe activity that guards against the dubious pleasures of modernity. The library itself is cited as a place of community-building, a neutral space of wholesome civic engagement. These lines of argument have the effect of casting public libraries in relation to a sense of time: either libraries are preserving a sense of the past, a golden moment in history when reading (usually figured as inherently superior to, say, television, the internet, etc.) was ubiquitous, or libraries are a gateway to progress, an investment in national advancement.

Jean Wolfendale, Sheffield Reader

Jean Wolfendale, Sheffield Reader

The tension between these two modes of articulating value in public libraries can be seen in a recent interview in the Guardian with writer Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s interlocutor, Toby Litt, asks a series of leading questions, such as this one: “Isn’t the future of libraries dependent on not having gatekeepers who are scary, on libraries not looking ancient, and not being about distant, old knowledge?” This question is loaded with valuations of what is good (progress, youth, the future) and what is bad (history, age, the past). It is impossible to read it without jumping to a conclusion about the kind of library he is indicating: the scary gate-keeping crone who guards ancient tomes in a derelict Carnegie building whose sagging walls speak of years of civic neglect. Gaiman is largely uninterested in engaging this discourse, and instead uses the space of the interview to explore his own personal and imaginative interaction with libraries as a young reader. Nevertheless, his metaphor of the library as “seed-corn” which ends up titling the article, contributes to a progress narrative.

In this context, the Reading Sheffield project is delightfully radical. Though in many ways the project tropes the library as a preserver of history (the main page of the website invites readers to “be transported to Sheffield’s past. To a time without Google or Apple, a time when the world went to war and then re-built itself, a time when most children left school at 14 and most women did not work outside the home”), it significantly places no value whatsoever on reading as an improving activity, instead championing reading as an activity of leisure. Against the backdrop of a largely working class readership, Reading Sheffield is “a resource for anybody seeking to explore, celebrate, or promote reading for pleasure.”

At the core of the Reading Sheffield project is series of sixty-two interviews with residents who lived in Sheffield, England during the 1940s and 1950s, conducted over a two-year period by twelve trained volunteers. These oral histories of reading are fully transcribed and available on the website, along with embedded audio files. Interview subjects recollect how they accessed the library, when they first became readers, what they read, and how their reading intersected with their daily lives. These recordings have significant historical value as a record of reader activity—an aspect of reading history that’s especially fleeting and difficult to capture—and as markers of social history. In recounting their memories of library use, each interviewee also records detailed information about the culture of post-war Britain in which they read. Archival quality audio recordings of the interviews have been deposited with the Sheffield Archives and Sheffield Hallam University, in addition to being made available online.

One Sheffield reader mentions trips to the Hillsborough Library, which hosted a reading club group for young people on Wednesday evenings.

One Sheffield reader mentions trips to the Hillsborough Library, which hosted a reading club group for young people on Wednesday evenings.

Because of the average age of interview participants, the Reading Sheffield oral histories recall the privation of post-war England in the 1940s and 1950s. Readers reference the scarcity of paper, shortages of food, the sheer difficulty of visiting library branches when tram rides proved too expensive and a trip across town meant an arduous trek in both directions. The interview format prompts recollections along a defined pathway: when did you first learn to read? What were your first books?  Which library branches did you visit and how did you get there? What books did you own and what books did you borrow? This last question is one that particularly highlights the library’s function as a place of pleasure reading, as often interviewees make a distinction between the kind of practical books purchased for the home (bibles, trade manuals, school books) and the books vividly recalled from library visits: “Well the books from the library I think were all novels.”

Beyond its function as a repository of oral history, the project seeks to imaginatively engage with readers’ histories in a variety of ways—most interestingly through its Readers’ Journeys: “interpretive articles based on our readers’ interviews,” written by project team members, that may “not necessarily represent the views of the interviewees.” These articles attempt to match oral histories with the places and spaces they recollect, drawing out tangential narratives that emphasize the importance of libraries and library buildings in the social life of the community.

Sheffield, like many cities in the United Kingdom, has weathered threats of library closure. It was the site of community protests in 2014 over the planned closure of approximately 16 branch locations; these closures were only avoided through the use of volunteer labor, replacing professional and staff positions at many branches. Reading Sheffield, too, is built on the labor largely of volunteers, whose efforts to preserve community history in the face of erasure are commendable, as is their message that readers deserve a community space for shared pleasure, outside any system of utilitarian value.

Elizabeth Ott is Assistant Curator of Rare Books at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Libraries. Her doctoral work is on the history of subscription and circulating libraries in England.

Sadie P. Delaney: Our Lady of Bibliotherapy

by contributing editor Brooke Palmieri

The debate over whether reading is good or bad for your health is as old as the habit itself. In The Anatomy of Melancholy reading and scholarship sometimes cause, sometimes cure, Robert Burton’s depression; the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther inspired a Wertherfieber, causing young men in Germany to dress and act like Werther, possibly to commit suicide like Werther, and with other novels it contributed to a public health debate in Germany over the consequences of reading. Robert Darnton’s “First Steps Toward a History of Reading” cites J.G. Heinzmann, who in 1795 wrote that reading caused “susceptibility to cold, headaches, weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, haemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy.” On the other hand, in 1812 Benjamin Rush advocated strongly in favor of reading in Medical Inquiries and Observations Upon the Disease of the Mind. Departing from the exclusive prescription of the Bible, he wrote that “when there is no relish for the simple and interesting stories contained in the Bible, the reading of novels should be recommended to our patients.” The power of reading binds together the fate of the body and mind, and transforms them both—if you ever took duality for granted.

And for those who believe in the transformative power of reading, now and throughout history, Sadie Peterson Delaney (1889-1958) is a modern hero. Reading’s health benefits were not a theoretical pursuit for her, but a matter of will. As the chief librarian of the Veterans Administration Hospital and a “Pioneer Bibliotherapist,” she ensured it had a positive influence on her patients.

Delaney in 1950, receiving an honorary doctorate from Atlanta University. Wikimedia Commons.

Delaney in 1950, receiving an honorary doctorate from Atlanta University. Wikimedia Commons.

Bibliotherapy, the idea of reading certain books for their healing purposes, is not new: Diodorus Siculous tells us that the Egyptian King Ramses II inscribed “House of Healing for the Soul” over the entrance his library, and lived to be ninety. Religions of the book—Islam, Judaism, Christianity—incorporate a notion of bibliotherapy into the reading of sacred texts. Institutions like the York Retreat in England, a Quaker-run asylum, prescribed sacred texts, but Benjamin Rush’s more wide-ranging reading recommendations were influential over the course of the nineteenth century in American asylums, including the Hartford Retreat, the Bloomingdale Asylum, the McLean Hospital, and the Friends Asylum. But the word “bibliotherapy” was only coined in an Atlantic Monthly article from 1916.

Since then, above all thanks to the work of women like Sadie P. Delaney, there has been a rise in the body of bibliotheraputic writing and research that would make an immense resource and library for the historian of reading practices if gathered together in one place. The practice connects the efforts of library and medical professionals alike. Both feature reading lists and their application to case studies: bibliotherapy is applied to children in order to change their attitudes towards race, class, and disability; it’s applied to those whose parents are divorced or who have experienced abuse; it’s applied to adults who suffer from alcoholism or post traumatic stress disorder. A dissertation has been conducted on the effects of reading Zhuang Zi’s fables on stressed Taiwanese college students (“the results show the beneficial effects”); another dissertation applies a “bibliotherapy approach to preventing dating abuse in adolescent girls” through readings of Twilight, True Love, and You (2011)—an intervention that “did not demonstrate clear effects…. but there was some indication of change in attitudes regarding romantic myths and identification of controlling behaviours in relationships.”

Eleanor Frances Brown shows in Bibliotherapy and its widening applications (1975) how much of the widening application of bibliotherapy has been made possible by Delaney herself. In 1920, Delaney was assigned to the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library. She would have worked with African-Americans as well as immigrant communities of Italian, Chinese, and Jewish heritage. During that time—according to a profile on her life by Betty K. Gubert in the American Libraries journal—Delaney especially worked with building the library’s collections of books in Braille and Moon Point (another language for the visually impaired), learning both languages herself to better aid visitors to the library, and working with “juvenile delinquents.” The NYPL’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture houses the Sadie P. Delaney Papers, featuring correspondence from the time between Delaney and W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Booker T. Washington, and other black luminaries of the time.

Selected works by Sadie P. Delaney.

Selected works by Sadie P. Delaney.

In 1924 she was appointed chief librarian at the Veterans’ Hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama. The library opened with two hundred books in 1925 and increased to four thousand volumes by the end of the year. Likewise, book circulation began at 275 and increased to 1,500, based on Delaney’s practice of getting to know patients on an individual basis and recommending books to them, creating circulation lists and pamphlets, holding a weekly radio talk, and establishing book clubs and other activities to connect readers with one another. She started debate clubs and stamp clubs, taught bookbinding and natural history, and installed “talking books” and projectors to display books onto the wall or ceiling for patients who couldn’t physically hold them. She continued her work with the blind, teaching no less than six hundred patients to read Braille and creating a special department for the blind at the hospital library in 1934.

Within a decade of her librarianship, there were around six thousand books in the Veterans’ Library collection, including a pioneering collection of books by and for African-Americans. Delaney saw her library as a tool for correcting the injustices of a segregated, unequal society. By including works about black soldiers, she could use books to help the veterans who were her patients “in [their] upward struggle to lay aside prejudice, all sense of defeat, and to take in that which is helpful and inspiring by the means of books.” Delaney wrote about the experience in a 1932 article for the Wilson Library Review, “The Negro Veteran and His Books,” which was also a rallying cry for the publication of more books by black people. Today, institutions like the Sadie Peterson Delaney African Roots Library carry on her important work in addressing racial injustice through access to education and to books.

Her innovations were recognized where it mattered, making their diffusion widespread: library schools in Illinois, North Carolina, and Georgia built links with the Veterans’ Hospital so that their students could train with Delaney. Veterans’ libraries across America studied and implemented her approaches. She collaborated with the Antabuse Clinic in Tuskegee to use bibliotherapy to treat alcoholism. The United States Information Service (USIS) profiled her and her methods, and distributed that information to no less than a hundred different USIS branches across 75 countries.

An illustration from the American Libraries profile of Sadie P. Delaney, 1993.

An illustration from the American Libraries profile of Sadie P. Delaney, 1993.

But at the same time, the greatest testimony to Sadie P. Delaney’s hard work and lasting contributions is the most frustrating and insulting of all: her ideas have diffused so widely that she is not credited enough by name. The New Yorker featured an article on bibliotherapy with no mention of Delaney at all. The free online course from the University of Warwick, “Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing,” bears no mention of her efforts (yet). While she is a staple in articles by library and medical professionals, her recognition within popular culture and history is not nearly as extensive as she deserves—vast as her influence would be if traced within a twentieth and twenty-first century of reading. Histories of reading are much more likely to pay homage to the Frankfurt School than to cite the many decades of one woman’s applied generosity—her gift of time and accessibility in order to find the perfect book from which a person can grind a lens for looking at their own life. This is important in a time where algorithmic culture is beginning to bear more seriously on how people read, and it also is a way of linking reading history with politics, activism, and education. There is both a history of reading to be written of Sadie Peterson Delaney’s far-reaching contributions, and a model for reading history to be drawn from her deeply personal, richly emotional, systematically individualized approach to reading. It is a model that puts the huge scope of influence and lifelong struggles of the librarian in the central position that they deserve.

Philology Among the Disciplines (II): Roles, Limits, Goals

by John Raimo

“Those who don’t know, do theory.” As per Nikolaus Wegmann, this slogan of modern philology touches upon something odd this “ancient form of knowledge” and its persistence into the present day. Philology fitfully attempts to absorb theory in his reading: it historicizes both the scholarly subject at hand and the attendant methodology at a stroke. Different sorts of distances open up between the two according to the field, the scholar’s present moment, the lengths of historical and cultural distance involved, the languages present, and finally the great accumulations of previous scholarship. The philologist stands on the shoulders of giants rather than astride a cemetery. Yet it would be a disservice to varied scholarly traditions and achievements to consider philology an impossibly-idealized historicization or plain recognition of temporal distance. Something more rests at stake. It requires the most ecumenical mind to start making sense of what may no longer be a discipline, but which nevertheless continues to inform all our work.

Scholars at Notre Dame’s Rome Seminar’s “Philology Among the Disciplines” continued to move between philology’s definitions and applications, limits, roles, and problems. The primary fields of discussion included literary study, classics, philosophy, and theology. Each conversation unearthed issues regarding hermeneutics, exegesis, historical semantics, and finally practical techniques—both our own and those of past readers. At least one larger question nearly began to answer itself, namely what relationship pertains between Sach- and Wortphilologie. That is, clear historical developments and scholarly practice link text-driven philology with other disciplines and (crucially) vice-versa. The scholarly traffic ran and runs both ways. The larger question haunting the seminar, however, concerned neither philology’s influence nor history per se but rather its status as a body of techniques, a science, a proto- (or even a post-) discipline, and its potential roles today. Is it a “sublime form of craftsmanship” practiced by scholars rather than anything like a science, as Lorenzo Tomasin recently charged? Or do philology’s claims to authoritative interpretation extend more broadly and perhaps somehow more ‘particularly’ today?

Example of a 'stemma' tracing text transmissions in the model proposed by Karl Lachmann (Stemma for De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii by Martianus Capella proposed by Danuta Shanzer. "Felix Capella: Minus sensus qum nominis pecudalis," Classical Philology 81,1 (1986), p. 62-81).

Example of a ‘stemma’ tracing text transmissions in the model proposed by Karl Lachmann (Stemma for De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii by Martianus Capella proposed by Danuta Shanzer. “Felix Capella: Minus sensus qum nominis pecudalis,” Classical Philology 81,1 (1986), p. 62-81).

No single conversation definitively answers such questions, of course. Yet some brief notes drawn from the conference may at least underline these problems’ significance and the intellectual openness they provoke for scholars across fields and more particularly for intellectual historians.

Ralf Grüttemeier’s talks on literary trials and authorial intention opened the second week of seminars. The angle of legal history clearly binds the two. If a single, authoritative recovery of one coherent authorial intention remained a philological ideal for a great deal of time, it persists well into today’s categories of libel, blasphemy, and obscenity. Landmark literary trials such as those surrounding Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du malOscar Wilde, Joyce’s Ulysses, and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover as well as the Obscene Publications Act of 1959, the Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship (helmed by Bernard Williams), and the United Kingdom’s current libel laws together demonstrate drives to institutionalize philology within modern state judiciaries. That is, this does not concern literature-as-law or vice-versa but rather attempts to identify interpretation with social consensus and enforce disciplinary boundaries in the matter of professional expertise–whether literary, juridical, or otherwise.

Sketch of Closing Trial Scene: half page (Illus. Police News, 5/4/1895)

Sketch of Closing Trial Scene: half page (Illus. Police News, 5/4/1895)

For Grüttemeier then (borrowing from Bahktin), independent philology can otherwise act as a break on centrifugal flows of knowledge both into state control and within disciplines. Historicization and scholarly differentiation occur even in the act of positing authorial intention. The process itself affords a varied and still contentious history from Augustine and Hugh of St. Victor (with untroubled authorial intent available to recover), Schleiermacher’s imperative to “understand the text at first as well as and then even better than its author,” Wimsatt and Beardsley’s famous injunction against the “intentional fallacy,” and the great moment of the ‘death of the author’ in thinkers as diverse as Kristeva, Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida among others held against the so-calledCambridge School’ of intellectual history and indeed all historians of ideas. Whether the idea of intent remains a necessary or even possible working fiction in different fields remains as much a philosophical and political question as one for philologists.

The history of philology itself presents different challenges for classicists, not least when looking to perhaps the most fundamental object of philology—etymologies. Enrica Sciarrino and W. Martin Bloomer looked to Roman translations and transformations of Greek philology. Latin translators and poets from Livius Andronicus and Ennius to the playwright Terence worked in a dual capacity as philologists and writers. A recognizable literary space grew in the shadow of imperial conquest as Rome absorbed Greek culture. That is, demonstrable philological skill with Greek lent original literary authority until a gradual rift opened between creative writers and professional critics.

From Terence, Comoedia: mit Kommentar von Aelius Donatus und Johannes Calphurnius (for 'Heauton Timorumenos'; printed Venice: Reynaldus de Nimwegen, 1482).

From Terence, Comoedia: mit Kommentar von Aelius Donatus und Johannes Calphurnius (for ‘Heauton Timorumenos’; printed Venice: Reynaldus de Nimwegen, 1482).

Yet etymologies and semantics (especially as a matter of innovation) remained huge decisions, as Bloomer made clear when discussing Varro’s etymologies in his De lingua latina libri. A rough sort of early antiquarianism combined with social, political, and moral imperatives to record the past. That is, Varro saw morphological changes, the preservation of texts, and political consensus as intimately related in a project of historical transparency. Hence a ‘politics’ of philology was present from the beginning as actual methodologies—appeals to a complex sense of natura (something apart from social usage), analogy, grammarians, custom, authorities, and citation—crossed from Greek refugees to the Roman elite. Etymology as such possesses its own particular rhetoric of fundamental nature and politics which has enchanted thinkers from Isidore de Seville to Martin Heidegger and beyond.

In the wake of modern classical studies, however, the question remains: has philology become a self-justifying, “normal science” or does it remain a sensibility, orientation, or even a simple goal? Dieter Teichert approached the impasse via a reexamination of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s work on hermeneutics. In extraordinarily brief terms, one can well ask whether Gadamer’s notions of understanding prior to scientific explanation, hermeneutic circles, ‘historically-effected consciousness’ (wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein), and ‘less-subjective’ exegesis together pose the gravest challenge to historicization. Is philology still possible? Naturally—even Gadamer’s own readings of Celan suggest as much as opposing philosophical claims from Husserl, Dilthey, Ricœur and others such as Gregory Currie and Joseph Margolis. What may be more broadly deduced, however, would be that philology itself cannot level purely hermeneutic claims against competing interpretations.

Justin Martyr presenting an open book to a Roman emperor (Jacques Callot, c. 1632-1635)

Justin Martyr presenting an open book to a Roman emperor (Jacques Callot, c. 1632-1635)

Lewis Ayres‘s talk on the development of early Christian thinking demonstrated another important register of philology, namely its ideological presuppositions. This characterization is not quite right, however, in the light of early Christian reading practices drawing apart from Hellenistic traditions. Ancient philosophy (its links to rhetoric and grammar), dogma, and polemics were tightly interwoven into considerations of what constituted scriptural texts—let alone how to actually read them. IrenaeusAgainst Heresies invented something like textual commentary in the act of contesting Valentinians via close readings of soon-to-be-canonical texts, while Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho demonstrated shifts between literal and figurative readings as permitted (or demanded) by theological dogma. A distinctly Christian hermeneutics arose in the circle again between text and practice; yet as Ayres demonstrated, the philological assumptions were embedded from the beginning.

The Rome seminar’s concluding symposium brought all these terms together in a final framework: disciplinarity. Carsten Dutt offered a forceful characterization of philology as an epistemic means and an end unto itself, then as a Hilfswissenschaft (or ancillary discipline) in historical and comparative linguistics as well. This is not exclusively tied to textual studies, however. More importantly, philology serves to historicize the objects of scholarly study as a means towards “a disciplinary framework whose constitutive aim is to acquire historical knowledge about language and texts.” This methodologically-disciplined historicization may be well-termed normative and problematic at the most detailed levels, yet neither scholarship nor scholarly communities can function in its absence.

Brad Gregory seconded this claim while emphasizing philology’s role as a common denominator or even basic ideology with and between disciplines. That is, philology’s ideals at the least serve as the basis for any interdisciplinary endeavor in the humanities. Similarly, its pervasive presence admits the possibility of wider scholarship within the proper fields themselves: one can think here of classicists making recourse to pottery fragments in reconstructing texts, or legal historians turning to literature. Philology is not always visible, but its ideals guide almost every scholarly humanistic practice, as James Turner, Rens Bod, and Sheldon Pollack among many others have persuasively argued.

If philology generally forbids one from making generalizations—even ones primarily intended for intellectual historians–I will nevertheless hazard a few. The same gap between Sach- and Wortphilologie calls for an awareness of other disciplines’ methodologies and research agendas (past and present). Moreover, some sense of the history of one’s own respective discipline remains necessary at the methodological level. Interdisciplinary studies need not be forced in light of common languages and complementary bodies of expertise. The act of scholarly interpretation always functions in light of previous scholarship: even ‘the death of the author’ was not a reset-button. As such, philology can also act as a break on flows of knowledge, whether institutional or otherwise: the insistence on history also situates each individual work against the larger field of humanistic inquiry.

Finally, the imperative remains to learn languages to a deeper extent as a matter of professionalism. One doesn’t need to talk about graduate training here so much as perhaps to critique the notion of ‘reading knowledge,’ or at least criticize ignorance of scholarship in other languages. This entails something more than renewed self-reflection or a more conservative turn against theory. Take the rise of global history. ‘The state’ in the abstract has become the premier unit of analysis. Yet moving beyond questions of classical origins to flatly equate ‘the state’ with ‘stato,’ ‘état,’ ‘Staat,’ ‘estado’ and so forth rings a false note. Every one of those words has multiple histories and hence presupposes different techniques, competencies, bodies of knowledge, and finally methodologies to study in full depth.

Where then does philology ultimately land us? It’d be nice to say on the page itself, but the better answer would be to say continually looking up from the text and then back again.

ca. 1940, London, England, UK --- Holland House Library is left roofless following an air raid, ca. 1940, London. --- Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Holland House Library is left roofless following an air raid, ca. 1940, London. (© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS)

The author thanks W. Martin Bloomer, Carsten Dutt, and Brad Gregory among all the seminar presenters and participants for their work and thoughts—many of which unfortunately had to go unaddressed above. Anthony Grafton, Suzanne Marchand, Madeleine McMahon, and Gregory Mellen also deserve thanks for key references and exchanges.