readers and reading
This page points to some
studies of reading: literacy, book collecting and status.
It covers -
aspects of literacy
are explored in a more detailed note elsewhere on this
Francis Bacon's Of Studies commented -
not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take
for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to
weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others
to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested;
that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others
to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read
wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books
also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them
by others; but that would be only in the less important
arguments, and the meaner sort of books, else distilled
books are like common distilled waters, insipid things.
Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and
writing an exact man.
The problematical 94 page National Survey of Reading,
Buying & Borrowing Books report (PDF)
published by the Australia Council for the Arts in 2001
dismisses 'the death of the book', claiming that "Australians
are a nation of readers". The average Australian
supposedly spends eight hours a week reading and referring
to an average of 3.4 books.
The Council claims that in the week prior to its survey
67% of adults read for pleasure (of whom 91% read newspapers
and 72% read books), 35% had gone into a bookshop, 21%
had borrowed a book from a friend, 17% had visited a library
(with 16% borrowing a library book), 16% had bought a
book for themselves and 6% as a gift. 59% thought that
purchasing books online in future was unlikely.
The figures are contentious and inconsistent with other
studies such as Accounting for Tastes: Australian Every
Day Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1999)
by Tony Bennett, Michael Emmison & John Frow, A
History of the Book in Australia: A National Culture in
a Colonised Market, 1891-1945 (St Lucia: Uni
of Queensland Press 2001) edited by Martyn Lyons and Paper
Empires: A History of the Book in Australia, 1946-2005
(St Lucia: Uni of Queensland Press 2006) edited by Craig
Munro & Robyn Sheahan-Bright.
Most nations have published similar studies. For a discussion
of reading habits in Finland thus see the 2002 study by
Stockmann, Bengston & Repo on The Book Trade in
A 2007 survey by Ipsos for The Associated Press found
that 27% of adults in the US had not read a book in the
previous year. However, 27% had read 15 or more books.
8% of the 'readers' had read 51 or more books. The 2007
National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Read or Not
To Read: A Question of National Consequence (PDF)
study offers a comprehensive analysis of the reading patterns
of children, teenagers and adults in the United States.
literacy and development
A Victor Hugo exhortation to illiterate workers asked
you forgotten that your liberator
Is the book? The book is there on the heights;
It gleams; because it shines and illuminates,
It destroys the scaffold, war and famine;
It speaks: No more slaves and no more pariahs.
writing on literacy and development we recommend Carlo
Cipolla's classic Literacy & Development in the
West (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1969) and the revisionist
The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class
(New Haven: Yale Uni Press 2001) by Jonathan Rose. There
is another historical perspective in Literacy &
Power in the Ancient World (Cambridge: Cambridge
Uni Press 1994) edited by Alan Bowman.
Jack Goody's The Interface Between the Oral & the
Written (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1987) and
The Domestication of the Savage Mind (Cambridge:
Cambridge Uni Press 1977), David Olson's The World
on Paper (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1994), Ruth
Finnegan's Literacy & Orality: Studies in the Technology
of Communication (Oxford: Blackwell 1988) and Gunther
Kress' Literacy in the New Media Age (London:
Routledge 2003) are also suggestive.
Brian Stock's After Augustine: The Meditative Reader
and the Text (Philadelphia: Uni of Pennsylvania Press
2001), Brian Richardson's Print Culture in Renaissance
Italy: The Editor & the Vernacular Text, 1470-1600
(Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1994) and Printing,
Writers & Readers in Renaissance Italy (Cambridge:
Cambridge Uni Press 1999) or Adam Fox's Oral & Literate
Culture in England, 1500-1700 (New York: Oxford Uni
Press 2000) may strike some readers as more approachable.
The 'revolutions' page of this profile pointed to major
studies by Febvre, Eisenstein, Darnton and others. For
something left of centre explore 'The Uncommon Reader'
in George Steiner's No Passion Spent: Essays 1978-95
(New Haven: Yale Uni Press 1996). Recent nation by nation
figures on literacy are supplied as part of the Digital
Divides profile elsewhere on this site.
Questions about 'digital literacy' - finding and evaluating
electronic content - are noted here.
Two recent introductions to "the book sickness"
are Nicholas Basbanes' A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles,
Bibliomanes & the Eternal Passion for Books (New
York: Holt 1995) and Margaret Willes's Reading Matters
(New Haven: Yale Uni Press 2008).
Collecting: An Unruly Passion - Psychological Perspectives
(Princeton: Princeton Uni Press 1994) by Werner Muensterberger
considers the nature of collecting, from the sublime -
Dr Freud's antiquities collection - to the ridiculous
C19th century loon Sir Thomas Phillipps, who just wanted
"one copy of every book!" (Why, we cry, why
stop at one?). The Cultures of Collecting (Melbourne:
Melbourne Uni Press 1994) is a collection of essays edited
by John Elsner & Roger Cardinal which also deals with
the Freud collection among others. That is more insightfully
examined in Peter Gay's introduction to Sigmund Freud
& Art: His Personal Collection of Antiquities (Binghampton:
State Uni of New York 1989) edited by Lynn Gamwell &
The definitive novel of bibliomania remains the stunning
Auto-da-Fe (London: Cape 1962) by Elias Canetti,
friend of Karl Kraus, Walter Benjamin, Franz Kafka and
Gershom Scholem. For a gentler, although ultimately as
tragic, account of obsession turn to Benjamin's 'Unpacking
My Library' in Illuminations (New York: Schocken
1968) translated by Harry Zohn. Some may prefer Rick Gekoski's
upbeat Tolkien's Gown and Other Stories About Famous
Authors and Rare Books (London: Constable 2004).
Henry Petroski's The Book on the Shelf (New York:
Knopf 1999) provides an engineering and social history
of that most useful of devices, with detours into publishing
and retailing over the past five hundred years. Regrettably
it is more discursive and less entertaining than past
histories such as his The Pencil (Knopf: New York
1990) and John Ellis' Social History of the Machine-Gun
(London: Croom Helm 1980).
Baker, John Updike's pale shadow, in The Size of
Our Thoughts: Essays & Other Lumber (Vintage:
New York 1997) collects essays on book production, reading
and collecting, including the mordant Books As Furniture,
aka the props you see in upmarket furniture, clothing
and 'lifestyle' catalogues. Dora Thornton's The Scholar
In His Study: Ownership & Experience in Renaissance
Italy (New Haven: Yale Uni Press 1998) is a sumptuous
exploration of the room and the furniture.
William Gilmore's Reading Becomes a Necessity of Life:
Material & Cultural Life in Rural New England, 1780-1835
(Knoxville: Uni of Tennessee Press 1989), James Allen's
In the Public Eye: A History of Reading in Modern
France, 1800-1940 (Princeton: Princeton Uni Press
1991) and Sandra Hindman's Printing & the Written
Word: The Social History of Books c1450-1520 (Ithaca:
Cornell Uni Press 1992) are suggestive.
Tom Raabe's Biblioholism: The Literary Addiction
(Golden: Fulcrum 1991) and the heftier Casanova Was
A Book Lover (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Uni Press
2000) by John Hamilton are anecdotal collections about
the book disease. Another perspective is offered by Geoff
Nicholson's Sex Collectors: The Secret World of Consumers,
Connoisseurs, Curators, Creators, Dealers, Bibliographers,
and Accumulators of 'Erotica' (New York: Simon &
Spoliation has attracted
increasing attention. Works of note include Opritsa Popa's
Bibliophiles and Bibliothieves: The Search for the
Hildebrandslied and the Willehalm Codex (Berlin:
Walter de Gruyter 2003), Walter Farmer's The Safekeepers:
A Memoir of the Arts at the End of World War II (Berlin:
Walter de Gruyter 2000), Lynn Nicholas' The Rape of
Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich
and the Second World War (New York: Vintage 1995),
Lost Libraries: The Destruction of Ancient Book Collections
since Antiquity (Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan
2004) edited by James Raven and The Holocaust &
the Book: Destruction & Preservation (Amherst:
Uni of Massachusetts Press 2001) edited by Jonathan Rose.
The definitive study of readership is A History
of Reading In The West (Amherst: Uni of Massachusetts
Press 1999) edited by Guglielmo Cavallo & Roger Chartier.
Jack Goody's The Logic of Writing & the Organization
of Society (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1986) is
also important. It is complemented by Steven Fischer's
succinct A History of Reading (London: Reaktion
2001). Canadian novelist Alberto Manguel turned to non-fiction
in the entertaining A History of Reading (New York:
Viking 1996), ranging from cork-lined rooms and book thieves
through to medieval scholars who could read - gadzooks
- without moving their lips.
The altogether drier Australia Council for the Arts report
Books- Who Reads Them? A study of borrowing & buying
in Australia by Hans Hoegh Guldberg (Redfern: Australia
Council 1990) remains of value. The US National Endowment
for the Arts 2004 Reading At Risk report
is problematical, asserting that there has been a substantial
decline in the number of US "readers" and the
frequency with which they turn to good books (a category
that apparently excludes non-fiction works).
Sven Birkerts' romantic The Gutenberg Elegies: The
Fate of Reading in An Electronic Age (Boston: Faber
1994) is merely the latest in a long line of tracts about
the death of quality, the reluctance of spotty schoolboys
to respect their betters and the ingratitude of the entertainment-loving
lower classes ...
core fear is that we, as a culture, as a species, are
becoming shallower; that we have turned from depth -
from the Judeo-Christian premise of unfathomable mystery
- and are adapting ourselves to the ersatz security
of a vast lateral connectedness.
is easy, analysis less so.
There is a more penetrating analysis in The Ethnography
of Reading (Berkeley: Uni of California Press 1993)
edited by Jonathan Boyarin, in Harvey Graff's The Literacy
Myth: Literacy & Social Structure in the Nineteenth-Century
City (New York: Academic Press 1979) and The Labryrinths
of Literacy: Reflections on Literacy Past & Present
(Pittsburgh: Uni of Pittsburgh Press 1995).
For the US we particularly recommend Michael Denning's
Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels & Working-Class Culture
in America (London: Verso 1987) and David Mitch's
The Rise of Popular Literacy in Victorian England:
The Influence of Private Choice and Public Policy
(Philadelphia: Uni of Pennsylvania Press 1992).
Barry Sanders' potboiler A Is For Ox: The Collapse
of Literacy & The Rise of Violence In An Electronic
Age (New York: Vintage 1995) - television = moral
collapse + spiritual impoverishment - is a downmarket
version of the very fashionable Neil Postman, author of
the bizarre Building A Bridge To The 18th Century:
How The Past Can Improve Our Future (New York: Knopf
1999) - come back, dead white males, all is forgiven -
and Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture To Technology
(New York: Vintage 1993).
We recommend instead the thoughtful Battle of the Books:
The Curriculum Debate in America (New York: Norton
1992) by James Atlas, biographer of Delmore Schwartz,
Carnival on the Page: Popular Print Media in AnteBellum
America (Chapel Hill: Uni of North Carolina Press
2000) by Isabelle Lehuu and Maurice Saxby's Offered
To Children: A History of Australian Children's Literature
1841-1941 (Sydney: Ashton Scholastic 1993).
National studies abound. They include Jeffrey Brooks'
When Russia Learned To Read: Literacy & Popular
Literature 1861-1917 (Princeton: Princeton Uni Press
1985), Reading & Writing: Literacy in France from
Calvin to Jules Ferry (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press
1982) by François Furet & Jacques Ozouf, Reading
in America: Literature & Social History (Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins Uni Press 1989) edited by Cathy Davidson,
Martyn Lyons' Readers & Society in Nineteenth-Century
France: Workers, Women, Peasants (Basingstoke: Palgrave
2001), Book Use, Book Theory: 1500-1700 (Chicago:
Uni of Chicago Press 2005) by Bradin Cormack & Carla
Mazzio, The Experience of Reading: Irish Historical
Perspectives (Dublin Social History Society of Ireland
1999) edited by Bernadette Cunningham & Maire Kennedy
and Literacy in the United States: Readers & Reading
since 1880 (New Haven: Yale Uni Press 1991) edited
by Carl Kaestle & Helen Damon-Moore.
News, Newspapers & Society in Early Modern England
(London: Cass 1999) edited by Joad Raymond, David Nord's
Communities of Journalism: A History of American Newspapers
and their Readers (Urbana: Uni of Illinois Press
2001) and Erin Smith's Hard Boiled: Working-Class
Readers and Pulp Magazines (Philadelphia: Temple
Uni Press 2000) are also suggestive.
Clifford Stoll's Silicon Snake Oil - Second Thoughts
On The Information Highway (Doubleday: New York 1995)
and High-Tech Heretic: Reflections by a Computer Contrarian
(Doubleday: New York 1999) reach the entirely unsurprising
conclusion that a life does not necessarily equal being
online and indeed that the non-digital world, unlike Broadway,
is alive and well.
Economist and cultural critic Tyler Cowan gives a more
considered analysis of the market for the written word
and the shape of culture (after the death of the book/author/print/reader)
in his In Praise of Commercial Culture (Cambridge:
Harvard Uni Press 1998), for us more persuasive than Richard
Lanham's McLuhanesque The Economics of Attention:
Style and Substance in the Age of Information (Chicago:
Nuni of Chicago Press 2006) and Robert Hauptman's Documentation:
A History and Critique of Attribution (Jefferson:
Admirers of Stoll might usefully turn to The View from
the Bridge: Aspects of Culture (Sydney: ABC 1996)
by the marvellous although maddening Pierre Ryckmans,
author of the landmark Chinese Shadows and The
Death of Napoleon.
James O'Donnell's elegant Avatars of the Word: From
Papyrus To Cyberspace (Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press
1998) argues that print will be supplemented rather than
superseded by the electronic word in much the same way
that printing did not result in the disappearance of speech.
H J Jackson's Marginalia: Readers Writing In Books
(New Haven: Yale Uni Press 2001) has a quirky charm, complemented
by William Sherman's Used Books: Making Readers in
Renaissance England (Philadelphia: Uni of Pennsylvania
Press 2008) on annotation in early printed books and Anthony
Grafton's The Footnote: A Curious History (Cambridge:
Harvard Uni Press 1997).
Indications of sales and library borrowings are provided
later in this profile.
An introduction to the physiology of reading is provided
in Maryanne Wolf's Proust & the Squid: The Story
and Science of the Reading Brain (New York: HarperCollins
perspective on culture, consumption and status is provided
by Joan Shelley Rubin's scholarly The Making of MiddleBrow
Culture (Chapel Hill: Uni of North Carolina Press
1992), which explores radio and television literature
programs, book clubs and 'great book' programs, and the
It is superior to Janice Radway's quirky A Feeling
For Books: The Book Of The Month Club, Literary Taste
& Middle Class Desire (Chapel Hill: Uni of North
Carolina Press 1997), complemented by Kathleen Rooney's
Reading with Oprah: The Book Club that Changed America
(Fayetteville: Uni of Arkansas Press 2008) regarding a
supposedly "monumental institution with its revolutionary
and controversial fusion of the literary, the televisual,
and the commercial". There is another perspective
in Beauty & the Book: Fine Editions & Cultural
Distinction in America (New Haven: Yale Uni Press
2000) by Megan Benton, especially useful on little presses,
and WB Carnochan's 1998
paper Where Did Great Books Come From Anyway?.
Michael Kammen's The Lively Arts: Gilbert Seldes &
the Transformation of Cultural Criticism in the United
States (New York: Oxford Uni Press 1996) considers the
Stolls and Birkets of an earlier age, when social change
and the eruption of new technologies such as moving pictures
and radio led to prophecies of doom strikingly similar
to current criticisms of the Web. Reports of the death
of the book, like that of culture and Mark Twain, seem
An October 2005 YouGov survey in the UK (of 2,100 people)
claimed that one in three consumers in London and the
south-east admit having bought a book "solely to
look intelligent" and that one in every eight young
people confessed to choosing a book "simply to be
seen with the latest shortlisted title" (in contrast
to only one in 20 over-50s).
Erratic recognition of imperishable greatness has led
some observers to dismiss literary prizes as an opportunity
for observing cultural politics in action rather than
as an indicator of merit. The Nobel Prize for Literature,
for example rewarded Pearl Buck [!], Karl Gjellerup, Rudolf
Eucken and Bjørnstierne Bjørnson but omitted
Tolstoy, Cavafy, Ibsen, García Lorca, Proust, Kafka,
Rilke, Musil, Mandelstam and Pessoa.
Insights are offered in The Economy of Prestige
(Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press 2005) by James English,
Tyler Cowan's In Praise of Commercial Culture
(Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press 1998), Richard Caves' Creative
Industries: Contracts Between Art & Commerce
(Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press 2000) and Thomas Whiteside's
The Blockbuster Complex: Conglomerates, Show Business
& Book Publishing (Middletown: Wesleyan Uni Press
Richard Todd's Consuming Passions: The Booker Prize
& Fiction in Britain Today (London: Bloomsbury
1996) discusses the prize - originally a marketing initiative
by the UK agribusiness conglomerate Booker - the Salman
Rushdie affair (doing a James Dean would have been
a great career move?), the decline & fall of the Waterstones
& Dillons retailing chains and patterns of authorship
in the past two decades. The Miles Franklin in Australia
is the subject of Harry Heseltine's The Most Glittering
Prize: The Miles Franklin Literary Award (Canberra:
Permanent/University College 2001).
For kidlit awards such as the Caldecott see Ruth Allen's
Children's Book Prizes: An Evaluation and History
of Major Awards for Children's Books in the English-Speaking
World (Aldershot: Ashgate 1998).
For the Nobel Literature Prize see Kjell Espmark's defensive
The Nobel Prize in Literature: A Study of the Criteria
behind the Choices (Boston: Hall 1991) and Pascal
Casanova's The World Republic of Letters (Cambridge:
Harvard Uni Press 2005).
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