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section heading icon     readers and reading

This page points to some studies of reading: literacy, book collecting and status.

It covers -

Technical aspects of literacy are explored in a more detailed note elsewhere on this site.

Francis Bacon's Of Studies commented -

Read 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.

section marker icon     in Australia

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 Finland (PDF). 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.

section marker icon     literacy and development 

A Victor Hugo exhortation to illiterate workers asked

Have 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.

Among 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.
  
section marker icon     consumption 

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 & Richard Wells.

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).

Nicholson 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 & Schuster 2006).

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.

section marker icon     reading 

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 ...

My 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.

Attitudinising 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: McFarland 2008).

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 2007).

section marker icon     status

Historical 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 Book-of-the-Month phenomenon.

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 somewhat premature.

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).

section marker icon     glittering prizes 

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 1981).

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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