Professor of English and American Literature, Harvard University
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Research Sample: From “Reading: The State of the Discipline,” Book History 7 (2004): 303-320
When William James wanted to explain “the stupidity and injustice of our opinions, so far as they deal with the significance of alien lives,” the example that he chose was reading:
Take our dogs and ourselves, connected as we are by a tie more intimate than most ties in this world; and yet … how insensible, each of us, to all that makes life significant for the other!—we to the rapture of bones under hedges, or smells of trees and lamp-posts, they to the delights of literature and art. As you sit reading the most moving romance you ever fell upon, what sort of a judge is your fox-terrier of your behaviour? With all his good will toward you, the nature of your conduct is absolutely excluded from his comprehension. To sit there like a senseless statue when you might be taking him to walk and throwing sticks for him to catch! What queer disease is this that comes over you every day, of holding things and staring at them for hours together, paralyzed of motion and vacant of all conscious life?
James’s example points to one of the central difficulties of a history of reading: how to analyze an activity that’s too close for critical distance, and perhaps for comfort. What’s “alien” here is not simply the relation of readers to illiterates (human or canine), but also one reader’s relation to another. Writers on reading have lamented its unknowability or savored its ineffability as far back as Wilkie Collins’s 1858 essay “The Unknown Public.” This is the assumption that book historians have come to combat, either in practice (by uncovering the physical gestures and material artifacts which can make one reader knowable to another), or in theory (by tracing the origins of a cartesian dualism which severs reading from the hand and the voice). For all the polemics that have shaped the field—about extensive reading, about technological determinism, about whether to determine the texts read by a particular demographic group or to define the audience reached by an individual text—historians seem united in the urge to contest James’s characterization of reading as a literally “senseless” act.
Familiarity makes reading appear deceptively knowable: it’s part of the daily experience of any historian or literary critic. But scholars are also well-positioned to know how easily reading can become a self-consuming act. The most impassioned reading destroys its own traces. The greater a reader’s engagement with the text, the less likely he or she is to pause long enough to leave a record: if an uncut page signals withdrawal, a blank margin just as often betrays an absorption too rapt for note-taking. Can a book mark us if we mark it?
Contra William James, what makes reading hard to study is not (or not only) that it’s alien: the complementary challenge is to establish any critical distance from a field whose message is also its medium. Peter Stallybrass’s recent work on how early modern readers navigated the codex—a history of reading encapsulated by the bookmark—brings exotic gestures close to home. Redefining the book from a container of meaning to an occasion for operations both mental and manual, his analysis shows the intellectual implications of physical forms; our own culture relegates “study skills” to the remedial classroom, but Ann Blair’s research on early modern notetaking devices reveals that the Post-It note has a long history.* For all its interest in marginalia and marginalized persons, the history of books is centrally about ourselves. It asks how past readers have made meaning (and therefore, by extension, how others have read differently from us), but it also asks where the conditions of possibility for our own reading come from.
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* William James, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” (1899), in Selected Papers on Philosophy (London: Dent, 1917), 1-21.
- See Peter Stallybrass, “Books and Scrolls: Navigating the Bible,” in Books and Readers in Early Modern England, ed. Jennifer Andersen and Elizabeth Sauer (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2002) 42-79; and Ann Blair, “Annotating and Indexing Natural Philosophy,” Books and the Sciences in History, ed. Marina Frasca-Spada and Nick Jardine (Cambridge UP, 2000), 70-89.