Things that were said about what was read

Elizabeth Eisenstein raises some interesting points about scholars having to be careful how they intepret who was using particular books.  She points to a useful distinction between “audience” and “public,” where audience is the documented set of users or purchasers of books and public represents the “hypothetical targets” of the producers of books (241). Eisenstein equates audience with “actual readers”, but I would shade that even farther, since a catalogue or subscription list may prove ownership but not consumption.

Eisenstein further suggests that scholars have made unwarranted assumptions about audience and particularly publics for books such as cooking books, or manuals of etiquette for young ladies. That is to say, while the etiquette might have pertained specifically to the young women, those interested in reading about it might very well include tutors or parents. This difficulty in deducing demographics reminded me of  a current dust-up over Google’s demographic assumptions based on your search interests. A group of self-described women geeks found that Google had uniformly classified them as young men, apparently based on their searches and click through patterns.

Another nuance that Eisenstein raises has to do with questions of literacy versus reading. She rightly points out that being able to read does not mean that one read, and that while Latin literacy might have held high status, that does not mean that those of high status would restrict themselves to Latin, or even prefer Latin over the vernacular.

Eisenstein draws attention to the use and dissemination of illustrations within printed books as significant. Reliable reproduction of those images made developments in science and engineering easier to share.

Although she doesn’t mention them in particular, printed anatomies (books showing anatomical details of human bodies) were an important part of medical education in England in the early modern period, because human dissection was illegal in England until quite late. People had to go to one of the universities on the continent where such things were permitted to see an autopsy. Printed works filled some of the gap, although there were some omissions in those texts as well.

Eisenstein discusses “job” printing, the production of advertising ephemera, official publications and the like as opposed to more speculative printing for general sale. While these are not always studied, they made up a large portion of the print volume for many printers.  It would be interesting to know more about the audience and public for these types of printing. How were they being used? A large chunk of EEBO consists of crown proclamations printed by various printers. How many of them were actually read?

An  article in The Economist in December compares the use of cheap print, including and especially woodcuts by Martin Luther to the use of social media by protest movements today. The author draws attention to the importance of timeliness and interactivity (that is, Luther and his opponents quoting each other and responding to each other quickly) in both cases.



Filed under History and Future of the Book, Reading, Technology

5 responses to “Things that were said about what was read

  1. The analogy that Economist article draws is really interesting (thanks for the link!).

    The importance, in this case, of Luther’s woodcuts in thinking about the impact of print points to one of the things I found most useful in Eisenstein’s essay, where she points out that the ability to reproduce accurately images and scientific tables was at least as important as reproducing the printed word in terms of ‘the initial shift.’ As a literature person, it’s easy for me to just assume over and over again that when we think about print culture what we’re thinking about is the dissemination and consumption of literature, but that’s only part of the story.

    (BTW, Google’s demographic analyzer think’s I’m a girl, which really surprised me considering the amount of time I waste on the internet reading about sports…)

    • Any clothing shopping whatsoever? That appears to be one of the things that quickly tips the scale over to female. Google thinks I’m male on my tablet (where I do mostly academic and tech searches) and female on my desktop (where I do catalog ordering along with the academic and tech searches). It also thinks, in both cases, that I’m younger than I am.

      • lmaruca

        Google said it had no preferences for me, at least on our family computer! I think the combination of three different people using it (representing three district demographic groups), plus the eclecticness of our searches, has completely befuddled it.

  2. lmaruca

    Another great link! Where/how are you finding all these? This will be valuable in my undergrad History of the Book course.

    • I have an eclectic assortment of blogs and twitter accounts that I follow. The links often don’t come from the places that you might expect. I think I came across the Economist article from a social media for marketing source, for example.

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