Category Archives: Reading

Pamela & Texting

Here are a couple of things on the theme of hey-look-what’s-coming-back-around :

A 19th C glove with a map of London on it for handy reference offers an alternative to modern GPS and smartphone maps.

Secondly, the author of this post on student response to  Pamela suggests that students now might be more comfortable with a central character who documents her life in her letters even as the door to her bedroom is being opened than students from 8-10 years ago.  She also talks about her research into some 18th century correspondance which includes some short notes that resemble text messages. It’s a long post but worth reading.


Filed under New again, Reading, Short Form, Technology, Texting, Twitter

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


I’ve been reading about books, physical books, recently (Greetham and Ong) and about the act of reading (Ong, Birkerts). It’s made me think even more about the ways that we interact physically and physiologically with our texts. Ong and Birkerts, in particular, made me think about different ways that we experience books. If we listen to an audiobook, how does that differ from reading out loud to our selves or from having a book read to us? Reading aloud to an audience is an interactive performance in a way that audiobooks are not (live theater versus filmed). As reader, you can respond to your audience’s discomfort or lack of attention or increased attention to help convey meaning. On the other hand, audiobooks have the luxury of retakes if something’s not right and the reader cannot be distracted by the audience. As audience however, how do we receive these performances? Is it more meaningful that the performance is live? I’m curious whether, for example, people remember more of a book that’s read aloud to them in person (by a stranger) than from an audiobook.

I emphasize stranger because in practice in our society reading books aloud to one another is commonly an intimate act. A prime example is of a parent reading to a child. My mother read to me and my brother at bedtime well after the age that we’d started reading. The Hobbit, for me, was first an oral work (with pictures shared) and only later one that I read as text on a page.  Since we would have happily made her read all night long, my mother had to pick stopping points in the books that we read. Chapter endings were the logical choice, both structurally (most authors end chapters with some kind of intermediate conclusion, even if it’s a cliff-hanger) and psychologically in a way that even a pre-literate[1] child can understand (there’s white space, a break in the text; it’s okay to stop reading here). That rhythm of reading is deeply part of me even now, and I will find myself falling asleep, eyes crossing and book drooping, because I have to finish the chapter before I can set a book aside.  Intellectually, I know that I’m not getting much from reading when I’m that groggy. But if I’m not at that “official” stopping point, it’s hard for me to stop.

Contrast that experience with audiobooks, or with that of my young nephew, who’s experiencing many of his books through the medium of an iPad. On an audiobook, there is usually a delay, a pause, at the end of a chapter. It is not a long one, however, since silence loses the audience’s attention. Many electronic devices (whether computers or CD players) capture the exact location that you stop or pause and without any intervention from you beyond the act that stops it. You do not have to mark the text with a bookmark or dogear a page to get to the place that you were. Chapter breaks become less meaningful, unless the author (or possibly reader) manages to build in an obvious structural break to suggest stopping here rather than there.  In a play, the end of one act is not always all that different from the end of a scene, and yet we usually break our reading at the ends of acts.

It is hard to slow down reading when you have become accustomed or trained to read quickly and to read to completion, even if that completion is only a chapter or an act. I have to pay attention to unconcious speeding up and practice setting a work aside uncomplete, so that I can pay as much attention to the ends as the beginnings and middles.



[1] The word that came to mind was “pre-literate” and after hesitating, I left it. I’ll define it as unable to independently get meaning from words on a page, even though we knew words and knew that they had meaning.)

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Filed under Reading