Cultivating a History of Reading by Stephen N. Zwicker
In essays written in the 1980s, Robert Darnton remarked that work in the history of the book and the history of reading had become so specialized and so profuse that we needed an orderly mapping of the fields1. Yet, more than a decade later, and in the midst of growing interest in these histories, the terrain looks, if anything, less orderly than when Darnton called for the surveyor's tools. Even textual bibliography, once the most stable and staid of humanist disciplines, seems now the very center of post-modern controversies over the fluidity of text and author. Dozens of recent essays and monographs have addressed the histories of reading on two continents and more, in a number of languages, and across the divides of gender, class, and generation. Scholarly societies have formed for the study of the production and consumption of books; and conferences, seminars, and institutes have seen a proliferation of methods and ideas among those working at this nexus of material culture and intellectual life. Indeed, the pace of research in the history of the book and the history of reading may not allow sufficient perspective for surveying work when the field and its borders are in flux.
The current sense of excitement over this terrain has come from those working in the traditional fields of book history as well as from literary scholars and intellectual historians new to the archives of the book. Those archives have pointed a way to deepen our literary and intellectual historicism, to explore the ways in which books fashioned individual readers and broader groups and classes of consumers. The study of the modes and habits of reading has also allowed literary critics to think about the ways in which texts are written into fields of expectations, and to consider how authors calibrate the energies and pleasures, even humiliations, proffered by their texts. Jonathan Swift warned Pope that the "hints, initial letters, or town facts and passages" of the first issue of the Dunciad would not be understood by those living twenty miles from London, "and in a few years not even [by] those who live in London,"2 but the dense topicality of early modern writing has in fact allowed us, at the close of the twentieth century, to think carefully about a culture of reading that so clearly took pleasure in the abrasion of satire and in the whiff of gossip and scandal that circulates so brilliantly through social and intellectual communities that included the very men and women pilloried in those texts.
What we reconstruct by addressing the production and consumption of such texts is at once literary, social, political, and intellectual history. Book history allows us to document the life of ideas, their transmission, their habitation in private lives and public spaces, the networks of legal and commercial routes along which books and their arguments travel, and the varying modes of intellectual commerce among books and readers. If, a decade ago, we were aware of a multiplicity of ideas and approaches to the history of the book and the history of reading, we can now only wonder at the present moment of scholarly luxuriance and the opportunities presented by research in these histories. But the maturity of any field of scholarship is measured not only by essays and monographs, papers and conferences, but also by the colloquy among students and teachers where we test the explanatory force of our scholarship, its capacity to enrich and bring to life the books we hold in our hands and the experiences we have as late twentieth century readers of early modern poems and plays, tracts and treatises. With the aim of providing occasion and material for such colloquy, members of the NEH/Folger Library Institute, "Habits of Reading in Early Modern England," have gathered, introduced, annotated, and ordered a set of representations of the early modern production and consumption of books.
The members of the institute hope to foster a more inclusive scholarly conversation with this electronic posting. The sampler includes images of the induction into literacy--the horn-book, an example of black-letter type, the face designed to reach as wide an audience as possible, and an edition of Mantuan commonly taught in grammar schools. Also represented in this sampler are images of the techniques and technologies of reading, including books with printed marginalia, a commonplace book which lists the contents of an aristocratic woman's library, and the humanist at work. We have included representations of the book as commercial and controversial object with samples of the variety of front matter that shapes the experience of the text: frontispieces, title pages, and prefaces. To represent the life of the book in political contest and exchange, we have included that most famous of early modern controversial texts, the Eikon Basilike. We conclude the sampler with a manuscript index, clearly the product of one of this book's readers.
Like the library where the NEH institute took place, like the program itself, and like so many acts of teaching and scholarship, this gathering of images is collaborative in origin and intended to remain open to the participation of those who will use it in exploring with students the material life of the book and the moral, political, and aesthetic meanings of its pages, then and now. On behalf of the members of the institute, the Folger Institute welcomes your thoughts about the uses of these materials.
1"What is the History of Books?" Daedalus (Summer 1982): 65-83; "First Steps Toward a History of Reading," Australian Journal of French Studies 23 (1986): 5-30.
2The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, ed. H. Williams, 6 vols (1963), 3:293.