Drawing on materials from the medieval period to the twenty-first century, Reading: a cultural practice explores how concepts of reading change according to historical and social context. Combining a history of reading with insights drawn from critical theory, the book argues that reading is always implicated in ideology, and that reading is especially linked to religious and educational structures. Examining a variety of texts and genres, including books of hours, Victorian fiction, the art and literature of the Bloomsbury Group, and contemporary social media sites, the opening chapters give an overview of the history of reading from the classical period onwards. The discussion then focuses on the following key concepts: close reading, the common reader, reading and postmodernism, reading and technology. The book uses these areas to set in motion a larger discussion about the relationship between professional and non-professional forms of reading. Standing up for the reader’s right to read in any way that they like, the book argues that academia’s obsession with textual interpretation bears little relationship to the way that most non-academic readers engage with written language. As well as analysing pivotal moments in the history of reading, the book puts pre-twentieth-century concepts of reading into dialogue with insights derived from post-structuralism, psychoanalysis, and deconstruction. This means that as well as providing a history of reading, the book analyses such major preoccupations in reading theory as reading’s relation to visual culture, how reading is taught in schools, and feminist and queer reading practices.
This chapter argues that reading is an inescapably ideological act. Analysing metaphors of eating and incorporation, the chapter links theories of taste to the religious, literary, and educational institutions that have historically shaped concepts of reading.
This chapter uses literary and visual material, from the medieval period to the twenty-first century, to explore how technology has shaped the theory and practice of reading. Particular emphasis is placed on the relationship between public and private forms of reading, including debates about silent reading, and the role of reading in the Abrahamic religions.
This chapter radically re-orients discussions of the common reader by tracing the concept back to the religious and political disputes of the seventeenth century. Having shown that notions of the common reader long predate Virginia Woolf and Samuel Johnson, the chapter provides an extended reading of Woolf’s theory of reading, which it contrasts with the one provided by F. R. Leavis.
This chapter explores the ideological implications of ‘close reading’. Starting with a re-consideration of I. A. Richard’s work, the chapter uses a reading of Jane Eyre to examine different kinds of textual analysis, including ones that are far removed from dominant forms of literary criticism. The chapter ends by engaging with current debates on how reading and literature should be taught at school.
Using current debates about fake news and post-truth politics as a frame, this chapter examines how queer theory complicates received academic approaches to reading. The chapter is centred on a discussion of Eve Sedgwick’s work on Jane Austen, which it uses as a paradigm of how academic close reading has been challenged by the mode of reading that I call ‘loose reading’.
Taking a long view of the relationship between reading and technology, this chapter argues that we cannot understand digital culture without thinking about how reading has always been mediated by the question of how texts are produced and circulated. Particular attention is paid to the way in which screens pre-date e-culture, a circumstance that should complicate how we think about e-reading.
Responding to Franco Moretti’s theory of ‘distant reading’, this chapter argues for an approach to reading that can combine a respect for non-specialist readers with a post-structuralist scepticism about humanism. It takes Cornelia Parker’s artful work on Magna Carta as a paradigm of how theories of reading and interpretation need to find ways of acknowledging the importance of humour and playfulness in the reading experience.