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.
‘really’ going on in a given situation.
The final sections of this book will return to the technological aspects of this terrain but first I want to think more generally about the effect that debates on ‘truth’ have had on how we think about reading. ‘Fake news’ presents a dilemma that is in some ways opposite to that discussed in the previous chapter. I. A. Richards asked his students to evaluate unattributed but genuine literary works: they did not know what they were reading but they knew that it had been written and published by a real person. By contrast
‘Gracious child, how you gobble.’
A young girl stands before a bearded man, a book in her hands. She has climbed three storeys to the smoke-filled room. It’s where the old man works – he works at reading. And the girl wants to do the same. In the pause that follows, she stares at the ash on her father’s sleeves. She cannot see his mouth: his beard rubs it out. The gap between the two of them expands until she fancies that she can hear her mother ordering dinner, her sister sketching on the floor below. Meanwhile London is growing all
In 1985 the book historian Armando Petrucci expressed pessimism about reading’s place in a world dominated by new technologies: Western reading practices were being eroded, he argued, by habits contracted from other media. In a move that would have seemed less quaint when it was originally formulated, he complained that ‘the use of remote-control devices has given television spectators the power to change channels instantly, jumping from a film to a debate, from a game show to a news programme, from a commercial announcement to a soap opera’. For Petrucci
is not the news, then how do the rest of us know what we are looking for, and how will we know when we find it? In one sense the answer is straightforward: we discover ‘what is found there’ by reading. But, as I have argued throughout this book, ‘reading’ is a set of diverse practices rather than a single, easily comprehended activity. ‘What is found there’ may include ‘what we put there’, ‘what we fail to see’, and ‘what we couldn’t help noticing because the publisher mentioned it on the back of the book’. Most of us are untroubled by such issues; it is enough to
The chances are, you aren’t reading this out loud. Nor are you listening to someone recite it.
In the early twenty-first century, in the majority of Western contexts, reading books is a silent, non-communal activity. We may read in waiting rooms and parks – even, sometimes, in libraries – but we rarely make direct contact with the people who surround us. On the contrary, a glance around a rush-hour train indicates that reading is one of the key ways by which we insulate ourselves from other people, albeit by immersing ourselves in the alternative
Instead of a conventional summing-up, I want to finish this study by placing three cultural objects alongside each other so that I can ask what they might tell us about reading and its futures. The first is a poem, the second a work of literary theory, and the third a piece of visual and conceptual art. Although they date from the first quarter of the twenty-first century, each one speaks, simultaneously, to the past and the future.
In ‘Confessions of a Reading Machine’ (2011), the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska talks in the voice of ‘Number Three
odd formulation, though, not least in its fantasy of representative singularity. That is, it conjures up an imaginary individual who somehow stands for the public at large. As the previous chapter argues, any historical moment or cultural location will contain a variety of reading practices – there is no such thing as a single ‘reading public’. But at least the phrase ‘the reading public’ acknowledges a multiplicity of readers. By contrast, references to ‘the common reader’ present a single person as the embodiment of a supposedly universal set of thoughts and
Reading: an act of queering
The very idea of queering citizenship can be confounding. In an
essay entitled ‘Queer Citizenship/
Queer Representation: Politics
Out of Bounds?’ Kathleen B. Jones and Sue Dunlap investigate the
idea of what they call queer citizenship, based on ‘the building of a
different kind of democratic community’ as one they are unable to
define or pin down.1 In exploring US and Canadian literary texts that
reflect on the limitations of contemporary understandings of citizenship, this book posits a queering of citizenship using
This book constructs a vocabulary for the literary study of graphic textual phenomena. It examines the typographic devices within a very particular context: that of the interpretation of prose fiction. The graphic surface of the page is a free two-dimensional space on which text appears either mechanically or consciously. As visual arrangements of printed text on the graphic surface, graphic devices can contribute to the process of reading, combining with the semantic content within the context which that text creates. The book first sets out to demonstrate both how and why the graphic surface has been neglected. It looks at the perception of the graphic surface during reading and how it may be obscured by other concerns or automatised until unnoticed. Then, the book examines some critical assumptions about the transformation of manuscript to novel and what our familiarity with the printed form of the book leads us to take for granted. It looks at theoretical approaches to the graphic surface, particularly those which see printed text as either an idealised sign-system or a representation of spoken language. The book further looks at how 'blindness' to the graphic surface, and particularly its mimetic usage, is reflected and perpetuated in literary criticism. It deals with the work of specific authors, their texts and the relevant critical background, before providing a concluding summary which touches on some of the implications of these analyses.