Conference Review: Texts, Forms, Readings in Europe, 18th to 21st Centuries, 22-24 May 2013, Le Mans, France

The second SHARP Focused Conference in France took place this year. After a successful conference in Nancy in June 2012, the site for this year’s event was Le Mans, an hour’s train ride from Paris. The conference theme was, in essence, the history of reading and reading habits, though some of the papers dealt with other areas of book history (the program can be found here).

The conference started off with a workshop for early career researchers (May 22; the program can be found here). The workshop consisted of over a dozen posters that were presented in four thematic sessions; the participants came from France, Italy, Germany, and Canada. The workshop was moderated by Laurent Bazin (Université Versailles Saint-Quentin), and the workshop highlight was Alison Waller’s (NCRCL, Roehampton University) keynote address, titled “Beyond the Magic of Repetition”. Waller presented some of her fascinating work with older “re-readers” of children’s and young adult literature. The posters remained on display throughout the day and on the following day at the conference venue at Le Mans University.

The actual conference was opened by the undisputed expert on the history of reading and the materiality of reading in a keynote address. Roger Chartier (Collège de France) discussed elements of materiality and reading in his paper, titled “Les matérialités de l’écrit et les attentes de lecture. Concordances ou discordances?” Chartier’s address was followed by a lively (and long) discussion. The evening ended with a reception at City Hall, sponsored by the city of Le Mans.

Thursday (May 23) began with parallel sessions. I chose session 2 on “New readers and new collections”. Papers were held by Tamara Pineiro (EHESS), Raquel Sanchez Garcia (Université Complutense Madrid), Nathalie Richard (Université du Maine), and Christine Rivalan Guego (Université Rennes 2). All four papers offered in-depth case studies of reading material. I was particularly fascinated by Rivalan Guego’s paper, in which she presented a number of European literary magazines of the early 20th century, tracking similarities and highlighting differences.

I then sat in on session 4, which offered a broad spectrum of new and old alternatives to the classic book. Matthew Rubery (Queen Mary, University of London) began the session with an excellent paper titled “The Talking Book library for Blind Readers in Britain”, emphasizing the importance of considering “talking books” as a popular alternative to traditional reading, in particular for those men who had lost their eyesight in wars. Rubery was followed by Francesco Ascoli (Fondazione per leggere, Milan), whose paper “Pratique de lecture des écritures manuscrites à l’école au 19e siècle en Europe” gave interesting insight on reading faux-handwritten materials in 19th century schools. Suzanne Dumouchel (Université Paris III) discussed “Lecteurs de médias”, juxtaposing readers of literary magazines in the 18th century with online readers of journals and magazines in the 21st century. The session was rounded off by Dominique Pleimling (Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz).Pleimling’s paper looked at new forms of reading in the digital age, and he spoke about “embracing e-readers” as well as the positive repercussions of e-reading as regards “social reading” options. Unfortunately, time for discussion was short – the papers complemented each other well though.

Session 6 was the only panel without any French-language papers and, to be honest, it drew only a very small audience – despite its interesting papers. Stijn Van Rossem (Museum of Letters and Manuscripts, Brussels ) started with a case study of revolutionary imagery from the so-called Brabant revolt (1787–1792). Among other things, Van Rossen was able to identify images that had re-surfaced from the Reformation period and were re-purposed for the Brabant revolt. Arnold Lubbers (Universiteit van Amsterdam) held a paper on Dutch book clubs in the early 19th century, challenging the universal assumption that book clubs in Europe were politically motivated centers of learning and knowledge exchange by looking at the material available to book club members. Two joint papers followed: Roar Lishaugen (University of Oslo) discussed the mass reading of national classics in Stalinist Czechoslovakia and Jirina Smejkalova (University of Lincoln/UK) talked about travelogues in Stalinist Czechoslovakia and their significance for readers who were not able to travel freely.

The evening’s keynote speaker, Bernard Lahire (ENS Lyon), had cancelled, but Roger Chartier read out and commented upon Lahire’s paper about “La lente dévaluation de la culture littéraire et artistique – le cas de la lecture”, thus offering delegates a worthwhile alternative. The evening’s discussions continued at the banquet downtown at the Hotel Concordia as well as in Le Man’s bars afterwards.

Friday’s morning sessions (May 24) were not parallel sessions, thus we had a larger audience for Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink’s (Saarland University) fantastic talk titled “De la théorie de la réception à l’analyse des transferts culturels. Continuités et ruptures entre deux approches théoriques en histoire de la lecture et de la réception”. After several case studies, it was a welcome change to hear Lüsebrink’s more theoretical comments that delineated in part the history of reading theories. He was followed by Jürgen Ritte (Université Paris III), who looked at images (mostly paintings) of female readers. A highlight for me was Danielle Fuller’s (University of Birmingham) paper on mass reading events in 21st century UK. Fuller discussed the “One Book, One City” concept in light of recent budgeting developments in UK cultural policy.

In the final session of the conference, chaired by Roger Chartier, Alain Giffard (GIS Cultures et Médias Numériques) and Milad Doueihi (Université Laval) discussed the future of reading. Many questions, naturally, were left unanswered. In the conference closing, the conference’s organizer Brigitte Ouvry-Vial (Le Mans University) stated that due to the many open questions that lie before us, she and her colleagues are more determined than ever to research the past, present and future of reading. Overall, the conference was a success. As Ouvry-Vial emphasized, there is much work left to be done and many of the conference delegates will continue to work together on researching European perspectives on the history of reading.

As an additional note for the readers of this blog: German-speaking scholars were well-represented with one poster (Norrick-Rühl, Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz) and three papers (Pleimling, Lüsebrink, Ritte). It remains to be seen whether we German-speaking scholars can keep up this quota at the annual SHARP meeting in Philadelphia, USA, this summer.

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